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The Loss of a Harpooner

October 1, 2010

At the end of Moby Dick we see the lethal consequences of not taking care with the lines attached to harpoons. We have already been primed for the accident, several hundred pages before, by a chapter headed “The Line,” in which is described, in great detail, how rope should be coiled in a whaleboat. Great care was taken: “As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off, the utmost precaution is used in stowing the line in its tub.” I wonder if this true story, about the demise of William Carr, Harpooner, gave Melville the idea for Ahab’s accident. This is from Scoresby’s A Voyage to the Whale Fishery, 1822 (published in 1823):

The whale they pursued led them into a vast shoal of the species: they were, indeed, so numerous, that their “blowing” was incessant; and they believed they could not have seen less than a hundred. Fearful of alarming them without striking any, they remained for some time motionless, watching for a favourable opportunity to commence an attack. One of them at length arose so near the boat of which William Carr was harpooner, that he ventured to pull towards it, though it was meeting him, and afforded but an indifferent chance of success. He, however, fatally for himself, succeeded in harpooning it. The boat and fish passing each other with great rapidity after the stroke, the line was jerked out of its place, and, instead of running” over the stem, was thrown over the gunwale; its pressure in this unfavourable position so careened the boat, that the side sank below the water, and it began to fill. In this emergency the harpooner, who was a fine active fellow, seized the bight of the line, and attempted to relieve the boat, by restoring it to its place; but by some singular circumstance, which could not be accounted for, a turn of the line flew over his arm, in an instant dragged him overboard, and plunged him under water, to rise no more! So sudden was the accident, that only one man, who had his eye upon him at the time, was aware of what had happened; so that when the boat righted, which it immediately did, though half full of water, they all at once, on looking round at an exclamation from the man who had seen him launched overboard, enquired what had got Carr! It is scarcely possible to imagine a death more awfully sudden and unexpected. The murderous bullet, when it makes its way through the air with a velocity that renders it invisible, and seems not to require a moment for its flight, rarely produces so instantaneous destruction. The velocity of the whale on its first descent, is usually (as I have proved by experiment) about 8 or 9 miles per hour, or 13 to 15 feet per second. Now, as this unfortunate man was occupied in adjusting the line at the very water’s edge, when it must have been perfectly tight, in consequence of the obstruction to its running out of the boat, the interval between the fastening of the line about him and his disappearance, could not have exceeded the third-part of a second of time; for in one second only, he must have been dragged to the depth of 10 or 12 feet! The accident was, indeed, so instantaneous, that he had not time for the least exclamation; and the person who witnessed his extraordinary removal, observed, that it was so exceedingly quick, that although his eye was upon him at the instant, he could scarcely distinguish the object as it disappeared.


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