When the tide rises all the boats are lifted
Between the dull P.D James sequel to Pride and Prejudice adaptation and wonderful Sherlock rerun I saw ‘The Whale’ starring Michael Sheen.
This is the link to the BBC The Whale adaptation webpage.
The Whale is based on the true story of a whaling vessel, The Essex, stove with intent by a white sperm whale in 1820, and sunk almost before before poor Captain Pollard returned in his open row boat from chasing another whale which he would have boiled down in ‘blankets’ in a try pot to produce barrels of precious oil.
We are a sensitive age and the program came with a health warning that some people may find scenes disturbing. From 1750-1850 Nantucket was a prosperous center of the whale trade, providing spermaceti oil to fuel candles and oil lamps across the globe. Sources of energy are often disturbing, no less today as demand increases and in laptop glowed rooms we discuss fracking and off shore wind farms. Whaling was the bloody work behind the lights of the glittering ball rooms in Paris. The cost was great and cruel but there is yet always a consequence of profit and power…it’s much easier to condemn a distant time and practice.
In the Heart of the Sea, a book by Nathaniel Philbrick (2000) is a modern retelling of the famous Essex tragedy. The historical bestseller describes the gruesome fate of the survivors of the Essex, who were so afeared of cannibals, that instead of rowing to the relatively near Marquesas islands they plumped to row 3000 miles to South America. Eight crewmen survived without supplies for 90 days, and lived to tell the tale, and a desperate practice of cannibalism was accepted in shipwreck though collective acceptance in public that it was so.
It was the same story that inspired Herman Melville when, also as a whaler in 1841, he crossed paths at sea with another boat and had ‘a gam’ (chat at sea with someone on a different vessel) with a certain survivor Owen Chase’s son. Owen Chase had been first mate of The Essex and recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. William Chase gave Melville the book and he came home to write his own novel. After over a year of writing, Melville befriended the dark force of Nathaniel Hawthorn and as a consequence of their discussions he retrospectively added in the character of Captain Ahab…and Moby Dick was published in 1851.
There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable willfulness, in the final fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye
Moby Dick, Enter Ahab at Chapter 28.
More than an after thought. On reflection, my home is a ship as I often mention, and I the Captin, but it is not the Pequod. More on the lodgers next post.
My relatives kept saying “SSSSHHH” as I filled in such gaps as these in the one hour summary BBC programme.
And the new Moonfleet series starring Ray Winstone and Phil Daniels is sadly a slight and uninspiring adaptation of the classic, but lies still close to my heart. The original story, by J. Meade Falkner published in 1898 is surely based on the eloquent and true life adventurers of my favourite Beer born smuggler Jack Rattenbury (1778-1884). Jack Rattenbury became widely known and elevated from scoundrel to infamous hero when, after 30 years of successful smuggling adventures in and around the Devon Beer and Dorset waters. After many escapes and near misses, he hung up his smuggling boots and wrote a well received memoir published in 1837.
In small villages such as Beer, the balance of use of land and sea resources underpins the continued development of the local community. Earning a livelihood from the fisheries depends on the fish being caught. As in Jack Rattenbury’s time, Beer now supplements the meager living from fishing the local waters. Instead of smuggling contraband, the village harvests the tourists pound and shares the profit so that even on calm waters, when the tide rises all the boats are lifted..
- The Whale, BBC One, review (telegraph.co.uk)
- The real Moby Dick: Do whales really attack humans? (bbc.co.uk)
- The Whale: the terrifying real voyage that inspired Moby-Dick (telegraph.co.uk)
- Ron Howard Finds Vicious Sperm Whales In the Heart of the Sea (dreadcentral.com)
- Voyage of the damned: The stunning true story that inspired Moby Dick (theprovince.com)
- Leviathan: the bloodiest, saltiest fishing film you’ll ever see (theguardian.com)