Chapter 90 - HEADS OR TAILS



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Herman Melville was the author of a story about what we'd now consider an illegal activity, the commercial hunting of whales for oil and meat. Whaling is still carried out by Japan, Iceland and Canada, among other nations, though most nations voluntarily abstain in the interests of conserving these magnificent animals - as per International Whaling Commission guidelines.



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CHAPTER 90. Heads or Tails.

"De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam." BRACTON, L. 3, C. 3.

Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with the context, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honourary Grand Harpooneer, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like halving an apple; there is no intermediate remainder. Now as this law, under a modified form, is to this day in force in England; and as it offers in various respects a strange anomaly touching the general law of Fast and Loose-Fish, it is here treated of in a separate chapter, on the same courteous principle that prompts the English railways to be at the expense of a separate car, specially reserved for the accommodation of royalty. In the first place, in curious proof of the fact that the above-mentioned law is still in force, I proceed to lay before you a circumstance that happened within the last two years.

It seems that some honest mariners of Dover, or Sandwich, or some one of the Cinque Ports, had after a hard chase succeeded in killing and beaching a fine whale which they had originally descried afar off from the shore. Now the Cinque Ports are partially or somehow under the jurisdiction of a sort of policeman or beadle, called a Lord Warden. Holding the office directly from the crown, I believe, all the royal emoluments incident to the Cinque Port territories become by assignment his. By some writers this office is called a sinecure. But not so. Because the Lord Warden is busily employed at times in fobbing his perquisites; which are his chiefly by virtue of that same fobbing of them.

Now when these poor sun-burnt mariners, bare-footed, and with their trowsers rolled high up on their eely legs, had wearily hauled their fat fish high and dry, promising themselves a good L150 from the precious oil and bone; and in fantasy sipping rare tea with their wives, and good ale with their cronies, upon the strength of their respective shares; up steps a very learned and most Christian and charitable gentleman, with a copy of Blackstone under his arm; and laying it upon the whale's head, he says—"Hands off! this fish, my masters, is a Fast-Fish. I seize it as the Lord Warden's." Upon this the poor mariners in their respectful consternation—so truly English—knowing not what to say, fall to vigorously scratching their heads all round; meanwhile ruefully glancing from the whale to the stranger. But that did in nowise mend the matter, or at all soften the hard heart of the learned gentleman with the copy of Blackstone. At length one of them, after long scratching about for his ideas, made bold to speak,

"Please, sir, who is the Lord Warden?"

"The Duke."

"But the duke had nothing to do with taking this fish?"

"It is his."

"We have been at great trouble, and peril, and some expense, and is all that to go to the Duke's benefit; we getting nothing at all for our pains but our blisters?"

"It is his."

"Is the Duke so very poor as to be forced to this desperate mode of getting a livelihood?"

"It is his."

"I thought to relieve my old bed-ridden mother by part of my share of this whale."

"It is his."

"Won't the Duke be content with a quarter or a half?"

"It is his."

In a word, the whale was seized and sold, and his Grace the Duke of Wellington received the money. Thinking that viewed in some particular lights, the case might by a bare possibility in some small degree be deemed, under the circumstances, a rather hard one, an honest clergyman of the town respectfully addressed a note to his Grace, begging him to take the case of those unfortunate mariners into full consideration. To which my Lord Duke in substance replied (both letters were published) that he had already done so, and received the money, and would be obliged to the reverend gentleman if for the future he (the reverend gentleman) would decline meddling with other people's business. Is this the still militant old man, standing at the corners of the three kingdoms, on all hands coercing alms of beggars?

It will readily be seen that in this case the alleged right of the Duke to the whale was a delegated one from the Sovereign. We must needs inquire then on what principle the Sovereign is originally invested with that right. The law itself has already been set forth. But Plowdon gives us the reason for it. Says Plowdon, the whale so caught belongs to the King and Queen, "because of its superior excellence." And by the soundest commentators this has ever been held a cogent argument in such matters.

But why should the King have the head, and the Queen the tail? A reason for that, ye lawyers!

In his treatise on "Queen-Gold," or Queen-pinmoney, an old King's Bench author, one William Prynne, thus discourseth: "Ye tail is ye Queen's, that ye Queen's wardrobe may be supplied with ye whalebone." Now this was written at a time when the black limber bone of the Greenland or Right whale was largely used in ladies' bodices. But this same bone is not in the tail; it is in the head, which is a sad mistake for a sagacious lawyer like Prynne. But is the Queen a mermaid, to be presented with a tail? An allegorical meaning may lurk here.

There are two royal fish so styled by the English law writers—the whale and the sturgeon; both royal property under certain limitations, and nominally supplying the tenth branch of the crown's ordinary revenue. I know not that any other author has hinted of the matter; but by inference it seems to me that the sturgeon must be divided in the same way as the whale, the King receiving the highly dense and elastic head peculiar to that fish, which, symbolically regarded, may possibly be humorously grounded upon some presumed congeniality. And thus there seems a reason in all things, even in law.


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CHAPTER 1. Loomings.

CHAPTER 2. The Carpet-Bag.

CHAPTER 3. The Spouter-Inn.

CHAPTER 4. The Counterpane.

CHAPTER 5. Breakfast.

CHAPTER 6. The Street.

CHAPTER 7. The Chapel.

CHAPTER 8. The Pulpit.

CHAPTER 9. The Sermon.

CHAPTER 10. A Bosom Friend.

CHAPTER 11. Nightgown.

CHAPTER 12. Biographical.

CHAPTER 13. Wheelbarrow.

CHAPTER 14. Nantucket.

CHAPTER 15. Chowder.

CHAPTER 16. The Ship.

CHAPTER 17. The Ramadan.

CHAPTER 18. His Mark.

CHAPTER 19. The Prophet.

CHAPTER 20. All Astir.

CHAPTER 21. Going Aboard.

CHAPTER 22. Merry Christmas.

CHAPTER 23. The Lee Shore.

CHAPTER 24. The Advocate.

CHAPTER 25. Postscript.

CHAPTER 26. Knights and Squires.

CHAPTER 27. Knights and Squires.

CHAPTER 28. Ahab, Captain.

CHAPTER 29. Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.

CHAPTER 30. The Pipe.

CHAPTER 31. Queen Mab.

CHAPTER 32. Cetology.

CHAPTER 33. The Specksnyder.

CHAPTER 34. The Cabin-Table.

CHAPTER 35. The Mast-Head.

CHAPTER 36. The Quarter-Deck.

CHAPTER 37. Sunset.

CHAPTER 38. Dusk.

CHAPTER 39. First Night Watch.

CHAPTER 40. Midnight, Forecastle.

CHAPTER 41. Moby Dick.

CHAPTER 42. The Whiteness of The Whale.

CHAPTER 43. Hark!

CHAPTER 44. The Chart.

CHAPTER 45. The Affidavit.

CHAPTER 46. Surmises.

CHAPTER 47. The Mat-Maker.

CHAPTER 48. The First Lowering.

CHAPTER 49. The Hyena.

CHAPTER 50. Ahab's Boat and Crew. Fedallah.

CHAPTER 51. The Spirit-Spout.

CHAPTER 52. The Albatross.

CHAPTER 53. The Gam.

CHAPTER 54. The Town-Ho's Story.

CHAPTER 55. Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.

CHAPTER 56. Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True

CHAPTER 57. Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in

CHAPTER 58. Brit.

CHAPTER 59. Squid.

CHAPTER 60. The Line.

CHAPTER 61. Stubb Kills a Whale.

CHAPTER 62. The Dart.

CHAPTER 63. The Crotch.

CHAPTER 64. Stubb's Supper.

CHAPTER 65. The Whale as a Dish.

CHAPTER 66. The Shark Massacre.

CHAPTER 67. Cutting In

CHAPTER 69. The Funeral.

CHAPTER 70. The Sphynx.

CHAPTER 71. The Jeroboam's Story.

CHAPTER 72. The Monkey-Rope.

CHAPTER 73. Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk

CHAPTER 74. The Sperm Whale's Head—Contrasted View.

CHAPTER 75. The Right Whale's Head—Contrasted View.

CHAPTER 76. The Battering-Ram.

CHAPTER 77. The Great Heidelburgh Tun.

CHAPTER 78. Cistern and Buckets.

CHAPTER 79. The Prairie.

CHAPTER 80. The Nut.

CHAPTER 81. The Pequod Meets The Virgin.

CHAPTER 82. The Honour and Glory of Whaling.

CHAPTER 83. Jonah Historically Regarded.

CHAPTER 84. Pitchpoling.

CHAPTER 85. The Fountain.

CHAPTER 86. The Tail.

CHAPTER 87. The Grand Armada.

CHAPTER 88. Schools and Schoolmasters.

CHAPTER 89. Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish.

CHAPTER 90. Heads or Tails.

CHAPTER 91. The Pequod Meets The Rose-Bud.

CHAPTER 92. Ambergris.

CHAPTER 93. The Castaway.

CHAPTER 94. A Squeeze of the Hand.

CHAPTER 95. The Cassock.

CHAPTER 96. The Try-Works.

CHAPTER 97. The Lamp.

CHAPTER 98. Stowing Down and Clearing Up.

CHAPTER 99. The Doubloon.

CHAPTER 100. Leg and Arm.

CHAPTER 101. The Decanter.

CHAPTER 102. A Bower in the Arsacides.

CHAPTER 103. Measurement of The Whale's Skeleton.

CHAPTER 104. The Fossil Whale.

CHAPTER 105. Does the Whale's Magnitude Diminish?—Will He Perish?

CHAPTER 106. Ahab's Leg.

CHAPTER 107. The Carpenter.

CHAPTER 108. Ahab and the Carpenter.

CHAPTER 109. Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin.

CHAPTER 110. Queequeg in His Coffin.

CHAPTER 111. The Pacific.

CHAPTER 112. The Blacksmith.

CHAPTER 113. The Forge.

CHAPTER 114. The Gilder.

CHAPTER 115. The Pequod Meets The Bachelor.

CHAPTER 116. The Dying Whale.

CHAPTER 117. The Whale Watch.

CHAPTER 118. The Quadrant.

CHAPTER 119. The Candles.

CHAPTER 120. The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch.

CHAPTER 121. Midnight.—The Forecastle Bulwarks.

CHAPTER 122. Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning.

CHAPTER 123. The Musket.

CHAPTER 124. The Needle.

CHAPTER 125. The Log and Line.

CHAPTER 126. The Life-Buoy.

CHAPTER 127. The Deck.

CHAPTER 128. The Pequod Meets The Rachel.

CHAPTER 129. The Cabin.

CHAPTER 130. The Hat.

CHAPTER 131. The Pequod Meets The Delight.

CHAPTER 132. The Symphony.

CHAPTER 133. The Chase—First Day.

CHAPTER 134. The Chase—Second Day.

CHAPTER 135. The Chase.—Third Day.








Moby Dick is the antogonist in this story of a great white 'bull' sperm whale that fought back at whalers who tried to harpoon him.


The idea came to Herman Melville after he spent time on a commercial whaler, where stories abounded of the sinking of the Essex in 1821 and Mocha Dick, a giant sperm whale that sank around 20 ships, before being harpooned in 1838.


Herman realised how fixated the sailors became, and he also became with the thought that there was a whale that nobody could catch, that represented a real risk to the whalers hunting whales, in that it was more sport than commercial operations.


Without any doubt this is one of the greatest novels coming out of America at this time and way off the beaten track, making it so interesting, reflecting the state of whaling and the economic importance in the developing the nation - giving the general public a taste of something adventurous that most people never think about.


Many films and graphic novel adaptations have been inspired by the writings of Herman Melville, from Marvel and Disney comics with good cause.


One such production in 2020 is a graphic novel about a giant humpback whale called Kulo Luna, that sinks a modern whaling boat, much as depicted in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, except that is this day and age whales have explosive harpoons to contend with, and sonar, from which there is no escape.




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