The allusion to the waif-poles in the last chapter but one, necessitates some account of the laws and regulations of the whale fishery, of which the waif may be deemed the grand symbol and badge.
frequently happens that when several ships are cruising in company, a
whale may be struck by one vessel, then escape, and be finally killed
and captured by another vessel; and herein are indirectly comprised many
minor contingencies, all partaking of this one grand feature. For
example,- after a weary and perilous chase and capture of a whale, the
body may get loose from the ship by reason of a violent storm; and
drifting far away to leeward, be retaken by a second whaler, who, in a
calm, snugly tows it alongside, without risk of life or line. Thus the
most vexatious and violent disputes would often arise between the
fishermen, were there not some written or unwritten, universal,
undisputed law applicable to all cases.
Perhaps the only formal
whaling code authorized by legislative enactment, was that of Holland.
It was decreed by the States-General in A.D. 1695. But though no other
nation has ever had any written whaling law, yet the American fishermen
have been their own legislators and lawyers in this matter. They have
provided a system which for terse comprehensiveness surpasses
Justinian's Pandects and the By-laws of the Chinese Society for the
Suppression of Meddling with other People's Business. Yes; these laws
might be engraven on a Queen Anne's forthing, or the barb of a harpoon,
and worn round the neck, so small are they.
I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
what plays the mischief with this masterly code is the admirable
brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to
First: What is a Fast-Fish? Alive or dead a fish is
technically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by
any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants,- a mast,
an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it
is all the same. Likewise a fish is technically fast when it bears a
waif, or any other recognized symbol of possession; so long as the party
wailing it plainly evince their ability at any time to take it
alongside, as well as their intention so to do.
scientific commentaries; but the commentaries of the whalemen themselves
sometimes consist in hard words and harder knocks- the
Coke-upon-Littleton of the fist. True, among the more upright and
honorable whalemen allowances are always made for peculiar cases, where
it would be an outrageous moral injustice for one party to claim
possession of a whale previously chased or killed by another party. But
others are by no means so scrupulous.
Some fifty years ago there
was a curious case of whale-trover litigated in England, wherein the
plaintiffs set forth that after a hard chase of a whale in the Northern
seas; and when indeed they (the plaintiffs) had succeeded in harpooning
the fish; they were at last, through peril of their lives, obliged to
forsake not only their lines, but their boat itself. Ultimately the
defendants (the crew of another ship) came up with the whale, struck,
killed, seized, and finally appropriated it before the very eyes of the
plaintiffs. And when those defendants were remonstrated with, their
captain snapped his fingers in the plaintiffs' teeth, and assured them
that by way of doxology to the deed he had done, he would now retain
their line, harpoons, and boat, which had remained attached to the whale
at the time of the seizure. Wherefore the plaintiffs now sued for the
recovery of the value of their whale, line, harpoons, and boat.
Erskine was counsel for the defendants; Lord Ellenborough was the
judge. In the course of the defence, the witty Erskine went on to
illustrate his position, by alluding to a recent crim. con. case,
wherein a gentleman, after in vain trying to bridle his wife's
viciousness, had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life; but in the
course of years, repenting of that step, he instituted an action to
recover possession of her. Erskine was on the other side; and he then
supported it by saying, that though the gentleman had originally
harpooned the lady, and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the
great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last abandoned her;
yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore
when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that
subsequent gentleman's property, along with whatever harpoon might have
been found sticking in her.
Now in the present case Erskine
contended that the examples of the whale and the lady were reciprocally
illustrative to each other.
These pleadings, and the counter
pleadings, being duly heard, the very learned Judge in set terms
decided, to wit,- That as for the boat, he awarded it to the plaintiffs,
because they had merely abandoned it to save their lives; but that with
regard to the controverted whale, harpoons, and line, they belonged to
the defendants; the whale, because it was a Loose-Fish at the time of
the final capture; and the harpoons and line because when the fish made
off with them, it (the fish) acquired a property in those articles; and
hence anybody who afterwards took the fish had a right to them. Now the
defendants afterwards took the fish; ergo, the aforesaid articles were
A common man looking at this decision of the very learned
Judge, might possibly object to it. But ploughed up to the primary rock
of the matter, the two great principles laid down in the twin whaling
laws previously quoted, and applied and elucidated by Lord Ellenborough
in the above cited case; these two laws touching Fast-Fish and
Loose-Fish, I say, will on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all
human jurisprudence; for notwithstanding its complicated tracery of
sculpture, the Temple of the Law, like the Temple of the Philistines,
has but two props to stand on.
Is it not a saying in every one's
mouth, Possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the
thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the
law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican
slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What
to the rapacious landlord is the widow's last mite but a Fast-Fish? What
is yonder undetected villain's marble mansion with a doorplate for a
waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish? What is the ruinous discount which
Mordecai, the broker, gets from the poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a
loan to keep Woebegone's family from starvation; what is that ruinous
discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul's income of
L100,000 seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of
thousands of broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of
Savesoul's help) what is that globular 100,000 but a Fast-Fish. What are
the Duke of Dunder's hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? What
to that redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a
Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but
a Fast-Fish? And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of
But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally
applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so.
That is internationally and universally applicable.
America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish
standard by way of wailing it for his royal master and mistress? What
was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England?
What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.
are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish?
What all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle
of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious
smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What
is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader,
but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
Melville has covered almost every subject possible in the novel so far. Anatomy of the whale. Myth of the whale. Biology of the whale. Religion and the whale. In this chapter, he tackles law and the whale. The information is fairly straightforward. It can be summed up with one simple phrase: possession is half the law. Melville uses this dictum to cover not only whaling, but near the end of the chapter, he justifies colonialism with this rule. The Spanish own North America. Russia owns Poland. Turkey owns Greece. England owns India. It's that simple. Of course, history has not necessarily supported Melville's argument. Ask Gandhi.
And where does this chapter lead me tonight? I am sitting in a hotel room in Calumet, Michigan. Tomorrow night, I will be performing at the Calumet Theatre in the Red Jacket Jamboree. So, my day was spent in travel and rehearsal. I'm a little beat. But I have some writing and reading to do before I go to bed tonight.
There is a lot of turmoil in the United States at the moment. Thankfully, I live in an area of the country that has not really felt a lot of the effects of the Trump presidency. Not that there haven't been isolated incidents of racism and hatred in my little corner of the Upper Peninsula. Right after the 2016 election, an African American woman was verbally attacked in the Walmart parking lot, told that she was going to be "sent back where she came from." Right around the same time, I took my son to McDonald's, and he found graffiti scribbled inside the play structure: "Fuck Hillary Clinton."
The funny thing is, if we applied the Fast-Fish/Loose-Fish law in the United States appropriately, then this country belongs to the Native Americans. Every square inch of it. We (anyone not indigenous to North America) are the law-breakers. We stole this country. Plain and simple.
Of course, this statement is not a revelation. I'm not being particularly brilliant or subversive. Native Americans have been making this argument for centuries. But, for any person who thinks that the United States belongs to white Christians, I have to point out that you're wrong. You weren't here first. Your ancestors probably came here on a boat--refugees if you will--and made a new life in this place. Just like Mexicans and Syrians. And these ancestors did terrible things to Native Americans, including genocide.
So, the next time you say that illegal immigrants are all rapists and drug dealers, remember one thing: unless you are Native American, you are an illegal immigrant.
Saint Marty is thankful tonight for diversity.