"De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam." BRACTON, L. 3, C. 3.
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 Honorary 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
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?"
"But the duke had nothing to do with taking this fish?"
"It is his."
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."
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, ali 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!
his treatise on "Queen-Gold," or Queen-pin-money, 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.
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.
So, this chapter is all about a law that makes no sense. The king gets the head of the whale; the queen gets the tail. Yes, Melville expends much energy in explaining the reasons behind this seemingly arbitrary doctrine. Despite his best efforts, however, Melville doesn't really convince me that this law makes any sense, whatsoever.
Of course, there's a whole lot going on in the United States right now that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially when it comes to the federal government and the Justice Department. Just this afternoon, I read that Attorney General Jeff Session established a "religious liberty task force" because, as he stated, "the cultural climate in this country--and in the West more generally--has become less hospitable to people of faith in recent years, and as a result many Americans have felt their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack."
Of course, what Sessions is doing is trying to defend discrimination against, among others, members of the LGTBQ community on the basis of religion. Thus, the baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple will now be protected under the Trump Justice Department. Businesses that refuse to provide access to legitimate healthcare treatment for women (for example, birth control) on the basis of faith would also be safe under this religious liberty task force.
I find this move alarming on many levels. I believe in freedom of religion. I don't care whether a person is atheist or Jewish or Catholic or Muslim. They should all be allowed to practice their beliefs freely, without government interference. But I also believe in the separation of church and state--a fundamental doctrine in the United States almost since its inception. Remember, many of the earliest European settlers who came to North America did so to escape religious persecution.
So, no branch of government has any place in the practice of religion in this country. And no religion has any place in any branch of government. Today, Jeff Sessions has opened the door to legitimizing discrimination based on faith. He has brought church and state together, and the founders of this country are rolling over in their graves.
Now, some people are jumping all over religions, blaming them for this new task force. That would be a mistake, as well. This religious liberty task force is the brainchild of Jeff Sessions and the entire Donald Trump regime, who have proven over and over that they condone racism, misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia in the name of patriotism. They use the Bible as a tool for their hatred. They are perverting the essential messages of Christianity to further their agenda.
So, I don't agree with Jeff Sessions or his boss. But you can't blame Christianity for the state of this country. It's not God's fault. It's wrong-headed men and women. Let's keep that in mind. Terrible things have perpetrated on humankind and the planet in the name of science, as well. I don't blame all of science for the practice of lobotomy, which was widespread in the first half of the 20th century.
It's easy to blame an entire religion for the actions of the Trump White House. But that would be like blaming every Muslim for the bombing of the World Trade Centers. It just doesn't work that way.
Saint Marty is thankful today for religion and government--and never the twain shall meet.