Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

Here we are again, taking a second crack at introducing the rest of the principal characters on this voyage. Now that Old Ishmael has had his feelings about the faults of courageous men, we get on with it.

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I didn’t even notice that these chapter have the same title until this reading. Just goes to show how little you can pay attention to a book when you’re just trying to make progress.

SUMMARY: Ishmael introduces the reader to the other two mates and the three harpooneers. Stubb is the second mate, an affable man from Cape Cod who smokes incessantly. The third mate if Flask, a short, angry man from Martha’s Vineyard who hates whales with a deep, abiding passion. They are both utterly fearless in a whale boat, but take very different attitudes towards their work. The harpooneers are Queequeg, assigned to Starbuck’s boat, who we already know. Stubb’s boat boasts the Native American Tashtego, from Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, a famous hunter. In contrast to little Flask, his harpooneer is Daggoo, an enormous African with an arrogant personality. Ishmael goes on to describe how the rest of the crew is made up mostly of non-Americans, and all from various different types of islands or isolated places.


Lots of interesting things in this chapter, let’s just take ’em in order.

Stubb is one of my favorite characters in this book. Just a man who is totally at peace with his place in the world. To him, getting in a little boat and going out to do close battle with a gigantic creature that could tear him limb from limb in an instant is just goin’ in to the office. “Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair,” is such a great, evocative bit of prose.

Ishmael chalks his inhumanly easy-going nature up to his chain smoking. Stubb is never without a pipe, smokes them at all hours of the day in all places. It’s always interesting to me to read about how people in different times have thought about smoking, and its effects. The way that it changes the air, in one way or another, and the way that it affects the mood of the smoker.

I grew up in the ’90s, and so was bombarded with messages about how horrible smoking is and all the awful things in cigarettes and so on. So this naive view of it, where the smoke could be having any number of mild or whimsical effects, is as fascinating to me as any sort of fantasy or sci-fi concept.

Ishmael’s little bit of metaphysics is a good example. You see, the air of the world is being used all the time by various people, but is never used up. If you’re just breathing in recycled air all the time, you’re absorbing some part of the various sorrows and miseries that pass all around the globe. But if you purify the air first with a bit of tobacco smoke, why you can be as happy and contented as Stubb!

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The third mate, Flask, is a little harder to like. Seems to be playing on the old stereotype of short people being extra aggressive to make up for their lack of physical stature. The way his particular hatred of whales is described is a bit charming, but he’s definitely the odd one out, in my book.

Since the home towns of the mates are all described specifically, it makes me wonder if their personalities are some sort of local in-joke among New Englanders in the early 19th century:

“Oh, you know those Cape-Cod-Men are always so easygoing! And they sure do love their pipes!”

“Ah yes, of course the mate from Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard is short!”

“Those Nantucketers sure are all Quakers with a tragic inability to stand up to social pressure!”

Or something along those lines. It’s hard to say when there are obscure, subtle references being made, because it’s all been lost to time. I’ve said it before, but it can be a bit hard to fully understand the context of something from 170 years ago. This particular case makes me suspicious because of the specificity combined with the fact that Melville spent his whole life in the region, when he wasn’t on a boat.

Of course, he could just be populating his story with colorful characters, like anyone else, or planning ahead for some of the scenes that come later. The notable thing here is that neither Stubb nor Flask have the same careful fear of whales that Starbuck possesses. They both take either a more flippant or enthusiastic attitude towards the business of whaling, rather than the realistic view that Starbuck takes. So, they are not likely to come to the poor first mate’s aid if he were to, say, object to the mission of suicidal revenge that the captain may or may not embark upon, in the future.

The descriptions and depictions of the harpooneers always make me a bit… nervous. This is a white man from 19th century talking about people of other races than his own, after all. That’s always gonna be a dicey proposition. I think they come off okay, all things considered, except for maybe the very first line of the paragraph on Daggoo, which goes:

Third among the harpooneers was Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, with a lion-like tread—an Ahasuerus to behold.

Which… yikes, Herman. But, I mean, if you break it down, “negro” was just the term of the time, so it’s hard to blame him for that, and “savage” is an established (very problematic) thing that I’ve gone on about before, mostly referring to where he comes from. Honestly, the part that sticks out most to me (beside Ahasuerus, which I’ll get into in a moment (it’s a biblical reference)) is the “coal-black”.

I’ve noticed it with Melville, but also other writers of the 19th century, that they really seem to have to hammer home exactly what shade a person is. It is absolutely necessary to get across what race we’re talking about, so that the audience can appropriately calibrate their expectations of this individual. It’s often used in an oddly flippant way, like here, or earlier when the color of Queequeg’s idol was described as “the color of a three days old Congo baby”. Which, again, yikes.

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which racism permeated society in this era. And, unlike now, in a very open way. Physical traits are just talked about as being connected to mental and spiritual ones. It can be shocking, but there’s a danger in exposing oneself too much to it: it makes you think that this is all that racism is. That it hasn’t simply changed forms over the years, and retreated into slightly more subtle forms. If you think that all you have to do to not be racist is refrain from sounding like a Victorian-era race scientist, then you are mistaken.

Many forms of prejudice are still deeply seated in our common culture. The damage of the past cannot be so easily repaired. Be mindful of your own actions and reactions, try to be better, that’s all any of us can do.

Anyway, the thing is that beyond the… odd focus on physical descriptions of Tashtego and Daggoo, they are basically presented as normal folks like anyone else on the crew. It’s funny, Daggoo is described as being almost comically tall, having to sit without a chair inside and dwarfing his assigned mate, but we also get an actual measure: he is six feet, six inches tall. Which, I mean, is pretty tall, but not totally unheard of in this day and age. Makes you wonder at how short the rest of the crew must be, for him to really be so very exceptional.

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Coming back around: Ishmael basically makes Daggoo’s nickname out to be “Ahasuerus”, which may be familiar to you if you happen to know the story of the Book of Esther. It’s actually the same Persian name that was later translated into Greek as “Xerxes”, but this older version from a Hebrew manuscript survived multiple translations through other languages into “Ahasuerus”. Good to remember how many things are changed throughout the ages, moving from language to language.

The specific use of Ahasuerus means that we know that Ishmael is referring to the guy from the Book of Esther (and Daniel, Ezra, and Tobit, incidentally) who was the ruler of the Persian Empire. As such, he is symbolic of majestic royalty, but in a magnanimous and pagan-ish flavor. Ahasuerus is the one who ultimately orders the death of the evil Haman (boo) and allows the Jewish people to defend themselves against those who would do them harm among his court. This is, of course, the origin of the Jewish holiday Purim, which is one of the more fun and celebratory ones. For all the gory details, check out this recent episode of Apocrypals.

In the last part of this chapter, Ishmael gives a short mention to the rest of the crew, mostly just saying that they’re mostly non-Americans. Even back then, all the hardest work in American industries was being done by foreigners! Ah, how things never change.

Then, he gets all poetic again, talking about how whaling crews are mostly supplied by island nations, meaning that they’re all Isolatoes at heart. Now, all coming together for this grand project of hunting whales. But, there is one bit that always sticks out to be as just bizarre, and in need of closer examination, because to a casual reader from the 21st century it makes absolutely no sense.

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An Anacharsis Clootz deputation from all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth, accompanying Old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world’s grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever come back.

I’m sorry, who? What on earth is that supposed to mean?

This one really sent me off on an old fashioned Wikipedia diving expedition. As it turns out, Anacharsis Clootz was a Prussian noble who became interested in revolutionary ideas, especially utopian anarchy, and went to France as a representative of the rest of Europe when the French Revolution started.

Of course, he was then drawn in to the various political maneuverings of The Terror, and ended up being accused of being a foreign influence in league with the Hebertists, who he didn’t even like. But, as things went in those days, he was executed by Guillotine on March 24th, 1794.

Now, you may be thinking “Anacharsis doesn’t sound like a common German name” and you’d be right! That was a nickname he picked up in his revolutionary days, after the old philosopher Anacharsis, from ancient Greece. Anacharsis was a Scythian who traveled to Athens and is famous for speaking frankly and opening the Athenians eyes to the foolishness of some of their customs.

All of the actual writings of Anacharsis are lost, and we only know about him from descriptions of later historians. However, there was a very popular biography of Anacharsis written in the 18th century, just a few years before the French revolution. So, this great foreign philosopher coming in to help the French with their struggles was naturally given this nickname.

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The actual thing being referenced by Ishmael here is “an Anacharsis Clootz delegation”, not just the man himself. Clootz was part of a group of 36 foreigners who claimed to represent “the embassy of the human race” and wanted to voice their support for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. So, the idea here is that it’s a motley group of people from all different nations, coming together for a common cause.

In the context of the 1840s, throwing off a reference to the ins and outs of the French Revolution like this would be perfectly normal. To us, it’s bizarre and out of place, but imagine if someone made a similar reference to the Vietnam War. It’s about the same distance in time. An American writer like Melville would be especially knowledgeable, and expect his readers to be as well.

The chapter ends with another mysterious emotional outburst, foreshadowing some more tragic future events. This time referencing little Black Pip, who won’t be mentioned again for a long time. That’s all gonna play into some big Ahab character stuff, and also the whole white and black inversion themes going on much, much later.

But, again, I like the way Old Ishmael kind of breaks character here. Loses his status as dispassionate narrator, and openly laments the fate of the crew he intends to only hint at.


Boy, that was another long one. Stayed mostly on topic, though. I always feel like I’m going to mess up when I talk about race stuff, it’s so weird in this book when it crops up. Luckily, that is not very often.

Next up is Ahab! That should make for some fun, light reading.

Until next time, shipmates!

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