Chapter 48: The First Lowering

Here we go! Time to go kill a god damned sea monster!

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Or, make an attempt, at any rate. It’s really a very difficult thing, taking down such a large and powerful creature. Of course, we humans have made our bones on taking down things much larger and more powerful than ourselves. Perhaps the whale itself is not always the biggest obstacle, though.

SUMMARY: The Pequod launches her three whale boats, and Ahab launches his own with his mysterious crew of stowaways. They appear to be Filipino, with the exception of the leader, whose skin is a darker hue and wears a great white turban. They wear all black, and never speak a word as they go about their work. The officers and the men are surprised by their sudden appearance, but there is no time to ask questions during the hunt, and they all find a way to set it aside for the moment.

All three mates have their own ways of encouraging their boat crews to row as hard as possible. Stubb alternates between sweetly asking his crew to take it easy, and asking them to row so hard they destroy the boat and themselves, all with a mild and easygoing tone. Starbuck whispers encouraging words at his crew constantly. Flask goes into a wild fit, hooting and hollering about his desire to kill whales.

Ahab coordinates the boats to spread out and try to locate the whales as they surface. They come to a dead stop on the rough seas, and wait for any sign of them. Tashtego is again the first to spot the sign of the whales’ coming, a spot of barely troubled water some distance away. All the boats leap to give chase, hoping to catch them before a squall breaks.

Starbuck orders Queequeg to stand and attempt to harpoon a whale, which he does just as the squall begins. The shot misses, and the boat is immediately swamped. The crew manage to cling to the boat, which doesn’t fully sink, and survive through until the morning, when they can attempt to be rescued. The Pequod suddenly appears out of the morning mist, bearing down directly on Starbuck’s boat. Everyone leaps to safety, and is then quickly rescued, and the boat recovered. No whales were caught, due to the sudden onset of the squall.


So yeah, this is a pretty meaty chapter, at least when it comes to Stuff Happening. I tried to recreate in my summary, a bit, the way the action is presented, which is a bit interesting, structurally. We don’t really get any hard breaks, but it goes from a sort of narration from Old Ishmael about how the crew and officers were reacting, in general, to focusing in on the specific actions of the mates in their boats, and then down into Starbuck’s boat, specifically.

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In terms of cinema, this would be a kind of slow zoom in to a lower and lower perspective, until we’re just right in Ishmael’s shoes. The broad view of the whole ship and the boats dispersing for the hunt, then zooming from boat to boat, getting a look at how each mate acts in the course of his duty. And finally, an almost first-person account of getting lost and surviving the night in the storm, in Starbuck’s boat, which if you’ll recall is where Ishmael was assigned in order stay close to his husband.

The chapter opens with a description of the “phantoms” that we saw last chapter, and first heard about waaaay back when Ishmael first boarded the ship. And hoo boy, it is just some straight-up old fashioned racism. There’s really no getting around it or excusing it, these are meant to be exotic and scary brown people.

The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips.

[…]Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas;—a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.

You can just run down the checklist. We get benign physical traits being used as indicators of evil, like Fedallah’s (for that is his name) snaggletooth. Literally just straight up describing a race of people as inherently sneaky and aligned with Satan, the devil, the lord of hell. It’s really quite breathtaking.

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This is the kind of shit you come across in old books sometimes, where they seem perfectly normal and then all of a sudden they’re talking about the inherent deceitful nature of Filipinos and you’re like “wait hold on a second”. It’s all of a piece with the times and the ideas floating around back then. This kind of shit was everywhere, and it wasn’t just for the ignorant and fearful. It was being codified into “scientific” theories, trying to explain why some people were just better than others, and they happened to be the ones in charge and with lighter-colored skin and European features.

This is an important point, because this is a cultural moment on which so much of modern culture is built, and this sort of virulent racism is deeply entwined with it. The dismissal of the humanity and individual personhood of people of color in the 18th and 19th and, hell, most of the 20th centuries has to be faced head on, and understood.

In this case, Melville is just using this purely for effect, to show how mysterious and dangerous Ahab’s crew is, and thus how far he’s fallen in order to achieve his goal of revenge against Moby Dick. They’re just props, showing off the fact that he is willing to do anything in order to succeed. Fedallah shows up more and gets some characterization that is interesting and bizarre in its own right, but the others don’t even get names.

There is a strong temptation to excuse instances like this, because of the original context and the way they are used. But, in fact, that is exactly the problem itself: this was normalized. It says something about the society that it was produced in, and makes the work poorer for it.

Let’s make no bones about it: this sucks. Especially since it is showing up in a piece of literature that is regarded as a masterpiece. The nothing that you can judge people based solely on their “race” is utterly toxic, and there is no escaping it. It’s what leads to police shooting people of color with impunity. To horrific policies like redlining, to the mass incarceration of black people in America, to broad social programs that oppress and continue to enslave millions of people.

But, you may say, aren’t you overreacting a bit? It’s just a few line of description in an old book, which has hundreds of non-racist pages! Again, this is just the problem: it was normalized, and that normalization haunts us still. The logic shifts over time, from the crude stereotypes of old into subtler judgments and biases of today. None of it is any less toxic or morally wrong.

I’m not sure what the technical term for it is, but there is a kind of fallacy that people fall into when they look at example of explicit racism from the past. They say, well, we’re better than that nowadays! That is so clearly wrong and evil that we can relax and know that we’re not being racist. It’s like the juxtaposition of the more crude and clumsy prejudice somehow excuses the less obvious kinds. People in the 1950s thinking about how wrong slavery was, while at the same time denying loans to black people who would move into their neighborhood.

It’s an old saw for me, but engaging with ideas is hard. People want to just look at concrete examples, which are easier to identify and condemn. Tell someone not to be racist, and they’ll say “okay, I won’t wear a white hood or say the n-word, that’s easy”. When, in truth, that task is impossible. In the culture we are all so enmeshed in, colorism and general prejudice based on cultural context are inescapable. The best you can do is try to train yourself to think twice. To listen when people tell you they are being harmed, to open your heart as much as possible to the humanity of all people.

Gosh, I feel like I go off on a similar rant any time this comes up. But it’s a tough subject! It’s important to grapple with it as best you can.


Something that struck me about this chapter is how it describes being on the ocean, both in the midst of a squall and right before one.

When you or I imagine a ship at sea, you probably imagine it on a calm sea. Maybe some waves, but only the normal sort, only a foot or two tall at most. Enough to kind of rock you back and forth a bit, that’s all. However, in this chapter, the seas are rough in a more extreme way.

It was a sight full of quick wonder and awe! The vast swells of the omnipotent sea; the surging, hollow roar they made, as they rolled along the eight gunwales, like gigantic bowls in a boundless bowling-green; the brief suspended agony of the boat, as it would tip for an instant on the knife-like edge of the sharper waves, that almost seemed threatening to cut it in two; the sudden profound dip into the watery glens and hollows; the keen spurrings and goadings to gain the top of the opposite hill; the headlong, sled-like slide down its other side;—all these, with the cries of the headsmen and harpooneers, and the shuddering gasps of the oarsmen, with the wondrous sight of the ivory Pequod bearing down upon her boats with outstretched sails, like a wild hen after her screaming brood;—all this was thrilling.

These boats are not just paddling around on a calm lake, they are passing through gigantic waves. The scale of things on the ocean often baffles human imagination, but Melville does an incredible job of bringing it to life all throughout this chapter. From the very beginning, with the boats being lowered to the water and the sailors then leaping into them from the deck. The way that the mates stand in their boats, as they are rocked violently by the ceaseless waves, with perfect aplomb.

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One of my favorite details is how Melville finally brings us down directly into Ishmael’s perspective, as an oarsman on Starbuck’s boat:

Though not one of the oarsmen was then facing the life and death peril so close to them ahead, yet with their eyes on the intense countenance of the mate in the stern of the boat, they knew that the imminent instant had come; they heard, too, an enormous wallowing sound as of fifty elephants stirring in their litter. Meanwhile the boat was still booming through the mist, the waves curling and hissing around us like the erected crests of enraged serpents.

Everyone just pulling away at the oars, staring back at the mate, unable to see where they were actually going, or the critical instant that Queequeg tosses his harpoon. You could build an interesting allegory here, again, to companies under capitalism, where everyone is working blindly towards some greater end that the leader assures them will be worth it. That only a privileged few have an actual view of the important parts of the project, but everyone else must blindly follow along.

This is also just part and parcel with leadership in general, and trusting in common work as part of any team or organization.

[…]for the oarsmen must put out their eyes, and ram a skewer through their necks; usage pronouncing that they must have no organs but ears, and no limbs but arms, in these critical moments.

And then there’s the different ways that the mates encourage their crews… but, this is enough, for now. There will be other whale hunts, and other times to delve into some of the interesting details and themes brought up in this chapter.


Well, that went off in a direction I didn’t expect, but that’s the way things go with writing sometimes. The passion seizes you, and you have to write a thousand words about racism in the middle of a blog about Moby Dick.

It happens.

Next up, we get a bit of an aftermath of this chapter, and after that… hoo boy, focus in on Fedallah and co. That’ll be… fun….

Until next time, shipmates!

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