I know what the title sounds like, but this is not that kind of shark massacre. Quite the opposite, in fact.
This is another nice little short chapter, only a few pages in my edition, but very memorable. One of those nice little facts about whaling that you will carry around in your head forever afterwards, ready to spring it in the middle of a conversation if it somehow happens to come up. Moby Dick is full of such gems, and they tend to crop up in non-narrative chapters like this.
SUMMARY: Ishmael recounts the way that whaling ships deal with the incalculable, vast hosts of sharks that whale carcasses are known to draw. After spilling gallons and gallons of blood into the ocean, it’s no wonder that they might be attracted, but the sheer numbers in some parts of the ocean are truly beyond imagination. Why, if they were left to their business, the whole whale would be reduced to a skeleton by the time the whalers got around to processing it in the morning.
So, a few hearty souls among the crew are picked out for anchor duty, which means standing on a platform projected over the side of the ship and killing sharks with a sharpened spade at the end of a 30-foot pole. One good blow to the head is the aim, as sharks don’t even seem to notice wounds to other parts of their bodies. Indeed, they are not picky about whether they bite the whale or other sharks or even themselves if they get a whiff of blood!
So yes: a massacre of sharks, not by sharks, although it is also that.
We see here a return of the image of the sea as an infinitely more harsh place than the land, with its scavengers and predators being indiscriminately ravenous and dangerous even beyond death. Ishmael recounts that Queequeg almost has his hand bitten off by a seemingly dead shark brought up onto the deck to harvest its skin.
The sea is proposed as a sort of more pure, more elemental place than the air or the land. There are no pretensions in the sea, things are just what they are to the maximum possible degree. Sharks are ravenous in a way that is alien to things on the land, because they can afford to be that and nothing else. Just move and eat, move and eat. This image is one that carries forward to the current day, with the common idea of the shark being unable to stop moving, and a metaphor for constant hunger.
A sort of generic or Pantheistic vitality seemed to lurk in their very joints and bones, after what might be called the individual life had departed.
It’s a very striking image, though: sailors standing over a dark sea, lit by lanterns in the dead of night, stabbing at the roiling water filled to the brim with sharks. Driving them into an even greater frenzy, goading them with the death of their fellows.
Sharks are, indeed, very strange creatures. Changing very little over millions of years, only growing and shrinking with the size of their prey and other environmental factors. Much like crocodiles, they hit on a good plan for survival and propagation and they just stuck with it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Of course, they are not actually so simple and elemental, but just very different from other forms of life, as things often are in the sea.
It seems, sometimes, like the sea is both more harsh on life, and also more lenient. It’s easier to kludge together some sort of mode of survival based around some ridiculously specific niche. Things are less stable, but there is also more sense of possibility and freedom.
As for the metaphorical meaning of this chapter, besides highlighting the barbarity of the sea again I’m not sure there is one. This is just another weird job that exists on whaling ships, shark-killing duty. Perhaps another striking image that Melville himself actually saw on his fateful whaling trip, burned into his memory.
I suppose you could read into some sort of horrible pro-colonialist metaphor about “savage” people needing to be culled in order to protect the prize of their resources from being devoured. But that seems a bit of a stretch to me, Ishmael is very clear in earlier chapters about how strange and horrible the sea is, in general. Sometimes, a shark is just a shark.
Well, that’s it for me today. Not much going on this chapter, just a singular and striking image to keep with you for the future.
Until next time, shipmates!