Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’



John Paul Jones, a New «Pattern» for America

Anne Roth-Reinhardt

Common-Place  vol. 14 · no. 4 · Summer 2014
Portrait of John Paul Jones, by Charles Willson Peale, from life (c. 1781-1784), INDE 11886. Courtesy of the Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Portrait of John Paul Jones, by Charles Willson Peale, from life (c. 1781-1784), INDE 11886. Courtesy of the Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In September of 1776, the Continental Navy became the first American military branch to designate an official uniform. In March of 1777 it became the first to alter it. The change originated from John Paul Jones and a small group of naval officers dissatisfied with the mandated ensemble consisting of a red-lapelled blue coat, a gold-laced waistcoat, and blue breeches. An unofficial agreement allowed American naval men to substitute a white-lined, red-lapelled blue coat and white waistcoat for the official model, and to forego blue breeches for white. The alterations, ornamented with an epaulet inscribed with a rattlesnake and «Don’t Tread on me,» Samuel Eliot Morison observes, resulted in «a much smarter uniform than the blue and red.» Perhaps the «smartest» quality of the new uniform, however, derived from the confusion it caused during engagements with the enemy. From a distance, ships populated by officers dressed in the new uniform resembled captains of the British fleet, leading John Adams to describe the uniform as «English.» Lowering the ensign, at least temporarily, added to the deception. This masquerade, embraced by Captain Jones, created a tactical advantage while at sea: the enemy saw the unmarked ship as familiar and relaxed its defenses, only to find itself unexpectedly engaged, and quite often over-matched, by a smaller, scrappier opponent.

Was the hero actually a bloodthirsty pirate? A rake and seducer of ladies? Indeed, a robber, a murderer, a political opportunist?

John Paul Jones was a figure who would have been familiar to most American readers in the first half of the nineteenth century as the greatest naval hero of the Revolutionary War. Lauded as the first officer to raise the Grand Union flag aboard an American warship (the Alfred, in 1775), the victor of ferocious sea battles against the British frigate Serapis and the man-of-war Drake, Jones is best known today as the originator of the oft-quoted American mantra «I have not yet begun to fight.» John Paul Jones enjoyed popular acclaim throughout the nineteenth century. No fewer than twenty-three biographies featured Jones as the subject; three editions of his writings and letters became available to the public; and fiction writers, poets, and dramatists on both sides of the Atlantic claimed Jones as their title character. In iconography Jones cut his most dashing figure—a figure he personally constructed and adorned with that costume he himself had carefully designed in 1776. After Charles Willson Peale painted his portrait four years later, and Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpted his bust in 1780-1, these depictions set the pattern for pictures of Jones for at least seventy years thereafter—with precisely the kind of commanding appearance he favored for himself. But the duplicity he had stitched into the navy’s uniform—what you saw was not what you actually got—became a motif that worked its way into an entire series of representations of Jones after his death in 1792.

Of course, in patriotic histories of the Revolution Jones stood in for the courageous patriot, the tireless warrior in the battle for Independence. Still, Jones had lived a highly eventful life before (and after) joining the American cause, and his nineteenth-century commentators seized upon those adventures to depict certain unsavory aspects of the hero’s character. Although crewman Nathaniel Fanning understood Jones to be «a great lover of the ladies» for his practice of «carrying off» women, many nineteenth-century authors indicted Jones as a «libertine» and a «rapist,» even while they commended his patriotic service to their audience of young men. George Sinclair, as early as 1807, published a biography of Jones modeled after the 1803 London-based original with the omnibus title: The Interesting Life, Travels, Voyages, and Daring Engagements of the Celebrated and Justly Notorious Pirate, Paul Jones: Containing Numerous Anecdotes of Undaunted Courage, in the Prosecution of his Nefarious Undertakings. So was the hero actually a bloodthirsty pirate? A rake and seducer of ladies? Indeed, a robber, a murderer, a political opportunist?

From Uniforms of the United States Navy: 1776-1898, plate 1. Courtesy of the U.S. Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (1966).


Marble copy of original portrait bust of John Paul Jones by Jean Antoine Houdon, 1780.

Houdon was commissioned to make the bust by the Masonic lodge in Paris of which both he and Jones were members. Image courtesy of the United States Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland.

For many readers (and publishers), it may have been so much the better that tales of John Paul Jones presented him as a ruthless pirate. In much of popular literature, the pirate was the «romantic outlier» rather than the feared terrorist plundering ships and port cities. Versions of pirates attractive to popular audiences emerged through such works as Byron’s Corsair; numerous popular ballads about Captain Kidd, notably, «The Dying Words of Captain Robert Kidd»; Alexandre Exquemelin’s popular history The History of the Bucaniers of America (first published in Dutch in 1678, this book offered influential accounts of the lives of seventeenth-century pirates); Charles Ellms’ frequently reprinted collection of pirate biographies, The Pirates Own Book (1837); and numerous popular songs about the piratical life. From a political standpoint, in some quarters piracy even became synonymous not with greedy banditry but with independence and the struggle against injustice. American pirate-types, like those characterized in The Florida Pirate (1823) and later in Herman Melville’s novella «Benito Cereno,» often flew the skull and crossbones only after being «denied the general consent of nations.» Moreover, in early nineteenth-century British and American novels, John Paul Jones (or men based upon the late captain) frequently dropped in on tales of mismatched love, maritime adventure, and epic romance. Among the best known examples are James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot, Walter Scott’s The Pirate, and Alexandre Dumas’s Captain Paul. For the inheritors of the Revolution, to use Joyce Appleby’s phrase, at least to the book-buying public, the static portrait of the stalwart patriot was often shelved in favor of the excitement of the rakish marauder.

When William Borradaile reissued Sinclair’s edition of Life and Remarkable Adventures … of John Paul Jones twenty years after its first publication, he included a frontispiece illustration of Jones shooting one of his officers point-blank, even as he advertised Jones as the «celebrated» hero rather than the «celebrated and justly notorious pirate» as originally promoted by Sinclair’s title. «Paul Jones Shooting Lieutenant Grub», Borradaile’s choice for his edition’s frontispiece, echoes the spirit of the image titled «Paul Jones shooting a sailor who had attempted to strike his colors in an engagement» (1779) found in the British original and, as a result, raised old concerns over the increasingly storied figure. While «Paul Jones Shooting Lieutenant Grub» cloaks the captain in national legitimacy as Jones and his combatants announce their shared cause through their similar uniforms, the illustration exposes the captain’s barbarism in his actions. The print not only indicts Jones of summarily executing one of his crew, but the range of the shot and the bodies below it also suggest the action to be both murderous and habitual. Jones may be remembered for raising the American colors aboard the Alfred and refusing quarter with «I have not yet begun to fight»; however, the Grub image illustrates a dark side of Jones’s fiery will and the bloodshed that sometimes ensued, in the process questioning his legitimacy as a hero.

Paul Jones Shooting Lieutenant Grub,» frontispiece to George Sinclair, The Interesting Life, Travels, Voyages, and Daring Engagements of the Celebrated and Justly Notorious Pirate, Paul Jones: Containing Numerous Anecdotes of Undaunted Courage, in the Prosecution of his Nefarious Undertakings, published by W. Borradaile (New York, 1823). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.


This frontispiece illustration therefore revealed the flexibility of cultural memory and encouraged some writers to try to rehabilitate Jones’s reputation by publishing official accounts of his life authorized by the Jones estate. For although The Life and Remarkable Adventures… was sold as a sensational novel, the impression of Jones as a piratical murderer made the leap from fictional illustration to widely accepted fact, according to newspaper articles and biographical accounts, and Jones’s family wanted to «correct» that image. Historian Robert Sands, armed with a more complete set of Jones’s papers and determined to «circulate an unvarnished and full account of the rear admiral’s life,» credits the ubiquity of both the Grub print and the false testimony incited by it as his motivation for publishing the corrective Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones (1830). Sands, dissatisfied with the ever-evolving «juvenile» version of Jones’s story, produced Life and Correspondence to tidy the chronological disorder of the captain’s life found in previously circulated versions, what he calls the «inextricable confusion» created by some «capricious demon»; rectify the «fabulous» and «monstrous legends» encouraged by the popular press; and correct the biographical misrepresentation constructed by a «decidedly» British gloss.

The protagonists that emerge through the pages of antebellum fiction, however, illustrate the public’s appetite for the «active and enterprising» miscreant rather than the cleaner and perhaps more accurate version of the American hero provided by authorized biographies like Sands’. American authors working in the genre of popular romance in this period often disguised their heroes as misunderstood beggars, thieves, and pirates in order to muddle the distinction between hero and villain. Herman Melville further complicates the distinction by characterizing Jones as the «model rogue» in his novel Israel Potter, the lone «crimson thread» flitting through the «blue-jean» travails of Israel R. Potter.

Serialized in 1854-55, Israel Potter is loosely based on a pamphlet autobiography written by a Rhode Island-born veteran of the Revolutionary War who had been taken prisoner by the British and lived much of his life in exile in England. The novel appears, at first glance, to be a bad-luck story of an American boy always caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although Israel Potter shares the field-to-battle story popularized by Israel Putnam, Potter’s Bunker Hill experience leads to capture rather than to celebrity and sends him to England in chains. Melville recounts the clumsy happenings described in the original autobiography, including Potter’s chance meetings with King George III and Benjamin Franklin (in his role as the American ambassador to France), yet the novel eventually veers away from authenticity, in both style and content, and links the fate of Potter to the various enterprises of John Paul Jones. Melville, for example, positions Israel within earshot of Jones’s famous «I have not yet begun to fight» speech, and credits him with sparking Jones’s fiery retaliation upon the port of Whitehaven, the city the captain first sailed from at age twelve. Yet Israel’s fame is short lived. His fictional service to Jones—much like his «real» life—eventually lands him aboard another British ship and keeps him on the wrong side of the Atlantic for the better part of fifty years.

Melville advertised his Revolutionary tale as an «adventure» in a letter to his editors at Putnam’s, yet the intention of the autobiographical pamphlet Life and remarkable adventures of Israel R. Potter (1824) was to secure remuneration for Potter’s military service rather than to spin a thrilling tale of intrigue. In his motley characterization, however, Melville does more than transform Potter’s story from one of hapless exile to one of unlikely celebrity as it riffs on autobiography to produce fiction. Israel Potter presents Jones, as well as the country he serves, as more rogue than Revolutionary. Melville’s Jones looks like the pirates in Exquemelin’s Bucaniers of America, dresses like the pirate suggested by the lurid frontispieces of sensational novels, and acts like the pirates cum revolutionaries of nineteenth-century American fiction, all the while advertised as the emblem of a maturing nation—as Melville writes, «America is, or may yet be, the Paul Jones of nations.» Like the confusion Jones fashioned at sea, the narrative portrait offered in Israel Potter alternates between patriot and pirate, and therefore refuses to advance a single version of the nation’s complicated history.

Life and remarkable adventures of Israel R. Potter, (a native of Cranston, Rhode-Island,) : who was a soldier in the American Revolution, and took a distinguished part in the Battle of Bunker Hill (in which he received three wounds,) after which he was taken prisoner by the British, conveyed to England…, frontispiece and title page. Printed by J. Howard, for I.R. Potter (Providence, 1824). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Of course, Melville allows neither his narrator nor Israel to actually call Jones a pirate. Israel may describe Jones’s «jaunty barbarism» and «savage» markings under his European finery, but he never truly interprets what he sees. Assumptions and hearsay, however, provoke incidental characters to associate Jones with piracy. An oddly placed maritime «quack-doctress» calls Jones a «reprobate pirate»; English sailors assume the Ranger to be «some bloodthirsty pirate» when they fail to recognize her nationality; and a British ship unknowingly solicits information from Jones about «that bloody pirate, Paul Jones.» In the last instance, Melville shows Jones, when confronted by his reputation, as a light-hearted Robin Hood rather than a despotic Captain Kidd. He encourages his enemies to arm themselves with money rather than ammunition: «So, away with ye; ye don’t want any powder and ball to give him. He wants contributions of silver, not lead. Prepare yourselves with silver, I say»—and offers a keg of pickles rather than one of powder demanded by his enemies.

Melville’s use of the term «pirate» as a charge leveled at Jones only by his enemies did revive this earlier cultural mythology of Jones in the 1850s, as most subtitles of American publications about Jones by this point had stopped using the word «pirate,» and most accounts had done away with inflammatory frontispiece illustrations. Yet not all Americans succumbed to the intoxicating memory of Paul Jones. The 1846 edition of Life and Adventures of John Paul Jones may lack a frontispiece illustration, but its preface decries the character of Jones and other revolutionary leaders even as it reprints the partially disreputable version of Jones within, announcing that «the whole race of magnificent barbarians, gorgeous tyrants, unparalleled cutthroats, and gigantic robbers … have never been able to fix our devotion.»

Melville reinforces the roguish designation of Jones as «outlaw,» as well as Israel’s initial impression of the captain, by fashioning him as more Continental aristocrat than stalwart George Washington, while at the same time marking him as recklessly uncivilized. Never does the reader of Israel Potter see the Jones of Peale’s 1781 portrait, nor do we witness the proud dignity illustrated by the many Jones prints and publications of the nineteenth century. Instead, we are given «pagan» tattoos covered by a «laced coat sleeve» and hands covered in rings and «muffled in ruffles.» The novel’s references to clothing and appearance, rather than offering a sense of period authenticity, reinforce Melville’s editorial position suggested by his tongue-in-cheek introduction, contradict the popular understanding of «homespun» through uncomplimentary characterizations of Potter and Benjamin Franklin, and certainly complicate the understanding of Jones in the nineteenth-century imagination.

Jones as the emblem of America as created though Melville’s paradoxical layering («à-la-mode [but not] altogether civilized…») criticizes the American practice of myth-making even as it creates a maritime frontiersman as its «Representative Man,» to use Emerson’s term. Although Melville’s Jones resembles the lonely backwoodsman of much of the frontier literature of the period, the Jones of Israel Potter appears as Indian rather than as an «Indian-fighter» like other frontiersmen. Of course, Melville’s representative American displaces Native Americans even as he assumes so-called «Indian» characteristics. By comparing Jones’s manner to «a look as of a parading Sioux demanding homage to his gewgaws» and determining the captain’s seated posture to be «like an Iroquois,» Melville prompts the reader to rely on stereotypical «stock» poses for Native Americans created by literature and then directs the reader to assign these characteristics to Paul Jones. These descriptions co-opt familiar notions of indigenous peoples to disguise the Scottish Jones in «native» legitimacy while dressed as the very English enemy he sought to destroy.

«Bunker Hill Monument,» in Our Country: or, The American parlor keepsake, published by J.M. Usher (Boston, 1854). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.


Coupled with the cultural resurrection of colonial homespun fabric, evidenced through the emergence of spinning wheels as parlor ornaments and historical decor at public events—such as Fourth of July celebrations—in the mid-nineteenth century, initiated in part by Horace Bushnell’s 1851 tribute to the «simply worthy» men and women of America’s pre-Revolutionary «Age of Homespun,» it would seem that Melville might have wanted the lasting image of Jones that readers took from his novel to emphasize Jones’s humbler attributes rather than his interest in fashionable apparel. Yet, clothing—and Jones’s interest in it—is a frequent topic of conversation. Upon their reunion aboard the Ranger, Potter and Jones almost immediately digress into discussions of apparel. Paul Jones even solicits Israel’s opinion of his hat—»What do you think of my Scotch bonnet?»—overtly calling attention to Jones’s national origin, but also signaling the captain’s concern for his appearance and his alteration of the naval uniform. The sartorial packaging of Jones in Israel Potter begs the question of authorial intent. Namely, why did Melville clothe his self-professed national emblem—»the Paul Jones of nations»—in European fashion rather than joining his contemporaries and idealizing the homespun and «linsey-woolsey» of the heroes that fought the Revolution?

Melville, it would seem, uses clothing to critique the United States’ emerging national mythology through the «homespun» of Israel and the «linsey-woolsey» of Franklin, and punctuates the argument through the fashionable «savagery» of John Paul Jones. The raw portrait of the swarthy, daring Jones, therefore, becomes an ideal rather than an embarrassment for Melville’s America, a model of transparency and honesty. In Israel Potter Jones can no sooner hide his «savage» tattoos than camouflage the absence of rings from his hand. Try as he might, Melville’s Jones can never transcend his true identity by dressing in European finery. In spite of his sartorial extravagance, or rather because of it, Jones becomes the icon of America which—like Jones, Melville insists—must admit its failings despite the prevailing trends in national mythology. America in the mid-nineteenth century may have been trying to fashion an identity for itself based on the Yankee ideal popularized by Benjamin Franklin, and to identify itself as a pioneering nation rooted in characters ranging from Cooper’s frontiersman Natty Bumppo to the 1856 Whig candidate for president John C. Frémont, whose campaign identified him as «The Pathfinder.» From Melville’s more jaundiced perspective, however, such posturing in the 1850s was a ruse, and America (having just seized California and much of the Southwest from Mexico) was more a pirate than a pioneer.

John Paul Jones duped the British by disguising his identity in enemy colors. Melville’s counterfeit deceives the «skimmer of pages» who, in trusting the authenticity of the historical reprint, believes the character of Jones created in Israel Potter to be a «true blue» copy of the man lionized by American memory. It is not. The alternate «crimson thread» spun by Melville challenges the portrait of Captain Jones and, by extension, American identity. America in Israel Potter is no different from the gardener’s son who surreptitiously finds himself leading a navy. Rather than American Exceptionalism and the «city upon the hill» motif put forward by John Winthrop aboard the Arbella, Melville emphasizes the reliance upon chance for the nation’s success, and he refashions the accepted standard of the «pattern American» through his endorsement of the «unprincipled» and «reckless» John Paul Jones. Melville’s challenge to popular memory probably went unnoticed by the early readers of Israel Potter who, even when being complimentary, saw little in the text beyond a pleasurable diversion. Yet Melville’s single book-length offering of historical fiction, dedicated «TO HIS HIGHNESS THE Bunker-Hill Monument» topples gilded memorials to the past and American nostalgia with his collage of the pirate-patriot-indigenous-foppish John Paul Jones. In lieu of monuments, Melville—against the grain of most of his contemporaries—leaves a democratic marker more fitting to the ideology and cultural fabric of the antebellum United States at mid-century; a marker that prophetically foreshadows a civil war that would tear the fabric of the nation to shreds.

Further reading:

For information on John Paul Jones, see Samuel Eliot Morison’s John Paul Jones: A Sailors Biography (Boston, 1959) and the more recent Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, and Father of the American Navy (New York, 2003). For information on American identity and national mythology, see D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1923); Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Conn., 1973.) For information on homespun and its connection to the national imagination of the nineteenth century, see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York, 2001).

For the primary sources quoted here, see Henry Brooke, Book of Pirates. (Philadelphia, 1841); Carrington Bowles, Paul Jones shooting a sailor who had attempted to strike his colours in an engagement (1779); Nathaniel Fanning, Narrative of the adventures of an American navy officer, who served during part of the American Revolution under the command of Com. John Paul Jones, Esq. (New-York, 1806); Florida pirate, or, An account of a cruise in the schooner Esparanza (New York, 1823); John Paul Jones, The interesting life, travels, voyages, and daring engagements, of that celebrated and justly renowned commander, Paul Jones. : Containing numerous anecdotes of undaunted courage, in the prosecution of his various enterprises. / Written by himself (Philadelphia, 1817); Life and Adventures of John Paul Jones (New York, 1846); Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857) and Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855); Charles Willson Peale, John Paul Jones, oil on canvas (1781); Israel R. Potter, Life and remarkable adventures of Israel R. Potter (Providence, 1824); Robert Sands, Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones (New York, 1830); «The Sea Captain, or Tit for Tat» (Boston, 1811).


Anne Roth-Reinhardt is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota and a former Jay T. Last Fellow (2010) at the American Antiquarian Society


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Herman Melville contó las dos caras del Imperio Americano, por Greg Grandin
27 enero, 2014

Un capitán listo a conducir a la ruina a todos a su alrededor en pos de cazar una ballena blanca. Es una historia bien conocida y, a lo largo del tiempo, el loco Ahab de la más famosa novela de Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, ha sido utilizado como ejemplo del poder norteamericano desatado –más recientemente, la desastrosa invasión de Irak por George W. Bush.

Pero lo realmente aterrador no son nuestros Ahabs, los halcones que periódicamente quieren bombardear algún país pobre, sea Vietnam o Afganistán, hasta regresarlos a la Edad de Piedra. Es el arquetipo respetable el verdadero “terror de nuestra era”, como Noam Chomsky bautizó colectivamente a esa categoría social hace casi medio siglo. Los personajes realmente temibles son nuestros más sobrios políticos, académicos, periodistas, profesionales y gerentes, hombres y mujeres (aunque en su mayoría hombres) que se ven como moralmente serios y luego permiten las guerras, devastan el planeta y racionalizan las atrocidades. Son un tipo social que ha estado con nosotros durante largo tiempo. Más de un siglo y medio atrás, Melville, que tenía un capitán para cada rostro del imperio, encontró su perfecta expresión –para su momento y el nuestro.

Durante los últimos seis años, he estado investigando la vida de un matador de focas norteamericano, un capitán de navío llamado Amasa Delano que, en la década de 1790, estuvo entre los primeros habitantes de Nueva Inglaterra en navegar al Pacífico Sur. El dinero corría, había muchas focas, y Delano y sus colegas establecieron las primeras colonias no oficiales en las islas que se hallan fuera de la costa chilena. Operaban bajo el comando de un consejo informal de capitanes, dividieron el territorio, aseguraron el pago de deudas, celebraron el cuatro de julio y montaron tribunales ad hoc.  Cuando no había Biblia a mano, las obras completas de William Shakespeare, que se hallaban en las bibliotecas de la mayoría de los barcos, eran utilizadas para tomar juramento.

De su primera expedición, Delano llevó cientos de miles de pieles de foca a China, donde las cambió por especias, cerámicas y té para llevar de regreso a Boston. Durante un segundo y fallido viaje, sin embargo, ocurrió un hecho que haría famoso a Amasa –al menos entre los lectores de la ficción de Herman Melville.

He aquí lo que ocurrió. Un día de febrero de 1805 en el Pacífico Sur, Amasa Delano pasó casi todo el día abordo de un maltratado barco español de esclavos conversando con su capitán, ayudando con las reparaciones y distribuyendo comida y agua a sus pasajeros hambrientos y sedientos, un puñado de españoles y unos setenta hombres y mujeres de África occidental que pensó eran esclavos. No lo eran.

Se habían rebelado semanas antes, matando a la mayoría de la tripulación española junto con el esclavista que los llevaba a Perú para venderlos, y exigían ser regresados a Senegal. Cuando divisaron el barco de Delano, trazaron un plan: permitirle abordar y actuar como si todavía fueran esclavos, ganando tiempo para capturar nave y provisiones. Extraordinariamente, Delano, un experimentado marinero y pariente lejano del futuro presidente Franklin Delano Roosevelt, estuvo convencido durante nueve horas de que estaba en un barco de esclavos, averiado, sí, pero donde todo funcionaba según lo esperable.

Tras haber sobrevivido apenas al encuentro, escribió sobre la experiencia en sus memorias, que Melville leyó y convirtió en lo que muchos consideran su “otra” obra maestra. Publicada en 1855, en vísperas de la Guerra Civil, Benito Cereno es una de las historias más oscuras de la literatura norteamericana. Está contada desde la perspectiva de Amasa Delano, mientras vaga perdido por el sombrío mundo de sus prejuicios raciales.

Una de las cosas que atrajo a Melvile del Amasa histórico fue, sin dudas, la yuxtaposición entre su alegre auto-imagen –se consideraba un hombre moderno, un progresista que se oponía a la esclavitud- y su completa inconciencia respecto del mundo social que lo rodeaba. El Amasa real era bien intencionado, juicioso, moderado y modesto.

En otras palabras, no era Ahab, cuya persecución vengativa de una ballena metafísica ha sido utilizada como alegoría de todo exceso norteamericano, guerra catastrófica o política ambiental desastrosa, de Vietnam a Irak o a la explosión de la plataforma petrolera de British Petroleum en el Golfo de México en 2010.

Ahab, cuyos pasos sobre su pata de hueso por el puente de mando de su condenado navío entra en los sueños de sus hombres, que duermen debajo, como “los crujientes dientes de los tiburones”. Ahab, cuya monomanía es una extensión del individualismo nacido de la expansión norteamericana y cuya rabia es la de un ego que se rehúsa a ser limitado por la frontera de la Naturaleza. “Nuestro Ahab”, como llama un soldado del film Platoon de Oliver Stone a un despiadado sargento que asesina sin sentido a inocentes vietnamitas.

Ahab es ciertamente una cara del poder norteamericano. Mientras escribía un libro sobre la historia que inspiró Benito Cereno, he llegado a pensar en ella no como la más aterradora –o incluso la más destructiva. Piensen en Amasa.

Desde el fin de la Guerra Fría, el capitalismo extractivo se ha extendido sobre nuestro mundo pos-industrializado con una fuerza predatoria que conmovería incluso a Karl Marx. Desde el Congo rico en minerales a las minas de oro a cielo abierto de Guatemala, desde la hasta hace poco prístina Patagonia chilena a los terrenos de fracking de Pennsylvania y el norte ártico que se derrite, no hay grieta donde pueda esconderse roca, líquido o gas útil, ninguna jungla suficientemente inextricable como para mantener fuera a las instalaciones petroleras o a los cazadores de elefantes, ningún glaciar que sea un bastión, ningún esquisto duramente cocido que no pueda ser abierto a golpes, ningún océano que no pueda ser envenenado.

Y Amasa estaba allí desde el principio. La piel de foca puede no haber sido el primer recurso natural en el mundo, pero venderla representaba una de las primeras experiencias de la joven Norteamérica en los ciclos de “boom” y agotamiento en la extracción de recursos más allá de sus fronteras.

Con creciente frecuencia, comenzado en los principios de la década de 1790, y luego en una loca carrera que se inició en 1798,  los barcos partían de New Haven, Norwich, Stonington, New London y Boston en dirección a la media luna del gran archipiélago de islas remotas de que iban de la Argentina en el Atlántico a Chile en el Pacífico. Iban a la caza de piel de foca, que viste una capa aterciopelada, como ropa interior, justo debajo de un abrigo exterior de duro pelo gris-negro.

En Moby-Dick, Melville retrata la caza de ballenas como la industria norteamericana. Brutal y sangrienta, pero también experiencia que humaniza, trabajar en un barco ballenero requería una intensa coordinación y camaradería. De lo espantoso de la cacería, el despellejar la piel de la ballena de su carcasa y el infernal hervir de su grasa emergía algo sublime: la solidaridad humana entre los trabajadores. Y como el aceite de ballena que encendía las lámparas del mundo, la divinidad misma brillaba en esos esfuerzos: “La veréis resplandecer en el brazo que blande una pica o que clava un clavo; es esa dignidad democrática que, en todas las manos, irradia sin fin desde Dios”.

La caza de la foca era algo completamente distinto. Recuerda no a la democracia industrial sino al aislamiento y la violencia de la conquista, el colonialismo y la guerra. La caza de ballenas tenía lugar en las aguas abiertas a todos. La de la foca ocurría en tierra. Sus cazadores tomaban territorios, luchaban unos contra otros para mantenerlos y extraían toda riqueza que podían tan rápido como podían antes de abandonar sus reclamos sobre unas islas vacías y baldías. El proceso enfrentaba a marineros desesperados contra oficiales igualmente desesperados en un sistema de relaciones laborales de todo o nada tal y como se puede imaginar.

En otras palabras, la caza de ballenas puede haber representado el poder prometeico del proto-industrialismo, con todo lo bueno (solidaridad, interconexión y democracia) y lo malo (la explotación de los hombres y la naturaleza) que van con ello, pero la caza de focas predecía mejor el mundo pos-industrial actual, que sufre extracción, caza, perforación, frackeo y recalentamiento.

Las focas eran muertas de a millones y con una naturalidad que deja estupefacto. Un grupo de cazadores se ubicaba entre el agua y las colonias de pájaros y simplemente empezaba a dar palazos. Una sola foca hace un ruido similar al de una vaca o un perro, pero decenas de miles juntas, según testigos, suenan como un ciclón del Pacífico. Una vez que “comenzábamos el trabajo de la muerte”, recordaba un cazador, “la batalla me causaba un considerable terror”.

Las playas del Pacífico Sur llegaron a lucir como el Inferno del Dante. A medida que proseguía el apaleo, montañas de carcasas peladas y apestosas se amontonaban y las arenas se enrojecían con torrentes de sangre. La matanza era incesante y continuaba a lo largo de la noche a la luz de fogatas alimentadas con los cadáveres de focas y pingüinos.

Y tengan en mente que esta masacre masiva tenía lugar no por algo como el aceite de ballena, utilizado por todos para la luz y el fuego. La piel de foca era cosechada para abrigar a los ricos y satisfacía una demanda creada por una nueva fase del capitalismo: el consumo para la ostentación. Las pieles eran utilizadas para capas de damas, abrigos, manguitos y mitones, y para chalecos de caballeros. La piel de los cachorros no tenía mucho valor, así que algunas playas se convertían en orfanatos, con miles de recién nacidos abandonados a la muerte por hambre.

En el apuro, con todo, su piel interior también se podia utilizar –para hacer billeteras.

Ocasionalmente, los elefantes marinos eran apresados por su aceite de una manera aún más horrorosa: cuando abrían sus bocas para bramar, los cazadores les arrojaban piedras adentro y luego comenzaban a apuñalarlos con largas lanzas. Atravesados en múltiples lugares, como San Sebastián, el sistema circulatorio de alta presión de los animales manaba “fuentes de sangre, que saltaba a chorros a considerable distancia”.

Al principio, el ritmo frenético de la matanza no importaba: había tantas focas. En una sola isla, estimó Amasa Delano, había “dos o tres millones de ellas”, cuando los hombres de Nueva Inglaterra llegaron por primera vez a convertir “la matanza de focas en un negocio”.

“Si muchas eran muertas en una noche”, escribió un observador, “no se las extrañaría en la mañana”. Parecía en verdad como si uno pudiera matar a todas las que estaban a la vista un día y comenzar como si nada hubiera ocurrido al siguiente. En unos pocos años, sin embargo, Amasa y sus colegas habían llevado tantas pieles de foca a China que los depósitos de Cantón ya no tenían más lugar. Comenzaron a apilarlas en los muelles, pudriéndose bajo la lluvia, y su precio en el mercado se desplomó.

Para cubrir la pérdida, los cazadores aceleraron más el ritmo de la matanza –hasta que ya no quedaba qué matar. De ese modo, la sobreoferta y la extinción iban de la mano. En el proceso, la cooperación entre cazadores dio lugar a batallas sangrientas por colonias menguantes. Antes, llenar de pieles la bodega de un barco sólo requería unas pocas semanas y un puñado de hombres. A medida que las colonias comenzaron a desaparecer, se necesitaban más y más hombres para encontrar y matar el número exigido de focas, y a menudo eran dejados en islas desoladas durante períodos de dos o tres años, en los que vivían solos en chozas miserables bajo un clima pavoroso, preguntándose si acaso sus barcos regresarían por ellos.

“De isla a isla, de costa a costa”, escribió un historiador, “las focas han sido destruidas hasta el último cachorro disponible, en la suposición de que si el cazador Tom no mataba a toda foca a la visa, el cazador Dick o el cazador Harry no sería tan remilgado”. Para 1804, en la misma isla en que Amasa había estimado que había millones de focas, quedaban más marineros que presas. Dos años más tarde, no había foca alguna.

Existe una casi perfecta simetría en la inversa contraposición entre el Amasa de la realidad y el Ahab de la ficción, cada uno representante de una cara del Imperio Norteamericano. Amasa es virtuoso, Ahab vengativo. Amasa parece atrapado por la superficialidad de su percepción del mundo. Ahab es profundo; ve en las profundidades. Amasa es incapaz de advertir el mal (especialmente el propio). Ahab ve sólo “la intangible malignidad” de la naturaleza.

Ambos son representantes de las industrias más predatorias de su tiempo, con barcos que llevaban al Pacífico lo que Delano llamó alguna vez la “maquinaria de la civilización”, utilizando acero, hierro y fuego para matar animales y transformar allí mismo sus cadáveres en valor.

Pero Ahab es la excepción, un rebelde que caza su ballena blanca contra toda lógica económica racional. Ha secuestrado la “maquinaria” que representa su barco y se ha alzado contra “la civilización”. Va en pos de su quijotesco objetivo en violación del contrato que tiene con sus empleados. Cuando su primer oficial, Starbuck, insiste en que su obsesión perjudicará las ganancias de los propietarios del navío, Ahab desestima el asunto: “Que los propietarios se pongan en la playa de Nantucket a gritar más que los tifones. ¿Qué le importa a Ahab? ¿Propietarios, propietarios? Siempre me estás fastidiando, Starbuck, con esos tacaños de propietarios, como si los propietarios fueran mi conciencia”.

Insurgentes como Ahab, sin improtar cuán peligrosos para la gente que los rodea, no son los impulsores primarios de la destrucción. No son los que cazarán animales hasta su casi extinción –o que todavía están empujando al mundo al borde. Esos son los hombres que nunca disienten, que tanto en las primeras líneas de la extracción o en los cuartos traseros corporativos administran la destrucción del planeta, día sí, día no, inexorablemente, sin sensacionalismo ni advertencia, y sus acciones son controladas por una aún más grande serie de abstracciones y cálculos financieros realizados en los mercados bursátiles de Nueva York, Londres y Shanghai.

Si Ahab todavía es la excepción, Delano aún es la regla. En sus largas memorias, se muestra siempre leal a las costumbres y las instituciones de la ley marítima, incapaz de emprender una acción que pudiera dañar los intereses de sus inversores y aseguradores. “Toda mala consecuencia”, escribió, refiriéndose a la importancia de proteger los derechos de propiedad, “puede ser evitada por aquel que tiene el conocimiento de su deber y está dispuesto a obedecer fielmente sus dictados”.

Es en la reacción de Delano ante los rebeldes africanos, cuando al fin comprende que ha sido blanco de un elaborado engaño, que la distinción que separa al cazador de focas del de ballenas se vuelve clara. El  hipnótico Ahab –el “viejo roble más herido por el rayo”- ha sido tomado como prototipo del totalitario del siglo XX, un Hitler o Stalin de una sola pierna que utiliza su magnetismo emocional para convencer a sus hombre de seguirlo voluntariamente a su fatal cacería de Moby Dick.

Delano no es un demagogo. Su autoridad tiene raíces en una mucho más común forma de poder: el control del trabajo y la conversión de recursos naturales en disminución en ítems vendibles. A medida que desaparecieron las focas, también su autoridad. Sus hombres comenzaron primero a quejarse y luego a conspirar. A su vez, Delano tenía que apelar cada vez más al castigo físico, a latigazos incluso por la menor de las infracciones, para mantener el control de su barco –hasta, claro, que se cruza con el barco español de esclavos.

Puede que Delano, personalmente, haya estado en contra de la esclavitud, pero una vez que se dio cuenta de que había sido engañado organizó a sus hombres para que recuperaran el barco de esclavos y reprimieran violentamente a los rebeldes. Al hacerlo, destriparon a algunos y los dejaron retorciéndose en sus víceras con sus lanzas para cazar focas, que Delano describió como “extremadamente afiladas y tan brillantes como la espada de un caballero”. Atrapado por las tenazas de la oferta y la demanza, en el vórtice del agotamiento ecológico, sin más focas para matar, sin dinero por hacer, y con su propia tripulación al borde del motín, Delano puso a sus hombres a la caza –no de una ballena blanca sino de rebeldes negros. Al hacero, restableció su debilitada autoridad. En cuanto a los rebeldes sobrevivientes, Delano los volvió a esclavizar. La buena conciencia, por supuesto, indicaba devolverlos, a ellos y al barco, a sus dueños.

Con Ahab, Melville miró hacia el pasado, modelando a su obsesionado capitán en Lucifer, el ángel caído en rebelión contra los cielos, y asociándolo con el “destino manifiesto” de los Estados Unidos, con el avance imparable de la nación más allá de sus fronteras. Con Amasa, Melville vislumbró el futuro. Basándose en las memorias de un capitán real, creó un nuevo arquetipo literario, un hombre moral convencido de su rectitud pero incapaz de unir causa y efecto, inconciente de las consecuencias de sus actos aún cuando corre hacia la catástrofe.

Todavía están con nosotros, nuestros Amasas. Tienen conocimiento de su deber y se disponen fielmente a seguir sus dictados hasta los confines de la Tierra.

Aquí, publicación original de este artículo, en inglés.

Greg Grandin, columnista habitual de TomDispatch, acaba de publicar su nuevo libro, The Empire of Necessity:  Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World.

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The Two Faces of Empire 
Melville Knew Them, We Still Live With Them 
By Greg Grandin

TomDispatch.com   January 26, 2014

A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

But what’s really frightening isn’t our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age.  The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago.  The really scary characters are our soberest politiciansscholarsjournalistsprofessionals, andmanagers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves asmorally serious, and then enable the wars, devastate the planet, and rationalize the atrocities.  They are a type that has been with us for a long time.  More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression — for his moment and ours.

For the last six years, I’ve been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific.  Money was flush, seals were many, and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial U.S. colonies on islands off the coast of Chile.  They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July, and set up ad hoc courts of law.  When no bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.

From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics, and tea to bring back to Boston.  During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious — at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville.

Here’s what happened: One day in February 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano spent nearly a full day on board a battered Spanish slave ship, conversing with its captain, helping with repairs, and distributing food and water to its thirsty and starving voyagers, a handful of Spaniards and about 70 West African men and women he thought were slaves. They weren’t.

Those West Africans had rebelled weeks earlier, killing most of the Spanish crew, along with the slaver taking them to Peru to be sold, and demanded to be returned to Senegal.  When they spotted Delano’s ship, they came up with a plan: let him board and act as if they were still slaves, buying time to seize the sealer’s vessel and supplies.  Remarkably, for nine hours, Delano, an experienced mariner and distant relative of future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was convinced that he was on a distressed but otherwise normally functioning slave ship.

Having barely survived the encounter, he wrote about the experience in his memoir, which Melville read and turned into what many consider his “other” masterpiece.  Published in 1855, on the eve of the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the darkest stories in American literature.  It’s told from the perspective of Amasa Delano as he wanders lost through a shadow world of his own racial prejudices.

One of the things that attracted Melville to the historical Amasa was undoubtedly the juxtaposition between his cheerful self-regard — he considers himself a modern man, a liberal opposed to slavery — and his complete obliviousness to the social world around him.  The real Amasa was well meaning, judicious, temperate, and modest.

In other words, he was no Ahab, whose vengeful pursuit of a metaphysical whale has been used as an allegory for every American excess, every catastrophic war, every disastrous environmental policy, from Vietnam and Iraq to the explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Ahab, whose peg-legged pacing of the quarterdeck of his doomed ship enters the dreams of his men sleeping below like the “crunching teeth of sharks.”  Ahab, whose monomania is an extension of the individualism born out of American expansion and whose rage is that of an ego that refuses to be limited by nature’s frontier.  “Our Ahab,” as a soldier in Oliver Stone’s moviePlatoon calls a ruthless sergeant who senselessly murders innocent Vietnamese.

Ahab is certainly one face of American power. In the course of writing a book on the history that inspired Benito Cereno, I’ve come to think of it as not the most frightening — or even the most destructive of American faces.  Consider Amasa.

Killing Seals

Since the end of the Cold War, extractive capitalism has spread over our post-industrialized world with a predatory force that would shock even Karl Marx.  From the mineral-rich Congo to the open-pit gold mines of Guatemala, from Chile’s until recently pristine Patagonia to the fracking fields of Pennsylvania and the melting Arctic north, there is no crevice where some useful rock, liquid, or gas can hide, no jungle forbidden enough to keep out the oil rigs and elephant killers, no citadel-like glacier, no hard-baked shale that can’t be cracked open, no ocean that can’t be poisoned.

And Amasa was there at the beginning.  Seal fur may not have been the world’s first valuable natural resource, but sealing represented one of young America’s first experiences of boom-and-bust resource extraction beyond its borders.

With increasing frequency starting in the early 1790s and then in a mad rush beginning in 1798, ships left New Haven, Norwich, Stonington, New London, and Boston, heading for the great half-moon archipelago of remote islands running from Argentina in the Atlantic to Chile in the Pacific.  They were on the hunt for the fur seal, which wears a layer of velvety down like an undergarment just below an outer coat of stiff gray-black hair.

In Moby-Dick, Melville portrayed whaling as the American industry.  Brutal and bloody but also humanizing, work on a whale ship required intense coordination and camaraderie.  Out of the gruesomeness of the hunt, the peeling of the whale’s skin from its carcass, and the hellish boil of the blubber or fat, something sublime emerged: human solidarity among the workers.  And like the whale oil that lit the lamps of the world, divinity itself glowed from the labor: “Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God.”

Sealing was something else entirely.  It called to mind not industrial democracy but the isolation and violence of conquest, settler colonialism, and warfare.  Whaling took place in a watery commons open to all.  Sealing took place on land.  Sealers seized territory, fought one another to keep it, and pulled out what wealth they could as fast as they could before abandoning their empty and wasted island claims.  The process pitted desperate sailors against equally desperate officers in as all-or-nothing a system of labor relations as can be imagined.

In other words, whaling may have represented the promethean power of proto-industrialism, with all the good (solidarity, interconnectedness, and democracy) and bad (the exploitation of men and nature) that went with it, but sealing better predicted today’s postindustrial extracted, hunted, drilled, fracked, hot, and strip-mined world.

Seals were killed by the millions and with a shocking casualness.  A group of sealers would get between the water and the rookeries and simply start clubbing.  A single seal makes a noise like a cow or a dog, but tens of thousands of them together, so witnesses testified, sound like a Pacific cyclone.  Once we “began the work of death,” one sealer remembered, “the battle caused me considerable terror.”

South Pacific beaches came to look like Dante’s Inferno.  As the clubbing proceeded, mountains of skinned, reeking carcasses piled up and the sands ran red with torrents of blood.  The killing was unceasing, continuing into the night by the light of bonfires kindled with the corpses of seals and penguins.

And keep in mind that this massive kill-off took place not for something like whale oil, used by all for light and fire.  Seal fur was harvested to warm the wealthy and meet a demand created by a new phase of capitalism: conspicuous consumption.  Pelts were used for ladies’ capes, coats, muffs, and mittens, and gentlemen’s waistcoats.  The fur of baby pups wasn’t much valued, so some beaches were simply turned into seal orphanages, with thousands of newborns left to starve to death.  In a pinch though, their downy fur, too, could be used — to make wallets.

Occasionally, elephant seals would be taken for their oil in an even more horrific manner: when they opened their mouths to bellow, their hunters would toss rocks in and then begin to stab them with long lances.  Pierced in multiple places like Saint Sebastian, the animals’ high-pressured circulatory system gushed “fountains of blood, spouting to a considerable distance.”

At first the frenetic pace of the killing didn’t matter: there were so many seals.  On one island alone, Amasa Delano estimated, there were “two to three millions of them” when New Englanders first arrived to make “a business of killing seals.”

“If many of them were killed in a night,” wrote one observer, “they would not be missed in the morning.”  It did indeed seem as if you could kill every one in sight one day, then start afresh the next.  Within just a few years, though, Amasa and his fellow sealers had taken so many seal skins to China that Canton’s warehouses couldn’t hold them.  They began to pile up on the docks, rotting in the rain, and their market price crashed.

To make up the margin, sealers further accelerated the pace of the killing — until there was nothing left to kill.  In this way, oversupply and extinction went hand in hand.  In the process, cooperation among sealers gave way to bloody battles over thinning rookeries.  Previously, it only took a few weeks and a handful of men to fill a ship’s hold with skins.  As those rookeries began to disappear, however, more and more men were needed to find and kill the required number of seals and they were often left on desolate islands for two- or three-year stretches, living alone in miserable huts in dreary weather, wondering if their ships were ever going to return for them.

“On island after island, coast after coast,” one historian wrote, “the seals had been destroyed to the last available pup, on the supposition that if sealer Tom did not kill every seal in sight, sealer Dick or sealer Harry would not be so squeamish.”  By 1804, on the very island where Amasa estimated that there had been millions of seals, there were more sailors than prey.  Two years later, there were no seals at all.

The Machinery of Civilization

There exists a near perfect inverse symmetry between the real Amasa and the fictional Ahab, with each representing a face of the American Empire.  Amasa is virtuous, Ahab vengeful.  Amasa seems trapped by the shallowness of his perception of the world.  Ahab is profound; he peers into the depths.  Amasa can’t see evil (especially his own). Ahab sees only nature’s “intangible malignity.”

Both are representatives of the most predatory industries of their day, their ships carrying what Delano once called the “machinery of civilization” to the Pacific, using steel, iron, and fire to kill animals and transform their corpses into value on the spot.

Yet Ahab is the exception, a rebel who hunts his white whale against all rational economic logic.  He has hijacked the “machinery” that his ship represents and rioted against “civilization.”  He pursues his quixotic chase in violation of the contract he has with his employers.  When his first mate, Starbuck, insists that his obsession will hurt the profits of the ship’s owners, Ahab dismisses the concern: “Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab?  Owners, Owners?  Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience.”

Insurgents like Ahab, however dangerous to the people around them, are not the primary drivers of destruction.  They are not the ones who will hunt animals to near extinction — or who are today forcing the world to the brink.  Those would be the men who never dissent, who either at the frontlines of extraction or in the corporate backrooms administer the destruction of the planet, day in, day out, inexorably, unsensationally without notice, their actions controlled by an ever greater series of financial abstractions and calculations made in the stock exchanges of New York, London, and Shanghai.

If Ahab is still the exception, Delano is still the rule.  Throughout his long memoir, he reveals himself as ever faithful to the customs and institutions of maritime law, unwilling to take any action that would injure the interests of his investors and insurers.  “All bad consequences,” he wrote, describing the importance of protecting property rights, “may be avoided by one who has a knowledge of his duty, and is disposed faithfully to obey its dictates.”

It is in Delano’s reaction to the West African rebels, once he finally realizes he has been the target of an elaborately staged con, that the distinction separating the sealer from the whaler becomes clear.  The mesmeric Ahab — the “thunder-cloven old oak” — has been taken as a prototype of the twentieth-century totalitarian, a one-legged Hitler or Stalin who uses an emotional magnetism to convince his men to willingly follow him on his doomed hunt for Moby Dick.

Delano is not a demagogue.  His authority is rooted in a much more common form of power: the control of labor and the conversion of diminishing natural resources into marketable items.  As seals disappeared, however, so too did his authority.  His men first began to grouse and then conspire.  In turn, Delano had to rely ever more on physical punishment, on floggings even for the most minor of offences, to maintain control of his ship — until, that is, he came across the Spanish slaver.  Delano might have been personally opposed to slavery, yet once he realized he had been played for a fool, he organized his men to retake the slave ship and violently pacify the rebels.  In the process, they disemboweled some of the rebels and left them writhing in their viscera, using their sealing lances, which Delano described as “exceedingly sharp and as bright as a gentleman’s sword.”

Caught in the pincers of supply and demand, trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with no seals left to kill, no money to be made, and his own crew on the brink of mutiny, Delano rallied his men to the chase — not of a white whale but of black rebels.  In the process, he reestablished his fraying authority.  As for the surviving rebels, Delano re-enslaved them.  Propriety, of course, meant returning them and the ship to its owners.

Our Amasas, Ourselves

With Ahab, Melville looked to the past, basing his obsessed captain on Lucifer, the fallen angel in revolt against the heavens, and associating him with America’s “manifest destiny,” with the nation’s restless drive beyond its borders.  With Amasa, Melville glimpsed the future.  Drawing on the memoirs of a real captain, he created a new literary archetype, a moral man sure of his righteousness yet unable to link cause to effect, oblivious to the consequences of his actions even as he careens toward catastrophe.

They are still with us, our Amasas.  They have knowledge of their duty and are disposed faithfully to follow its dictates, even unto the ends of the Earth.

TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin’s new book, The Empire of Necessity:  Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, has just been published. 

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