Environmental Stewardship in “The Grand Armada”

MobyDick is not just an epic of man in the sea, it is an epic of man and the creatures of the sea. In deciding to write a hunting novel Melville was deciding to write a novel about relationships, and in “The Grand Armada” chapter these relationships are fully explored for what they are and what they should be. As a guide for humanity’s proper connection to nature, “The Grand Armada” includes several comparisons of whales to humans, veiled commentaries on the predator-prey relationship, and examples of how we are meant to relate to the creatures we live alongside and the planet we live on together. Perhaps the most important part of “The Grand Armada” is that the information conveyed in the chapter does not come from hearsay, or a relayed story, or rumor or communication from someone who Ishmael assures us (and we are forced to doubt) is an authority or absolutely trustworthy source. In fact, the chapter is notable for not containing any such suspicious, unprovable tales. It is entirely direct, observed action, happening in real time. This places it in important contrast with every section of the novel describing Moby Dick’s brutality or the intentional malevolence of whales: it is consistently second-hand. “The Grand Armada” suggests that not only is there a natural goodness to whales, but it is our duty to protect and not to destroy. What emerges is an insightful commentary on human behavior, a cautionary parable on our reckless worldview and actions toward nature, and a guide for environmental stewardship that is even more germane in the 21st century than it was in the mid-19th.

From the start of “The Grand Aramada,” the innocent and magnanimous ways which the whales treat each other suggests both a unique communal bond and a benevolence of nature.

…owing to the unwearied activity with which of late they have been hunted over all four oceans, the Sperm Whales…are now frequently met with in extensive herds, sometimes embracing so great a multitude, that it would almost seem as if numerous nations of them had sworn solemn league and covenant for mutual assistance and protection. (Melville 298)

The whale’s response is characterized as being a defensive mechanism of some sort, as if there is something instinctual in whales which encourages them to look out not only for one another, but for the sake of the posterity of their race. This is especially significant given earlier sections that focus entirely on the inherent malice of the whale. Indeed, if the whale has malice there is just reason and purpose; if it understands, in some clouded way, human intent, its resulting actions are in the interest of self-preservation, not the cold-blooded punitive measures which could incense the rational sailor. Moreover, the leviathanic “mutual assistance and protection” implies a sort of fraternal community of the seas, even a model example for their human counterparts. It is a lesson lost on the Pequod, which spurns olive branches and pleas for assistance throughout the novel, in pursuit of its single overriding, blasphemous purpose. The idea that whales live in community implies a benevolence in their natures and undercuts the philosophy of “that inscrutable thing…with malice sinewing it” that Ahab “chiefly hates.” (140) The fact that this behavior of the whales is directly witnessed, and not told second-hand as a rumor or someone else’s story, makes it the more “reliable” version of cetacean disposition.

The benevolent nature of the whales is highlighted as the Pequod is forced toward the center of the armada. The weak, young, and pregnant – the most vulnerable class – are located at the center of the formation, an apparent intentional choice: “…as if the cows and calves had been purposely locked up in this innermost fold.” (302) Crew members cannot help but have their violence held at bay by the doglike playfulness of the younger whales; Starbuck even scratches one on the back in a paternal way. The chapter as a whole suggests the proper relation of mankind to nature: one of stewardship, of man to dog, of caretaker. This theory is crystallized in the description of a nursing mother whale and her offspring:

…as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; – even so did the young of those whales seem looking up toward us…(303)

The young, innocent whales, the same that were described as doglike in the previous paragraph, look up to the men the way a child looks up to its mother while nursing. While engaged in a pursuit of hunting and destruction – a pursuit characterized by the belief of the captain that man is above nature, and that nature exists to serve mankind – the crew encounters for a moment, in the calm of the storm (the calm center of the armada’s circle), in the eye of a young whale, hints as to how our races should relate.

Lines later, the maternal metaphor is implemented again when the placental cord of a nursing whale is bound up with the harpoon line of the whalers. “…this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one…Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond.” (303) It suggests something vital in the connection between the cord of nurturing creation and the cord of hunting, of nature and of humanity. Our fates are bound up and intertwined together, line and cord, man to mammal and man to nature. While this imagery echoes that of the child whale gazing innocently up into the eyes of the prospective parental figures in the boat, it also suggests that man, whales, all of nature influences and effects the other significantly. We are a part of the same creation; the “subtlest secret” is that we must work together to live harmoniously, and that our relation should not be one of dominator to subjugated.

The innocence of whales is further established through Melville’s use of anthropomorphic language, which describes whales in human terms. This occurs in several places, from the description of the caravan of spouting whales, “…like the thousand cheerful cities in some dense metropolis…” to the narrowing of their ranks: “As marching armies approaching an unfriendly defile in the mountains…” (299) The effect of this language is to establish empathy for the whales by making their plight seem common to that of man. The reader likely would not wish any character in the book be hunted by harpoons and brutally massacred on a massive scale for economic gain. Nor will he wish it on the whale, living amidst “cheerful cities” and working together like “marching armies.” If whales were truly the monstrous, unfeeling, brute forces of nature which certain less narratively reliable portions of the book would have the reader believe, then there would be no reason for Melville to use such deliberately positive, humanizing, sympathy-inspiring metaphors. Later, when the whales are “gallied,” their paralysis is contrasted with that of panicked humans:

Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together in the sheepfold of a theater’s pit, they will, at the slightest alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding, trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death. Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men. (300)

Melville flat out declares in the final line that the behavior of whales under pressure is negligible compared to the desperate throes of humans when in trouble. Moreover, utilizing this metaphor to characterize the predator-prey relationship casts the whale-hunters in an inglorious, morally dubious light. Men are to nature, the metaphor implies, taking advantage of herd-mentality innocence, what a corrupt dictator is to the plebeian masses.

“The Grand Armada” continues to subvert roles and expectations when the Pequod itself becomes the prey of a group of vindictive pirates haunting the waters surrounding the Asian isles of Sumatra and Java. As the chaser becomes the chased, the crew (and the reader) is then made to feel just as the whales are. Melville could have chosen any moment throughout the entire novel for the pirates to be chasing the Pequod with satantical curses; he could have even chose any of the numerous hunting scenes in which the crew faces but one or a handful of whales. His decision to have “inhuman atheistical devils…infernally cheering them on,” at the only moment chronicled in the voyage where the Pequod is in pursuit of a vast armada of leviathans, is deliberately chosen to put the reader, and the crew of the Pequod, in the position of the hunted prey. The same fear and dread imbued in the hearts of whale is struck into the heart of man. For a moment, the terror that has seemed so distant, the horror and the pain that the animal feels when pursued and struck, is made immediate, real, and applicable to humans. The fact that “devils” are cheerleading the Pequod in its blasphemous pursuit of the whales further makes plain their corrupted purpose, and suggests where the reader’s sympathies should lie. In general, the role of the predator is associated with the infernal crowd of wild “inhuman(s),” (299) and when the Pequod drops their pursuers, they do not lose the predatorial attributes associated with the hunter. This chase occurs in a Strait, all three parties cordoned together on a single inevitable path, an inevitable path from which no party can deviate. There will always be innocent nature to corrupt; there will always be men who, needing a paying job, take up the anvil to do the work; and, too, will there always be a crowd of Satanic browbeaters fueling the drive, whipping the flanks, of the agents of degradation. The scene captures the eerie prescience of Melville, who understood in 1851 the mechanisms by which we plundered and destroyed our natural resources.

The larger effect of the environmental themes in “The Grand Armada” on the rest of the novel is to undercut the chapters and passages that focus on the supposed malice inherent in Moby Dick and other similar whales cited by Ishmael, and to force the reader to re-evaluate the way these sections are understood. The lack of hard evidence given by Ishamel, the second-hand, hearsay nature of much of his testimony, stands in stark contrast to the firsthand experience of the playful, loyal, protective community of whales comprising the armada. If there is nothing malevolent in the very nature of whales, then, in turn, the very heart of nature is innocent, and in the very least, worth protecting and stewarding, the way a mother whale stewards her calves. Though Ahab establishes himself against God, he is also acting out Biblical imperatives issued in Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (King James Bible, Genesis 1:26) In Moby-Dick’s ultimate victory we see the futility of subjecting all nature to our whims. And in the characterization of Ahab’s obsession with revenge as blasphemy, Melville is essentially characterizing this Biblical edict itself as blasphemy. Melville’s novel is a challenge to that very “dominion” and the degree to which it had suffused American society. Perhaps more importantly, he had the vision to see where our reckless plundering of natural resources would lead: sperm oil was the 19th century version of what natural gas would become a century later. Not only are our cords are intertwined with nature, but there is a nobility and a grandeur which we ignore to our peril.

 Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York City: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2002.

Genesis 1:26. The King James Bible. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.