Ahab's Trade: The Saga of South Seas Whaling

Granville Allen Mawer, Author, G. A. Mawer, Author Palgrave MacMillan $29.95 (378p) ISBN 978-0-312-22809-5
Mawer provides an (at times overly) exhaustive account of South Sea whaling, a lucrative commercial enterprise that had its heyday in the early 19th century. Readers will learn everything they ever wanted to know about whaling: the tools of the trade; the techniques for tracking and hunting whales; the methods for extracting whale oil; the difficult relationships among shipowners, captains and crewmen; the fluctuating economics of the whaling trade and its long decline into the 20th century. Nantucket and New Bedford were the twin thrones of America's whaling fleet during the 19th century. As Mawer tells it, British trade restrictions and the depletion of local fisheries forced Yankee whalers south onto hunting grounds near Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. Mawer's dispassionate economic analysis of whaling lends a dose of reality to an industry often romanticized. With the emergence of the petroleum industry after the Civil War, the glory days of whaling were over. But the allure of whaling remained, at least in the literary imagination. The author meticulously describes the epic battles of whale against man, citing the famous 1820 sinking of the Essex, which became a source for Melville's whaling masterpiece, Moby-Dick. What Mawer's account lacks, especially when compared with Melville's (an unfair comparison, but inescapable), is the human drama of whale hunting; there are no individuals or events to unify these disparate elements into a compelling whole. Mawer, while scrupulous in detail, fails to elevate readers above the tangled minutiae of a bygone craft, leaving them out to sea. Illus. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
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