Chapters

89 Fast Fish and Loose Fish CHAPTER 89 FAST-FISH AND LOOSE-FISH. The allusion to the waifs and waif-poles in the last chapter but one, necessitates some account of the laws and regulations of the whale fishery, of which the waif may be deemed the grand symbol and badge. It frequently happens that when several ships are cruising in company, a whale may be struck by one vessel, then escape, and be finally killed and captured by another vessel; and herein are indirectly comprised many minor contingencies, all partaking of this one grand feature. For example,—after a weary and perilous chase and capture of a whale, the body may get loose from the ship by reason of a violent storm; and drifting far away to leeward, be retaken by a second whaler, who, in a calm, snugly tows it alongside, without risk of life or line. Thus the most vexatious and violent disputes would often arise between the fishermen, were there not some written or unwritten, universal, undisputed law applicable to all cases. Perhaps the only formal whaling code authorized by legislative enactment, was that of Holland. It was decreed by the States-General in A.D. 1695. But though no other nation has ever had any written whaling law, yet the American fishermen have been their own legislators and lawyers in this matter. They have provided a system which for terse comprehensiveness surpasses Justinian’s PandectsJustinian’s Pandects: The Roman emperor Justinian (483–565) was responsible for this 50-volume digest of Roman law that resolved previous legal contradictions. and the By-laws of the Chinese Society for the Suppression of Meddling with other People’s Business. Yes; these laws might be engraven on a Queen Anne’s farthingQueen Anne’s farthing: This small commemorative British coin, worth one-fourth of a penny, was minted in the eighteenth century., or the barb of a harpoon, and worn round the neck, so small are they. I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it. II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it. But what plays the mischief with this masterly code is the admirable brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it. First: What is a Fast-Fish? Alive or dead a fish is technically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants,—a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same. Likewise a fish is technically fast when it bears a waif, or any other recognised symbol of possession; so long as the party waifing it plainly evince their ability at any time to take it alongside, as well as their intention so to do. These are scientific commentaries; but the commentaries of the whalemen themselves sometimes consist in hard words and harder knocks—the Coke-upon-LittletonCoke-upon-Littleton: Common title for Sir Edward Coke’s (pronounced cooks) commentaries (1628–44) on Sir Thomas Littleton’s authoritative fifteenth-century treatise on property law. of the fist. True, among the more upright and honorable whalemen allowances are always made for peculiar cases, where it would be an outrageous moral injustice for one party to claim possession of a whale previously chased or killed by another party. But others are by no means so scrupulous. Some fifty years ago there was a curious case of whale-trovertrover: legal term for an attempt to recover damages for personal property held or used by another. litigated in England, wherein the plaintiffs set forth that after a hard chase of a whale in the Northern seas; and when indeed they (the plaintiffs) had succeeded in harpooning the fish; they were at last, through peril of their lives, obliged to forsake not only their lines, but their boat itself. Ultimately the defendants (the crew of another ship) came up with the whale, struck, killed, seized, and finally appropriated it before the very eyes of the plaintiffs. And when those defendants were remonstrated with, their captain snapped his fingers in the plaintiffs’ teeth, and assured them that by way of doxologyREVISION NARRATIVE: by way of doxology // In the British edition, “by way of doxology” is revised to “by the way of doxology.” The insertion of “the” is significant. A doxology is any one of several short prayers that inculcate matters of church doctrine; the phrase “by the way of doxology” emphasizes that the defendant captain in the case has not simply resorted to some self-styled seaman’s doxology or doctrine to justify his appropriation, but that he has also intoned his rights as if reading from scripture, in “the way” one recites doxologies in a church service. Since an editor is not likely to alter the conventional phrasing of “by way of,” the revision is probably Melville’s. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin. to the deed he had done, he would now retain their line, harpoons, and boat, which had remained attached to the whale at the time of the seizure. Wherefore the plaintiffs now sued for the recovery of the value of their whale, line, harpoons, and boat. Mr. ErskineMr. Erskine: Thomas Erskine, also defense attorney for the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, was a Whig lawyer and witty defender of civil liberties. was counsel for the defendants; Lord EllenboroughLord Ellenborough: Edward Law Ellenborough (1750-1818), Chief Justice of England from 1802 until the year of his death, favored governmental authority. was the judge. In the course of the defence, the witty Erskine went on to illustrate his position, by alluding to a recent crim. con.crim. con.: “criminal conversation,” legalese for adultery. case, wherein a gentleman, after in vain trying to bridle his wife’s viciousness, had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life; but in the course of years, repenting of that step, he instituted an action to recover possession of her. Erskine was on the other side; and he then supported it by sayingREVISION NARRATIVE: Erskine was on the other side; and he then supported it by saying // Melville drew the details of the “loose-fish” whaling case, in which British barrister Thomas Erskine represented the defense, from an appendix to vol. 2 of William Scoresby's An Account of the Arctic Regions; see Mansfield and Vincent (791–92). Scoresby's description also compares the whaling case to the civil case in which a husband filed claims against his estranged wife. Since the context makes clear that “the witty Erskine” had also represented the estranged wife, Melville or an editor dropped the superfluous first clause in the highlighted sentence—"Erskine was on the other side"—and revised the second to simply “He then proceeded to say.” To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin., that though the gentleman had originally harpooned the lady, and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last abandoned her; yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman’s property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her. Now in the present case Erskine contended that the examples of the whale and the lady were reciprocally illustrative of each other. These pleadings, and the counter pleadings, being duly heard, the very learned judge in set terms decided, to wit,—That as for the boat, he awarded it to the plaintiffs, because they had merely abandoned it to save their lives; but that with regard to the controverted whale, harpoons, and line, they belonged to the defendants; the whale, because it was a Loose-Fish at the time of the final capture; and the harpoons and line because when the fish made off with them, it (the fish) acquired a property in those articles; and hence anybody who afterwards took the fish had a right to them. Now the defendants afterwards took the fish; ergo, the aforesaid articles were theirs. A common man looking at this decision of the very learned Judge, might possibly object to it. But ploughed up to the primary rock of the matter, the two great principles laid down in the twin whaling laws previously quoted, and applied and elucidated by Lord Ellenborough in the above cited case; these two laws touching Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, I say, will, on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence; for notwithstanding its complicated tracery of sculpture, the Temple of the Law, like the Temple of the Philistinesthe Temple of the Philistines, has but two props to stand on: The building that the blinded Samson brought crashing down had “two middle pillars upon which the house stood” (Judges 16.29–30)., has but two props to stand on. Is it not a saying in every one’s mouth, Possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and RepublicanRepublican: American. slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mitewidow’s last mite: The phrase "widow’s last mite" combines two allusions to Mark 12.38–44. In one instance, Jesus condemns the scribes who “devour widows’ houses”; in another, he judges that a widow who gives to the public treasury her last “two mites” makes a greater gift than all the wealth contributed by the rich. but a Fast-Fish? What is yonder undetected villain’s marble mansion with a door-plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish? What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, getsruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets: High interest deducted from a loan in advance. By choosing a generically Jewish name, Melville uses the demeaning, centuries-old stereotype of the Jewish moneylender. from poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone’s family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul’s income of £100,000 seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular 100,000REVISION NARRATIVE: broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular 100,000 // Melville’s British editor was willing to allow Melville’s satire of the facetiously named Anglican archbishop of “Savesoul” but expurgated the parenthetical comment, which flatly asserts that the priesthood has no role in an individual’s salvation. The British edition also added a necessary semicolon after “broken-backed labourers” but inserted a superfluous lower-case "l" after 100,000 to indicate British pounds. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin. but a Fast-Fish? What are the Duke of Dunder’s hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? What to that redoubted harpooneer, John BullJohn Bull: the early eighteenth-century personification of England, which had for centuries controlled and suppressed Ireland., is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother JonathanBrother Jonathan: The United States, represented by Brother Jonathan (precursor of Uncle Sam), had annexed Texas in 1845. “Jonathan” is sarcastically “apostolic” because, despite the United States’ ideological rejection of British imperialism, it follows English acquisitive precedent just as the biblical apostles followed Jesus in renouncing worldly wealth., is Texas but a Fast-Fish? And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law? But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable. What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress? What was PolandPoland . . . Greece . . . Mexico: Russia annexed Poland in 1815; see also "three pirate powers" in Ch. 14. Turkey held all or part of Greece from the fifteenth century to 1833. Melville disapproved of the expansionism of the Mexican War of 1846–48, in which the United States seized more than half of Mexico’s territory, and which, many felt, opened the West to the extension of slavery. In explaining the international dimension of his “doctrine of Loose-Fish” (which ironically echoes the United States’s Monroe Doctrine announced in 1823, warning Europe not to intervene in the Americas), Ishmael says that Poland and Greece were once seen by the more powerful Russia and Turkey, respectively, as “loose-fish” ready to be seized, and they proceeded to annex those neighbors, making them “fast-fish.” He predicts that the United States, similarly, will come to regard the rest of Mexico as a “loose-fish,” and seize it. That is, Mexico, like “All Loose-Fish,” is there for the taking. to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish. What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in themREVISION NARRATIVE: the principle of religious belief in them // In the British edition, an editor probably revised “them” (referring to “all men”) to “many of us,” thus eliminating Melville’s irreverent presumption that, like liberty, belief is a universal, inalienable right. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin. but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?