90 Heads or Tails
HEADS OR TAILS.
“De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam.”
Bracton, l. 3, c. 3.Bracton, l. 3, c. 3.: From the thirteenth-century compilation of English law and customs, De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae by Henry de Bracton, not printed until 1569; the Latin means “Concerning the whale, it truly suffices if the king have the head and the queen the tail.” Melville’s source here is William Blackstone's Commentaries; see "Blackstone," below.
Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with the context, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooneer, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like halving an apple; there is no intermediate remainder. Now as this law, under a modified form, is to this day in force in England; and as it offers in various respects a strange anomaly touching the general law of Fast and Loose-Fish, it is here treated of in a separate chapter, on the same courteous principle that prompts the English railways to be at the expense of a separate car, specially reserved for the accommodation of royalty. In the first place, in curious proof of the fact that the above-mentioned law is still in force, I proceed to lay before you a circumstance that happened within the last two years.
It seems that some honest mariners of Dover, or Sandwich, or some one of the Cinque PortsDover, or Sandwich, or some one of the Cinque Ports: Both cities were among the original five (French “cinque”) ports, on England’s southern coast, organized in medieval times to provide ships and men to the King’s navy. Melville’s source for the anecdote that makes up most of Ch. 90 appeared in the Literary World (Mansfield and Vincent, 793)., had after a hard chase succeeded in killing and beaching a fine whale which they had originally descried afar off from the shore. Now the Cinque Ports are partially or somehow under the jurisdiction of a sort of policeman or beadle, called a Lord Warden. Holding the office directly from the crown, I believe, all the royal emolumentsemoluments: compensation, benefits. incident to the Cinque Port territories become by assignment his. By some writers this office is called a sinecuresinecure: paid position requiring little or no work.. But not so. Because the Lord Warden is busily employed at times in fobbing his perquisitesfobbing his perquisites: pocketing his profits.; which are his chiefly by virtue of that same fobbing of them.
Now when these poor sun-burnt mariners, bare-footed, and with their trowsers rolled high up on their eely legs, had wearily hauled their fat fish high and dry, promising themselves a good £150 from the precious oil and bone, and in fantasy sipping rare tea with their wives, and good ale with their cronies, upon the strength of their respective shares; up steps a very learned and most Christian and charitable gentleman, with a copy of Blackstonea copy of Blackstone: Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) by Sir William Blackstone, the most highly respected compendium of English law in Melville’s time. under his arm; and laying it upon the whale’s head, he says—“Hands off! this fish, my masters, is a Fast-Fish. I seize it as the Lord Warden’s.” Upon this the poor mariners in their respectful consternation—so truly English—knowing not what to say, fall to vigorously scratching their heads all round; meanwhile ruefully glancing from the whale to the stranger. But that did in nowise mend the matter, or at all soften the hard heart of the learned gentleman with the copy of Blackstone. At length one of them, after long scratching about for his ideas, made bold to speak.
“Please, sir, who is the Lord Warden?”
“But the duke had nothing to do with taking this fish?”
“It is his.”
“We have been at great trouble, and peril, and some expense, and is all that to go to the Duke’s benefit; we getting nothing at all for our pains but our blisters?”
“It is his.”
“Is the Duke so very poor as to be forced to this desperate mode of getting a livelihood?”
“It is his.”
“I thought to relieve my old bed-ridden mother by part of my share of this whale.”
“It is his.”
“Won’t the Duke be content with a quarter or a half?”
“It is his.”
In a word, the whale was seized and sold, and his Grace the Duke of Wellingtonhis Grace the Duke of Wellington: See Revision Narrative, below. received the money. Thinking that viewed in some particular lights, the case might by a bare possibility in some small degree be deemed, under the circumstances, a rather hard one, an honest clergyman of the town respectfully addressed a note to his Grace, begging him to take the case of those unfortunate mariners into full consideration. To which my Lord Duke in substance replied (both letters were published) that he had already done so, and received the money, and would be obliged to the reverend gentleman if for the future he (the reverend gentleman) would decline meddling with other people’s business. Is this the still militant old man, standing at the corners of the three kingdoms, on all hands coercing alms of beggars?REVISION NARRATIVE: Is this the still militant old man, standing at the corners of the three kingdoms, on all hands coercing alms of beggars? // Renowned for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington was later prime minister of England (1828–1830, 1834). His rigid economic conservativism is spoofed here in Melville's cartoon-like image of his forcing alms (which are by definition voluntary) from the nation's poorest people, typically found begging on street corners of what Melville anachronistically calls "the three kingdoms" (England, Scotland, and Ireland), the combatants of the British Civil Wars of 1639-1653. Melville’s disdain for England’s revered “iron” Duke is undisguised. The highlighted question concerning the “still militant old man’s” greed and its implied scorn for aristocracy transgressed British civility. Accordingly, Melville’s British editor expurgated the entire sentence. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin.
It will readily be seen that in this case the alleged right of the Duke to the whale was a delegated one from the Sovereign. We must needs inquire then on what principle the Sovereign is originally invested with that right. The law itself has already been set forth. But PlowdenPlowden: eminent Elizabethan lawyer, Edmund Plowden (1518–1585). gives us the reason for it. Says Plowden, the whale so caught belongs to the King and Queen, “because of its superior excellence.” And by the soundest commentators this has ever been held a cogent argument in such matters.
But why should the King have the head, and the Queen the tail? A reason for that, ye lawyers!
In his treatise on “Queen-Gold,” or Queen-pinmoney, an old King’s Bench author, one William PrynneWilliam Prynne: The King’s Bench is part of the British superior court system; Prynne (1600–1669) wrote Aurum Reginae, or . . . Concerning Queen-Gold (1668). “Queen-pinmoney” is Melville’s joke., thus discourseth: “Ye tail is ye Queen’s, that ye Queen’s wardrobe may be supplied with ye whaleboneREVISION NARRATIVE: Ye tail is ye Queen’s, that ye Queen’s wardrobe may be supplied with ye whalebone // Chances are that Melville instructed that the e’s in the four ye’s in this faux-quotation be superscripted in the British edition so that each would appear as “ye,” which denotes an archaic version of the definite article “the,” and not the form of you spelled and pronounced “ye” or “yuh.” The use of this ploy underscores Melville’s whimsical antiquarianism through his parody of “black letter,” that is, gothic-style print. The quotation is also Melville's fabrication based on Blackstone’s paraphrasing of Prynne, which itself refers to the whimsicality of the ancient law in question. For their reading text, the NN editors adopt the superscripted “ye,” assuming it is Melville's correction. However, the superscripting might instead represent a change of mind. MEL does not mix versions and, therefore, makes no change but notes the possible revision here. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin.." Now this was written at a time when the black limber bone of the Greenland or Right whale was largely used in ladies’ bodices. But this same bone is not in the tail; it is in the head, which is a sad mistake for a sagacious lawyer like Prynne. But is the Queen a mermaid, to be presented with a tail? An allegorical meaning may lurk here.
There are two royal fish so styled by the English law writers—the whale and the sturgeon; both royal property under certain limitations, and nominally supplying the tenth branch of the crown’s ordinary revenue. I know not that any other author has hinted of the matter; but by inference it seems to me that the sturgeon must be divided in the same way as the whale, the King receiving the highly dense and elastic head peculiar to that fish, which, symbolically regarded, may possibly be humorously grounded upon some presumed congeniality. And thus there seems a reason in all things, even in law.