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Chapter 33: The Specksnyder.


Concerning the officers of the whale-craft, this seems as good a place
as any to set down a little domestic peculiarity on ship-board, arising
from the existence of the harpooneer class of officers, a class unknown
of course in any other marine than the whale-fleet.

The large importance attached to the harpooneer's vocation is evinced
by the fact, that originally in the old Dutch Fishery, two centuries
and more ago, the command of a whale ship was not wholly lodged in
the person now called the captain, but was divided between him and an
officer called the Specksnyder. Literally this word means Fat-Cutter;
usage, however, in time made it equivalent to Chief Harpooneer. In
those days, the captain's authority was restricted to the navigation
and general management of the vessel; while over the whale-hunting
department and all its concerns, the Specksnyder or Chief Harpooneer
reigned supreme. In the British Greenland Fishery, under the corrupted
title of Specksioneer, this old Dutch official is still retained, but
his former dignity is sadly abridged. At present he ranks simply
as senior Harpooneer; and as such, is but one of the captain's more
inferior subalterns. Nevertheless, as upon the good conduct of the
harpooneers the success of a whaling voyage largely depends, and since
in the American Fishery he is not only an important officer in the boat,
but under certain circumstances (night watches on a whaling ground) the
command of the ship's deck is also his; therefore the grand political
maxim of the sea demands, that he should nominally live apart from
the men before the mast, and be in some way distinguished as their
professional superior; though always, by them, familiarly regarded as
their social equal.

Now, the grand distinction drawn between officer and man at sea, is
this--the first lives aft, the last forward. Hence, in whale-ships and
merchantmen alike, the mates have their quarters with the captain; and
so, too, in most of the American whalers the harpooneers are lodged in
the after part of the ship. That is to say, they take their meals in the
captain's cabin, and sleep in a place indirectly communicating with it.

Though the long period of a Southern whaling voyage (by far the longest
of all voyages now or ever made by man), the peculiar perils of it, and
the community of interest prevailing among a company, all of whom, high
or low, depend for their profits, not upon fixed wages, but upon their
common luck, together with their common vigilance, intrepidity, and
hard work; though all these things do in some cases tend to beget a less
rigorous discipline than in merchantmen generally; yet, never mind
how much like an old Mesopotamian family these whalemen may, in some
primitive instances, live together; for all that, the punctilious
externals, at least, of the quarter-deck are seldom materially relaxed,
and in no instance done away. Indeed, many are the Nantucket ships in
which you will see the skipper parading his quarter-deck with an elated
grandeur not surpassed in any military navy; nay, extorting almost
as much outward homage as if he wore the imperial purple, and not the
shabbiest of pilot-cloth.

And though of all men the moody captain of the Pequod was the least
given to that sort of shallowest assumption; and though the only homage
he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience; though he
required no man to remove the shoes from his feet ere stepping upon
the quarter-deck; and though there were times when, owing to peculiar
circumstances connected with events hereafter to be detailed, he
addressed them in unusual terms, whether of condescension or IN
TERROREM, or otherwise; yet even Captain Ahab was by no means
unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea.

Nor, perhaps, will it fail to be eventually perceived, that behind those
forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally
making use of them for other and more private ends than they were
legitimately intended to subserve. That certain sultanism of his brain,
which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through
those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible
dictatorship. For be a man's intellectual superiority what it will,
it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men,
without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always,
in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever
keeps God's true princes of the Empire from the world's hustings; and
leaves the highest honours that this air can give, to those men who
become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice
hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted
superiority over the dead level of the mass. Such large virtue lurks
in these small things when extreme political superstitions invest them,
that in some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted
potency. But when, as in the case of Nicholas the Czar, the ringed crown
of geographical empire encircles an imperial brain; then, the plebeian
herds crouch abased before the tremendous centralization. Nor, will the
tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest
sweep and direct swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in
his art, as the one now alluded to.

But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket
grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and
Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old
whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings
and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it
must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and
featured in the unbodied air!