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Chapter 87: The Grand Armada.


The long and narrow peninsula of Malacca, extending south-eastward from
the territories of Birmah, forms the most southerly point of all Asia.
In a continuous line from that peninsula stretch the long islands of
Sumatra, Java, Bally, and Timor; which, with many others, form a
vast mole, or rampart, lengthwise connecting Asia with Australia,
and dividing the long unbroken Indian ocean from the thickly studded
oriental archipelagoes. This rampart is pierced by several sally-ports
for the convenience of ships and whales; conspicuous among which are the
straits of Sunda and Malacca. By the straits of Sunda, chiefly, vessels
bound to China from the west, emerge into the China seas.

Those narrow straits of Sunda divide Sumatra from Java; and standing
midway in that vast rampart of islands, buttressed by that bold green
promontory, known to seamen as Java Head; they not a little correspond
to the central gateway opening into some vast walled empire: and
considering the inexhaustible wealth of spices, and silks, and jewels,
and gold, and ivory, with which the thousand islands of that oriental
sea are enriched, it seems a significant provision of nature, that such
treasures, by the very formation of the land, should at least bear the
appearance, however ineffectual, of being guarded from the all-grasping
western world. The shores of the Straits of Sunda are unsupplied
with those domineering fortresses which guard the entrances to the
Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the Propontis. Unlike the Danes, these
Orientals do not demand the obsequious homage of lowered top-sails from
the endless procession of ships before the wind, which for centuries
past, by night and by day, have passed between the islands of Sumatra
and Java, freighted with the costliest cargoes of the east. But while
they freely waive a ceremonial like this, they do by no means renounce
their claim to more solid tribute.

Time out of mind the piratical proas of the Malays, lurking among
the low shaded coves and islets of Sumatra, have sallied out upon the
vessels sailing through the straits, fiercely demanding tribute at the
point of their spears. Though by the repeated bloody chastisements they
have received at the hands of European cruisers, the audacity of these
corsairs has of late been somewhat repressed; yet, even at the present
day, we occasionally hear of English and American vessels, which, in
those waters, have been remorselessly boarded and pillaged.

With a fair, fresh wind, the Pequod was now drawing nigh to these
straits; Ahab purposing to pass through them into the Javan sea, and
thence, cruising northwards, over waters known to be frequented here and
there by the Sperm Whale, sweep inshore by the Philippine Islands, and
gain the far coast of Japan, in time for the great whaling season there.
By these means, the circumnavigating Pequod would sweep almost all the
known Sperm Whale cruising grounds of the world, previous to descending
upon the Line in the Pacific; where Ahab, though everywhere else foiled
in his pursuit, firmly counted upon giving battle to Moby Dick, in the
sea he was most known to frequent; and at a season when he might most
reasonably be presumed to be haunting it.

But how now? in this zoned quest, does Ahab touch no land? does his crew
drink air? Surely, he will stop for water. Nay. For a long time, now,
the circus-running sun has raced within his fiery ring, and needs
no sustenance but what's in himself. So Ahab. Mark this, too, in the
whaler. While other hulls are loaded down with alien stuff, to be
transferred to foreign wharves; the world-wandering whale-ship carries
no cargo but herself and crew, their weapons and their wants. She has a
whole lake's contents bottled in her ample hold. She is ballasted with
utilities; not altogether with unusable pig-lead and kentledge. She
carries years' water in her. Clear old prime Nantucket water; which,
when three years afloat, the Nantucketer, in the Pacific, prefers to
drink before the brackish fluid, but yesterday rafted off in casks, from
the Peruvian or Indian streams. Hence it is, that, while other ships may
have gone to China from New York, and back again, touching at a score
of ports, the whale-ship, in all that interval, may not have sighted
one grain of soil; her crew having seen no man but floating seamen like
themselves. So that did you carry them the news that another flood had
come; they would only answer--"Well, boys, here's the ark!"

Now, as many Sperm Whales had been captured off the western coast of
Java, in the near vicinity of the Straits of Sunda; indeed, as most of
the ground, roundabout, was generally recognised by the fishermen as an
excellent spot for cruising; therefore, as the Pequod gained more
and more upon Java Head, the look-outs were repeatedly hailed, and
admonished to keep wide awake. But though the green palmy cliffs of the
land soon loomed on the starboard bow, and with delighted nostrils
the fresh cinnamon was snuffed in the air, yet not a single jet was
descried. Almost renouncing all thought of falling in with any game
hereabouts, the ship had well nigh entered the straits, when the
customary cheering cry was heard from aloft, and ere long a spectacle of
singular magnificence saluted us.

But here be it premised, that owing to the unwearied activity with which
of late they have been hunted over all four oceans, the Sperm Whales,
instead of almost invariably sailing in small detached companies, as in
former times, 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. To this aggregation of the Sperm Whale into
such immense caravans, may be imputed the circumstance that even in the
best cruising grounds, you may now sometimes sail for weeks and months
together, without being greeted by a single spout; and then be suddenly
saluted by what sometimes seems thousands on thousands.

Broad on both bows, at the distance of some two or three miles, and
forming a great semicircle, embracing one half of the level horizon,
a continuous chain of whale-jets were up-playing and sparkling in the
noon-day air. Unlike the straight perpendicular twin-jets of the Right
Whale, which, dividing at top, fall over in two branches, like the cleft
drooping boughs of a willow, the single forward-slanting spout of the
Sperm Whale presents a thick curled bush of white mist, continually
rising and falling away to leeward.

Seen from the Pequod's deck, then, as she would rise on a high hill of
the sea, this host of vapoury spouts, individually curling up into the
air, and beheld through a blending atmosphere of bluish haze, showed
like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis, descried
of a balmy autumnal morning, by some horseman on a height.

As marching armies approaching an unfriendly defile in the mountains,
accelerate their march, all eagerness to place that perilous passage in
their rear, and once more expand in comparative security upon the plain;
even so did this vast fleet of whales now seem hurrying forward through
the straits; gradually contracting the wings of their semicircle, and
swimming on, in one solid, but still crescentic centre.

Crowding all sail the Pequod pressed after them; the harpooneers
handling their weapons, and loudly cheering from the heads of their
yet suspended boats. If the wind only held, little doubt had they, that
chased through these Straits of Sunda, the vast host would only deploy
into the Oriental seas to witness the capture of not a few of their
number. And who could tell whether, in that congregated caravan, Moby
Dick himself might not temporarily be swimming, like the worshipped
white-elephant in the coronation procession of the Siamese! So with
stun-sail piled on stun-sail, we sailed along, driving these leviathans
before us; when, of a sudden, the voice of Tashtego was heard, loudly
directing attention to something in our wake.

Corresponding to the crescent in our van, we beheld another in our rear.
It seemed formed of detached white vapours, rising and falling something
like the spouts of the whales; only they did not so completely come and
go; for they constantly hovered, without finally disappearing. Levelling
his glass at this sight, Ahab quickly revolved in his pivot-hole,
crying, "Aloft there, and rig whips and buckets to wet the
sails;--Malays, sir, and after us!"

As if too long lurking behind the headlands, till the Pequod should
fairly have entered the straits, these rascally Asiatics were now in hot
pursuit, to make up for their over-cautious delay. But when the swift
Pequod, with a fresh leading wind, was herself in hot chase; how very
kind of these tawny philanthropists to assist in speeding her on to
her own chosen pursuit,--mere riding-whips and rowels to her, that they
were. As with glass under arm, Ahab to-and-fro paced the deck; in his
forward turn beholding the monsters he chased, and in the after one the
bloodthirsty pirates chasing him; some such fancy as the above seemed
his. And when he glanced upon the green walls of the watery defile in
which the ship was then sailing, and bethought him that through that
gate lay the route to his vengeance, and beheld, how that through that
same gate he was now both chasing and being chased to his deadly end;
and not only that, but a herd of remorseless wild pirates and
inhuman atheistical devils were infernally cheering him on with their
curses;--when all these conceits had passed through his brain, Ahab's
brow was left gaunt and ribbed, like the black sand beach after some
stormy tide has been gnawing it, without being able to drag the firm
thing from its place.

But thoughts like these troubled very few of the reckless crew; and
when, after steadily dropping and dropping the pirates astern, the
Pequod at last shot by the vivid green Cockatoo Point on the Sumatra
side, emerging at last upon the broad waters beyond; then, the
harpooneers seemed more to grieve that the swift whales had been gaining
upon the ship, than to rejoice that the ship had so victoriously gained
upon the Malays. But still driving on in the wake of the whales, at
length they seemed abating their speed; gradually the ship neared them;
and the wind now dying away, word was passed to spring to the boats. But
no sooner did the herd, by some presumed wonderful instinct of the Sperm
Whale, become notified of the three keels that were after them,--though
as yet a mile in their rear,--than they rallied again, and forming
in close ranks and battalions, so that their spouts all looked like
flashing lines of stacked bayonets, moved on with redoubled velocity.

Stripped to our shirts and drawers, we sprang to the white-ash, and
after several hours' pulling were almost disposed to renounce the chase,
when a general pausing commotion among the whales gave animating
token that they were now at last under the influence of that strange
perplexity of inert irresolution, which, when the fishermen perceive
it in the whale, they say he is gallied. The compact martial columns
in which they had been hitherto rapidly and steadily swimming, were now
broken up in one measureless rout; and like King Porus' elephants in the
Indian battle with Alexander, they seemed going mad with consternation.
In all directions expanding in vast irregular circles, and aimlessly
swimming hither and thither, by their short thick spoutings, they
plainly betrayed their distraction of panic. This was still more
strangely evinced by those of their number, who, completely paralysed
as it were, helplessly floated like water-logged dismantled ships on the
sea. Had these Leviathans been but a flock of simple sheep, pursued over
the pasture by three fierce wolves, they could not possibly have evinced
such excessive dismay. But this occasional timidity is characteristic
of almost all herding creatures. Though banding together in tens of
thousands, the lion-maned buffaloes of the West have fled before a
solitary horseman. Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded
together in the sheepfold of a theatre'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.

Though many of the whales, as has been said, were in violent motion,
yet it is to be observed that as a whole the herd neither advanced nor
retreated, but collectively remained in one place. As is customary in
those cases, the boats at once separated, each making for some one
lone whale on the outskirts of the shoal. In about three minutes' time,
Queequeg's harpoon was flung; the stricken fish darted blinding spray
in our faces, and then running away with us like light, steered straight
for the heart of the herd. Though such a movement on the part of the
whale struck under such circumstances, is in no wise unprecedented; and
indeed is almost always more or less anticipated; yet does it present
one of the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. For as the swift
monster drags you deeper and deeper into the frantic shoal, you bid
adieu to circumspect life and only exist in a delirious throb.

As, blind and deaf, the whale plunged forward, as if by sheer power of
speed to rid himself of the iron leech that had fastened to him; as we
thus tore a white gash in the sea, on all sides menaced as we flew, by
the crazed creatures to and fro rushing about us; our beset boat was
like a ship mobbed by ice-isles in a tempest, and striving to steer
through their complicated channels and straits, knowing not at what
moment it may be locked in and crushed.

But not a bit daunted, Queequeg steered us manfully; now sheering off
from this monster directly across our route in advance; now edging away
from that, whose colossal flukes were suspended overhead, while all the
time, Starbuck stood up in the bows, lance in hand, pricking out of our
way whatever whales he could reach by short darts, for there was no time
to make long ones. Nor were the oarsmen quite idle, though their wonted
duty was now altogether dispensed with. They chiefly attended to the
shouting part of the business. "Out of the way, Commodore!" cried one,
to a great dromedary that of a sudden rose bodily to the surface,
and for an instant threatened to swamp us. "Hard down with your tail,
there!" cried a second to another, which, close to our gunwale, seemed
calmly cooling himself with his own fan-like extremity.

All whaleboats carry certain curious contrivances, originally invented
by the Nantucket Indians, called druggs. Two thick squares of wood
of equal size are stoutly clenched together, so that they cross each
other's grain at right angles; a line of considerable length is then
attached to the middle of this block, and the other end of the line
being looped, it can in a moment be fastened to a harpoon. It is chiefly
among gallied whales that this drugg is used. For then, more whales
are close round you than you can possibly chase at one time. But sperm
whales are not every day encountered; while you may, then, you must
kill all you can. And if you cannot kill them all at once, you must wing
them, so that they can be afterwards killed at your leisure. Hence it
is, that at times like these the drugg, comes into requisition. Our boat
was furnished with three of them. The first and second were successfully
darted, and we saw the whales staggeringly running off, fettered by the
enormous sidelong resistance of the towing drugg. They were cramped like
malefactors with the chain and ball. But upon flinging the third, in the
act of tossing overboard the clumsy wooden block, it caught under one
of the seats of the boat, and in an instant tore it out and carried it
away, dropping the oarsman in the boat's bottom as the seat slid from
under him. On both sides the sea came in at the wounded planks, but we
stuffed two or three drawers and shirts in, and so stopped the leaks for
the time.

It had been next to impossible to dart these drugged-harpoons, were
it not that as we advanced into the herd, our whale's way greatly
diminished; moreover, that as we went still further and further from the
circumference of commotion, the direful disorders seemed waning. So that
when at last the jerking harpoon drew out, and the towing whale sideways
vanished; then, with the tapering force of his parting momentum, we
glided between two whales into the innermost heart of the shoal, as if
from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene valley lake. Here
the storms in the roaring glens between the outermost whales, were heard
but not felt. In this central expanse the sea presented that smooth
satin-like surface, called a sleek, produced by the subtle moisture
thrown off by the whale in his more quiet moods. Yes, we were now
in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every
commotion. And still in the distracted distance we beheld the tumults of
the outer concentric circles, and saw successive pods of whales, eight
or ten in each, swiftly going round and round, like multiplied spans of
horses in a ring; and so closely shoulder to shoulder, that a Titanic
circus-rider might easily have over-arched the middle ones, and so have
gone round on their backs. Owing to the density of the crowd of reposing
whales, more immediately surrounding the embayed axis of the herd, no
possible chance of escape was at present afforded us. We must watch for
a breach in the living wall that hemmed us in; the wall that had only
admitted us in order to shut us up. Keeping at the centre of the lake,
we were occasionally visited by small tame cows and calves; the women
and children of this routed host.

Now, inclusive of the occasional wide intervals between the revolving
outer circles, and inclusive of the spaces between the various pods in
any one of those circles, the entire area at this juncture, embraced by
the whole multitude, must have contained at least two or three square
miles. At any rate--though indeed such a test at such a time might be
deceptive--spoutings might be discovered from our low boat that
seemed playing up almost from the rim of the horizon. I mention this
circumstance, because, as if the cows and calves had been purposely
locked up in this innermost fold; and as if the wide extent of the
herd had hitherto prevented them from learning the precise cause of its
stopping; or, possibly, being so young, unsophisticated, and every way
innocent and inexperienced; however it may have been, these smaller
whales--now and then visiting our becalmed boat from the margin of the
lake--evinced a wondrous fearlessness and confidence, or else a still
becharmed panic which it was impossible not to marvel at. Like household
dogs they came snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales, and
touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly
domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched
their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the
time refrained from darting it.

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still
stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended
in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the
whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to
become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth
exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly
and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different
lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still
spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;--even so did the
young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if
we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight. Floating on their
sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. One of these little
infants, that from certain queer tokens seemed hardly a day old, might
have measured some fourteen feet in length, and some six feet in
girth. He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarce yet
recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the
maternal reticule; where, tail to head, and all ready for the final
spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar's bow. The delicate
side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the
plaited crumpled appearance of a baby's ears newly arrived from foreign

"Line! line!" cried Queequeg, looking over the gunwale; "him fast! him
fast!--Who line him! Who struck?--Two whale; one big, one little!"

"What ails ye, man?" cried Starbuck.

"Look-e here," said Queequeg, pointing down.

As when the stricken whale, that from the tub has reeled out hundreds of
fathoms of rope; as, after deep sounding, he floats up again, and shows
the slackened curling line buoyantly rising and spiralling towards the
air; so now, Starbuck saw long coils of the umbilical cord of Madame
Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still tethered to its dam. Not
seldom in the rapid vicissitudes of the chase, this natural line, with
the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one, so that
the cub is thereby trapped. Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas
seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan
amours in the deep.*

*The sperm whale, as with all other species of the Leviathan, but unlike
most other fish, breeds indifferently at all seasons; after a gestation
which may probably be set down at nine months, producing but one at a
time; though in some few known instances giving birth to an Esau and
Jacob:--a contingency provided for in suckling by two teats, curiously
situated, one on each side of the anus; but the breasts themselves
extend upwards from that. When by chance these precious parts in a
nursing whale are cut by the hunter's lance, the mother's pouring milk
and blood rivallingly discolour the sea for rods. The milk is very sweet
and rich; it has been tasted by man; it might do well with strawberries.
When overflowing with mutual esteem, the whales salute MORE HOMINUM.

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations
and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and
fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled
in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of
my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and
while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and
deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

Meanwhile, as we thus lay entranced, the occasional sudden frantic
spectacles in the distance evinced the activity of the other boats,
still engaged in drugging the whales on the frontier of the host; or
possibly carrying on the war within the first circle, where abundance of
room and some convenient retreats were afforded them. But the sight
of the enraged drugged whales now and then blindly darting to and fro
across the circles, was nothing to what at last met our eyes. It is
sometimes the custom when fast to a whale more than commonly powerful
and alert, to seek to hamstring him, as it were, by sundering or
maiming his gigantic tail-tendon. It is done by darting a short-handled
cutting-spade, to which is attached a rope for hauling it back again.
A whale wounded (as we afterwards learned) in this part, but not
effectually, as it seemed, had broken away from the boat, carrying along
with him half of the harpoon line; and in the extraordinary agony of
the wound, he was now dashing among the revolving circles like the lone
mounted desperado Arnold, at the battle of Saratoga, carrying dismay
wherever he went.

But agonizing as was the wound of this whale, and an appalling spectacle
enough, any way; yet the peculiar horror with which he seemed to
inspire the rest of the herd, was owing to a cause which at first the
intervening distance obscured from us. But at length we perceived that
by one of the unimaginable accidents of the fishery, this whale had
become entangled in the harpoon-line that he towed; he had also run
away with the cutting-spade in him; and while the free end of the rope
attached to that weapon, had permanently caught in the coils of the
harpoon-line round his tail, the cutting-spade itself had worked loose
from his flesh. So that tormented to madness, he was now churning
through the water, violently flailing with his flexible tail, and
tossing the keen spade about him, wounding and murdering his own

This terrific object seemed to recall the whole herd from their
stationary fright. First, the whales forming the margin of our lake
began to crowd a little, and tumble against each other, as if lifted
by half spent billows from afar; then the lake itself began faintly to
heave and swell; the submarine bridal-chambers and nurseries vanished;
in more and more contracting orbits the whales in the more central
circles began to swim in thickening clusters. Yes, the long calm was
departing. A low advancing hum was soon heard; and then like to the
tumultuous masses of block-ice when the great river Hudson breaks up in
Spring, the entire host of whales came tumbling upon their inner centre,
as if to pile themselves up in one common mountain. Instantly Starbuck
and Queequeg changed places; Starbuck taking the stern.

"Oars! Oars!" he intensely whispered, seizing the helm--"gripe your
oars, and clutch your souls, now! My God, men, stand by! Shove him off,
you Queequeg--the whale there!--prick him!--hit him! Stand up--stand
up, and stay so! Spring, men--pull, men; never mind their backs--scrape
them!--scrape away!"

The boat was now all but jammed between two vast black bulks, leaving a
narrow Dardanelles between their long lengths. But by desperate endeavor
we at last shot into a temporary opening; then giving way rapidly,
and at the same time earnestly watching for another outlet. After many
similar hair-breadth escapes, we at last swiftly glided into what had
just been one of the outer circles, but now crossed by random whales,
all violently making for one centre. This lucky salvation was cheaply
purchased by the loss of Queequeg's hat, who, while standing in the bows
to prick the fugitive whales, had his hat taken clean from his head by
the air-eddy made by the sudden tossing of a pair of broad flukes close

Riotous and disordered as the universal commotion now was, it soon
resolved itself into what seemed a systematic movement; for having
clumped together at last in one dense body, they then renewed their
onward flight with augmented fleetness. Further pursuit was useless; but
the boats still lingered in their wake to pick up what drugged whales
might be dropped astern, and likewise to secure one which Flask had
killed and waifed. The waif is a pennoned pole, two or three of which
are carried by every boat; and which, when additional game is at hand,
are inserted upright into the floating body of a dead whale, both to
mark its place on the sea, and also as token of prior possession, should
the boats of any other ship draw near.

The result of this lowering was somewhat illustrative of that sagacious
saying in the Fishery,--the more whales the less fish. Of all the
drugged whales only one was captured. The rest contrived to escape for
the time, but only to be taken, as will hereafter be seen, by some other
craft than the Pequod.