After the orientation ended at 10 o’clock, we all walked over to the Charles W. Morgan for our introduction to the ship. It was drizzling lightly as we gathered for a group photo before boarding the ship. We divided into two groups, and my group, after briefly looking up at the rigging and around on deck, descended, one by one, into the blubber room. Large arched beams bang your head whenever you forget about them. Forward is the forecastle in which we will be sleeping. Eighteen boxy berths, painted white, upper and lower, squeezed into the narrowing shape of the bow. It was very crowded with all of us standing in there. It will feel slightly less so, I suppose, when we are all stowed in our casket-sized open box for the voyage. The guide said we will not need heavy blankets; it will be quite warm in here when filled with people. It did feel quite confining. I hope I won’t feel claustrophobic when I bed down. But the door to the blubber room will be open and easy to walk through, unlike during the whaling era, when there was a closed bulkhead and sailors had to come in and out on a ladder straight up to the deck. The paint in the forecastle hid from us the beautiful shape and grain of the wood that was the defining feature of the blubber room, currently pretty empty except for a small sailor’s trunk open to reveal a painting inside the top of a whaling ship at sea in full sail. Over in a corner we also saw a compact handsaw for the men who were very busy, as we went through various parts of the ship, fitting her up.
The Morgan is essentially the sister ship of the Acushnet, on whose maiden voyage Herman Melville sailed from New Bedford a few months before the maiden voyage of the Morgan in 1841. I was now standing in a ship whose spatial proportions were about identical to those Melville himself experienced as an inspiration for writing Moby-Dick (even though his fictional Pequod itself is quite a different kind of craft from either the Acushnet or the Morgan). In the blubber room of the Acushnet Melville would perhaps first have heard of, and perhaps even seen, sailors who lost one or more toes to the blade with which they were slicing the whale’s blubber. In the enclosed tapering bow of the Acushnet he would have slept in the coffin-like boxes awaiting our prone bodies in the Morgan. In the officer’s quarters, to the extent that he ever got to see them, he would have got glimpses of a captain’s table like the one at which the harpooners feasted with such hearty abandon compared to punctilious rigidity enforced by the fictional Ahab upon his necessarily compliant mates, served by such cabin boys as the fictional Doughboy and Pip. Did the latter two, or their equivalent, one wonders, sleep forward with the sailors, or were they instead tucked away somewhere in the officers’ quarters whose adjacent space also housed the harpooneers and perhaps also such specialized sailors as the cook, the carpenter, and the blacksmith?
Imagine this ship rushing through the boundless ocean on a pitch black night, loaded with casks deep in the hold, the deck mostly empty except for the officer and crew on watch manning the deck and the masthead. Below the forecastle would be full of sleeping sailors, the officers’ quarters full of sleeping officers and harpooners, the blubber room full of “blanket” pieces waiting to be cut, or already cut, into “bible leaves.” A whole compact human community mostly asleep, divided amidships by large chunks from the living whale they had come to chase, capture, and cut into pieces, an amazing example of human resourcefulness and industry, governed by decades of custom and tradition, but depending on all of its moving parts to act in concert in order to be successful, the equivalent in proletarian, industrial terms of the “savage orchestra” that Melville experienced when he jumped ship in Nukaheva and heard the natives making music. In such a small, compact society as you had below deck on a silent night gliding through the open sea, how easy, how difficult, it might have been for sailors packed in the forecastle to have mutinied against the officers back aft, any direct access obstructed by the bulkhead at either end of the blubber room.