Tuesday, 31 July 2012
After an overnight stop in a cheap roadside motel we parked up by the picturesque harbour in Hyannis and boarded the first ferry of the day across the sound to the semi-mythical island of Nantucket.
It took the best part of two hours to make the choppy crossing, but soon enough we made out the Brant Point lighthouse and were guided gently into port. There's a party atmosphere ashore. Nantucket town is filled with wealthy Cape Cod teenagers, their shiny, happy parents and immaculately groomed pedigree dogs, all looking forward a couple of weeks fishing in the harbour, lounging on the beaches or cycling out for a posh picnic by the cranberry bogs. Each boat that comes in brings new friends, greeted with squeals of excitement and anticipation from those already arrived.
Nantucket preserves its affluence by banning camping. To be here means you either live in one of the impressive houses, built by the sea captains, or have managed to club together enough money to stay in one of the boutique hotels. It's expensive, but there are plenty of takers.
We set out for a stroll, the Nantucketers call it laning, around the cobbled Main Street, browsing in the exclusive shops and soaking up the late morning, before heading of to the town's main attraction, the Whaling Museum, which now occupies the site of a former spermaceti candle factory.
For over a two hundred years this tiny island, just fourteen miles long and barely five metres wide, was the centre of the lucrative whaling industry, providing the fuel for all the lamplights of the Western World. The museum brilliantly captures the treacherous voyages, the cruel carnage and the sudden rewards for those who set sail from here. Captain Ahab, the vengeful Captain of the Pequod in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, was a Nantucketer. A ruthless, rough talking man who, over the course of his forty years of whaling had spent less than three on land. His Quaker determination to rid the world of, in his eyes, the monstrous creature, was typical of the moral as well as commercial drive of the Islanders.
Melville based his story on the true account of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, commanded by Captain George Pollard, which had been sunk by a sperm whale of the coast of Japan in 1820. Cast adrift in tiny whaleboats the surviving crew were forced to resort to cannibalism, drawing lots to determine who should be shot and eaten first. Many days later, still gnawing on the bones of their dead comrades, a handful of the men were rescued and returned to their astonished families back in Nantucket. Most were back at sea within a year.
Melville describes the unique outlook of the Nantucket whalers in one particularly poignant sentence. It's painted bold over the entrance to the museum.
Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.
We went in and were immediately confronted by a 46 foot skeleton of a Sperm whale suspended from the roof. Dwarfed next to it a rigged whale boat from where the hand held harpoons would be thrust, matador like, as close to the whale's heart as possible. On the adjoining wall a selection of mangled weapons, displayed as testament to the physical battle between whale and man, whilst upstairs is an impressive collection of scrimshaw. The engraved folk art that sailor's practiced by pricking dots with a needle into the enamel of discarded whale teeth. It was a way to retain sanity on the interminable voyages to the South Seas.
We had hoped to walk out of town for a look round the wilder sides of the Island, but a huge squall, came charging in from the ocean sending us scuttling back to the safety of our hotel room. And so we sat looking out on Centre Street towards the Coffin House where Melville, on his first visit to the Island in the 1850s, met the now mad Captain Pollard, who by this time had, to his eternal disgrace, lost a second ship, The Two Brothers. In later life Pollard, despite his traumatic adventures, become a ridiculed figure in the town, reduced from a swaggering sea captain to a shuffling, nightmare haunted, night watchman. Melville recalled the meeting with a sad diary entry.
To the islanders he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming, even humble — that I ever encountered.