A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
But what’s really frightening isn’t our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age. The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly fifty years ago. The really scary characters are our soberest politicians, scholars, journalists, professionals and managers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves as morally serious, and then enable the wars, devastate the planet and rationalize the atrocities. They are a type that has been with us for a long time. More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression—for his moment and ours.
For the last six years, I’ve been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific. Money was flush, seals were many, and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial US colonies on islands off the coast of Chile. They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July and set up ad hoc courts of law. When no Bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.
From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics and tea to bring back to Boston. During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious—at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville.