If my somewhat shaky grasp on New York City history holds, Peter Stuyvesant, the last Director of New Amsterdam colony, tried to ban Jews from settling in the colony (as well as, according to my lackluster Wikipedia fact-checking, the Quakers). His superiors in the Netherlands replied swiftly and decidedly — New Amsterdam exists to make money, and we will keep its doors open to everyone who wants to do business. In “The First Lowering” Ishmael explores the precedent that decision set in the American character.
Ahab waits until a moment of peak bustle and frenzy to first introduce his private crew of men, aborigines of the Manillas, whom he has been hiding in the hold for the early part of the voyage. This move has the desired effect of preventing the crew from protesting or asking questions, but the unintended effect of leaving the crew speechless and motionless, in a stupor of confusion. Much of “The First Lowering” consists of Ishmael’s fantastic characterizations of the mates, each trying to figure out what’s going on, while also trying to inspire their respective crews into action.
The message is clear from the mates to all hands — we’re here to make money, and those men (devils they may be) are here to help us make money. And just look at them — they’re such good rowers! In telling this story, Ishmael explores an important side of the America-as-melting-pot narrative. Without cynically dismissing Statue of Liberty ideals, its important to recognize the simple fact that oftentimes America swallows its racism just long enough to make a buck.
Chapter 48: The First Lowering
The more the merrier!
Came out of the heat, and they’re pulling beside.
There’s noting scarier
Than losing a whale while you pray to the sky.
Those devils are good fellows, too!
You see them row, and the rowing’s proof!
Break your back on it!
An angry dog with a knife his teeth,
But don’t belabor it —
You’re nodding off, like a day at the beach.
Now, hail ye, Starbuck, pull aside,
Have you seen such sights in the whole world wide?
Oh, the whales abound and the action’s nigh!
With duty, our profits will rise and rise!
Look thee out at the deep, dark blue —
The ocean’s looking at each of you!
And now, prepare you
To chase your death to the heart of a storm.
With hearts of caribou
We tarry on, and we’re never undone!
Now whale and squall and harpoon are one,
With hope aloft in the setting sun.
(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 14, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea April 24, 2010