Chapter 101: The Decanter

“The Decanter” finds Ishmael at his silliest — in fact, I think he might actually be drunk in this chapter. One chapter after recounting Ahab’s disturbing meeting with an English ship called the Samuel Enderby, Ishmael chooses to recount a gam he shared with the same ship years later, on a different voyage altogether. Beyond being an interesting narrative device that allows Ishmael some comic relief, the device suggests that Ishmael’s narrative of the Pequod is distant in memory, and as such possibly unreliable.

The long and short of the gam itself — it was a blowout, indeed. The English provided not only an abundance of good cheer and good humor for their guests, but backed it up with piles of beef and dumplings, not to mention many gallons of “flip” — the whalers’ version of moonshine. Besides bugs in the bread, the only downside to this gam was having to weather a squall at the height of the party, causing many of the drunkest men to accidentally furl their coats into the sails, and dangle from the masts as “a warning example to all drunken tars.”

In telling of this gam to end all gams, Ishmael points us to a major difference between the English whaling fleets (and the Dutch fleets before them) and the whaling fleets of New England: the English and Dutch really stock their larders –good cheese, butter, beer, gin, beef pork, etc. — and the New England fleets do not. Ishmael admires the English for their high living, and gives them their due respect for significant contributions to the whaling industry, but he also constantly points at the longer-lived and more significant history of New England whalers. Ishmael’s subtext, intended or no, points to a superiority in the Puritan tradition of hard work and moderation. Of course, Ishmael and his fellow workers benefit from this ethic in little more than bragging rights — they’re poor no matter what. And so goes Ishmael’s excellent parting advice, “when cruising in an empty ship, if you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it, at least.”

Chapter 101: The Decanter

Oh, everybody knows you’re an Englishman,
Leaning with a beer on the still capstan.
A party in the bow, with beef to pass around —
Oh, you’re out of sight!

Extend your generous hospitality —
We’re worked to the bone.
Whether it bull-beef or dromedary,
It’s more than I’ve known.
And so we sing it!:

Make me an Englishman,
His life is for me!
Never to lift a hand,
Without some relief!

That’s how we sing it!

Oh, everybody knows you’re an Englishman,
Dizzy in the head when you’re harpoonin’ —
You throw it in the dark, but always hit your mark.
Oh, you’re out of sight!

And so we sing it!:

Make me an Englishman,
His life is for me!
Never to lift a hand,
Without some relief!

That’s how we sing it!

(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 27, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea June 5, 2010

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