In the old “New England Primer,” on which the growing minds of Yankee infants in the early days of the eighteenth century were regaled, appears a clumsy woodcut of a spouting whale, with these lines of excellent piety but doubtful rhyme:
Whales in the sea
Their Lord obey.
It is significant of the part which the whale then played in domestic economy that his familiar bulk should be utilized to “point a moral and adorn a tale” in the most elementary of books for the instruction of children. And indeed by the time the “New England Primer” was published, with its quaint lettering and rude illustrations, the whale fishery had come to be one of the chief occupations of the seafaring men of the North Atlantic States. The pursuit of this “royal fish”—as the ancient chroniclers call him in contented ignorance of the fact that he is not a fish at all—had not, indeed, originated in New England, but had been practised by all maritime peoples of whom history has knowledge, while the researches of archeologists have shown that prehistoric peoples were accustomed to chase the gigantic cetacean for his blubber, his oil, and his bone. The American Indians, in their frail canoes, the Esquimaux, in their crank kayaks, braved the fury of this aquatic monster, whose size was to that of one of his enemies as the bulk of a battle-ship is to that of a pigmy torpedo launch. But the whale fishery in vessels fitted for cruises of moderate length had its origin in Europe, where the Basques during the Middle Ages fairly drove the animals from the Bay of Biscay, which had long swarmed with them. Not a prolific breeder, the whales soon showed the effect of Europe’s eagerness for oil, whalebone and ambergris, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century the industry was on the verge of extinction. Then began that search for a sea passage to India north of the continents of Europe and America, which I have described in another chapter. The passage was not discovered, but in the icy waters great schools of right whales were found, and the chase of the “royal fish” took on new vigor. Of course there was effort on the part of one nation to acquire by violence a monopoly of this profitable business, and the Dutch, who have done much in the cause of liberty, defeated the British in a naval battle at the edge of the ice before the principle of the freedom of the fisheries was accepted. To-day science has discovered substitutes for almost all of worth that the whales once supplied, and the substitutes are in the main marked improvements on the original. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the clear whale oil for illuminating purposes, the tough and supple whalebone, the spermaceti which filled the great case in the sperm-whale’s head, the precious ambergris—prized even among the early Hebrews, and chronicled in the Scriptures as a thing of great price—were prizes, in pursuit of which men braved every terror of the deep, threaded the ice-floes of the Arctic, fought against the currents about Cape Horn, and steered to every corner of the Seven Seas the small, stout brigs and barks of New England make.