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Week 13: 4 December 2011

Philip Hoare

Author, 'Leviathan or, The Whale'

The power of islands

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee

- ‘That may not be, said then the Ferryman
Least we unweeting hap to be fordonne;
For those same Islands, seeming now and than,
Are not firme lande, nor any certein wonne,
But straggling plots, which to and fro do ronne
In the wide waters: therefore are they hight
The wandring Islands.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, as quoted by Herman Meville in The Encantadas, ‘Sketch First: The Isles at Large’

All islands are strategies, by virtue of their insularity; we negotiate them at our peril.  They have a power beyond their weight, more than any continent.  They are forever outposts, whether a hundred yards offshore or thousands of miles out to sea; mere moveable evocations in the mind, for all that they may be anchored to the earth's crust - itself an island state, only floating on the inner planet, the real world within.  They may even been animate, as Brendan the Navigator discovered, when he parked his ship of saints on an island to say Mass, and was disconcerted to find that they were balanced on the back of a spiky leviathan.

Set apart as it is, the island, real or fictional, aspires to utopia – from Thomas More’s Utopia Insulvae to the Erewhon of Butler’s novel – in its state of separation.  It is a punctuation mark in our progress, a lacuna in our inevitable narrative.  If it didn't exist, we'd have to invent it.  As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1895) 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.  And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.  Progress is the realisation of Utopias'.

I imagine Oscar landing on such an island, replete in velvet breeches and fur-collared coat, engaging in witty conversation with a noble savage.

I have nothing to declare but my genius

Islands have ever been populated by fantastical figures, from the Plato’s Atlanteans, to men with faces in their stomachs who crept out of the gilded margins of medieval bestiaries.  Robinson Crusoe may be the first ‘true’ islander in fiction, along with his Man Friday; but for me, it is Queequeg, the shadowy, alternative hero of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville's magisterial work of mystification and wilful digression, who haunts the imagination.

Queequeg is the first inhabitant of the Pacific to enter the ‘civilised’canon of western literature.  He hails from an ocean that almost entirely covers one hemisphere, yet which is filled with twenty-five thousand islands.  Entirely tattooed from head to foot, Queequeg stands for them all, a tapestry illustrated with his own story; a cypher, a compendium, a thesaurus; an atlas of his own self.  This prince’s home is Kokovoko, 'an island far away to the West and South', so we are told by our unreliable narrator, Ishmael, who counsels us that it would be futile to pull down the atlas from our shelves and search for it: 'It is not down on any map; true places never are'.

The two dandies meet: Oscar, Queequeg; Queequeg, Oscar.

Compared to his fellow crewmen (and this is entirely a world without women), Queequeg is a man apart.  He is an amalgam of all the exotic and insular allure that Melville embraced.  He is born of James Cook's explorations, during which dandy young aristocratic officers travelled as if on an extended version of the Grand Tour; from Venice to Van Diemen’s Land, killing and collecting as they went, to fill their own cabinets of curiosities.

From the outset, Queequeg and Ishmael are thrown into each other's arms.  In the Spouter Inn on a stormy winter’s night, they share a bed, safe from the nightmarish sharks that may swim around them.  They do not know that they are about to face the coming maelstrom of Captain Ahab and his demonic pursuit of the gargantuan White Whale (an animal which is an island in its own right, albeit one able to be in two places at one time).  Sent on this mad voyage by Melville, this ship of fools has its quota of outcasts: 'They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod’, says Ishmael, ‘Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own'.

Melville knew that islands may be dreams, as airy and deceptive as clouds.  They promise like mirages and dissolve like salt.  'Consider all this;' says Ishmael, 'and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return'.

Indeed, Melville’s entire career was founded, even foundered on islands, from the landlocked island of Manhattan on which he was born and where he would die, to the remotest islands of the Marchesas, where his life was reinvented.  His first three books, Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, dwelt sensationally, and sensually, on the lives of the remote Pacific islanders he had visited.  Even though he’d spent only a couple of weeks as a captive of the Typees, as opposed to the many months which he had claimed to have been held, living in fear of having his face tattooed – and therefore unable ever to rejoin his own race again – or even of being eaten by his hosts.

Herman was a good liar.  He described Nantucket in detail before he’d ever visited the place, and wrote of The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles of the Galapagos as if they were equally unreal, ‘five-and-twenty heaps of cinder…looking much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration’, as barren and uninhabitable as their cousins were fecund and sensual.  He even conducted an imaginary census to prove it:

Men,                                              none
Ant-eaters,                               unknown
Man-haters,                             unknown
Lizards,                                     500,000
Snakes,                                     500,000
Spiders,                                10,000,000
Salamanders,                           unknown
Devils,                                                do.
­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­.                                             _________

Making a clean total of         11,000,000

As a beachcomber, Melville was a literary thief of the first order, a worse offender even than those officers in their befrogged and gold lace coats.  In order to create his fictions, he raided stories of islanders who had been brought under the eye of the Enlightenment, and the acquisitive empire to which it gave birth.

Men such as Te Pehi Kupe, the Māori warrior who, on 26 February 1824, rowed out in a war canoe from his island fastness of Kapiti, off New Zealand’s North Island, and across the bows of the merchant ship Urania, lately out of Liverpool.  Raising himself to his full height, Kupe demanded,

Go England.  See King Georgy

then jumped onto its deck and refused to let go.  In England, this true-life Queequeg was portrayed in western dress, although he could have quite easily painted his own portrait, able from memory to trace every line and curlicue of his moko, his facial tattoo, despite never having seen himself in a mirror.

Hard-wired into Kupe's head was the way he knew himself to be, as if his face were a map of the travels of his people, who had arrived in Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud - on the backs of whales, their ancestral spirits.

This is no mere fancy.  The Polynesians had followed the routes of whales on their way to the Southern Ocean, a migration for which these humans were physically prepared, with broad shoulders to paddle and thick body fat to sustain them, like the blubber-clad cetaceans in whose wake they came.

Hadn’t the whole world begun in such voyages from islands to islands, cross-pollinating and muddying the genetic waters of every species?  Now sailors left behind disease, rats, technology, and religion.  They took away customs, resources, people, language and cultures.  The mutinous men of the Bounty spoke Polynesian slang and had their arses tattooed in imitation of their erstwhile Tahitian hosts.

Their bodies, like Queequeg’s and Kupe’s, were incorporated in these new vast tapestries of connexion, oceans embroidered with interminable, intricate strands like the three-dimensional charts Polynesians assembled out of wooden slats and cowrie shells.

If the whales and birds follow electro-magnetic lines laid down in the earth's crust, why not we humans?  We may have once boasted this sixth sense – maybe some of us still do.  But its subtleness has been long since subsumed in the cacophony of our world and the anthropogenic noise that deafens animals which see in sound in the way we sense in vision.

Sperm whales possess the biggest brain in nature, and make the loudest noise.  As the whale scientist, Hal Whitehead has discovered, after thirty years’ island-hopping, from Sri Lanka to the Galapagos and Dominica, they live in vast ultrasocieties, ranging over entire oceans.

Their clans are connected by clicks and codas, a culture passed down matrilineally, from their mothers and their mother's mothers and so back before the beginning of human time, before the existence of the islands on which they now beach themselves – as a group of two dozen sperm whales did on the coast of Tasmania while I was writing this letter to you. (

Click – click - click

A hundred and fifty years ago, as a new utopian republic was busy exterminating cetaceans on the high seas even as it was about to be plunged into internecine strife at home over its right, or not, to keep human beings as chattel, Melville saw that we were already cut adrift, journeying headlong into some unknown abyss.

Now new manmade islands in the shape of container ships are condemned to course the world, each one an insular deputation freighted with the useless products of our deracinated progress, forever circling on their own migratory routes to provide us with illusory gain.  As Ahab's ship sought the oil of the sperm whale to light and lubricate the industrial revolution, so these modern Pequods are crewed by Filipinos who work for a dollar a day and may find themselves stranded for weeks or months on end on tankers harboured off our shores, waiting for the price of oil to rise again.  Meanwhile, Queequeg’s cousins are being deported by the authorities, back to their own islands. (

At the end of Moby-Dick, after Ahab and his ship and crew have been sucked down into the vortex and the nightmare they had dreaded, Queequeg's coffin bobs to the surface; a handcarved casket of death now become a life-preserver.  Ishmael clings to this wooden island, a piece of forgotten human flotsam set adrift on the unfeeling sea.

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee

Most people think the story ends there.  But there was another survivor from that apocalyptic wreckage: the whale himself, who wins.

Tiaki, Kaikoura, New Zealand, 2010, photo: Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare, Southampton, December 2011

Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare is the author of six works of non-fiction, including biographies of Stephen Tennant and Noel Coward, the historical studies Wilde’s Last Stand, Spike Island, and England’s Lost Eden. His latest book, Leviathan or, The Whale, won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.  He wrote and presented BBC 2’s Arena: The Hunt for Moby-Dick, and directed three films for BBC 4’s Whale Night.

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