The best books on whaling history

Who am I?

I am the author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. This book was sparked by a painting I own of a whaling scene. Gazing at that painting, I often wondered what it was like to go whaling. Having Moby-Dick in school, I already knew a fair amount about whaling. But the painting continued to stir my curiosity, and soon I discovered that there were libraries devoted to whaling, providing almost unlimited material for a historical narrative. This book, then, is my attempt to weave that material into a maritime tapestry that attempts to do justice to America’s rich whaling heritage.

I wrote...

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

By Eric Jay Dolin,

Book cover of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

What is my book about?

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” Herman Melville proclaimed, and this absorbing history demonstrates that few things can capture the sheer danger and desperation of men on the deep sea as dramatically as whaling. I begin this vivid narrative with Captain John Smith's botched whaling expedition to the New World in 1614. Then I chronicle the rise of a burgeoning industry — from its brutal struggles during the Revolutionary period to its golden age in the mid-1800s when a fleet of more than 700 ships hunted the seas and American whale oil lit the world, to its decline as the twentieth century dawned.

The Books I Picked & Why

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By Herman Melville,

Book cover of Moby-Dick

Why this book?

Moby-Dick is the granddaddy of all whaling books. It has what one might call a split personality. A huge chunk of the novel offers a vivid in-depth history of cetology and whaling, in which Melville focuses most of his virtuosic descriptive ability on the golden age, taking liberally from his own experience aboard the whaleship Acushnet in the early 1840s. It is here that Melville creates an indelible image of what whaling was in the mid-nineteenth century, and why this industry was so emblematic of pre–Civil War America. Most of the rest of the book is a cautionary tale about Captain Ahab and his hatred of and obsession with the white whale, which in turn destroys him spiritually, emotionally, physically, and existentially. It’s a wild read!

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Book cover of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Why this book?

Where Moby-Dick ends—with the titanic battle between Ahab and the white whale, and the ramming and sinking of the whaleship PequodIn The Heart of the Sea begins. But, instead of a fictional whaleship, Philbrick focuses on the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which was actually sunk by a sperm whale in the Pacific in 1820 (Melville drew upon this event in crafting his novel). Philbrick presents the grisly tale of the survivors of the wreck of the Essex, who drifted more than ninety days on three whaleboats, and engaged in cannibalism to survive. It is a tragic and gripping story.

Etchings of a Whaling Cruise

By J. Ross Browne,

Book cover of Etchings of a Whaling Cruise

Why this book?

J. Ross Browne experienced first-hand whaling in the early-to-mid 1800s, serving as a crewman on a Yankee whaler. His vivid account of life on board, and the gruesome business of whaling, is beautifully written, enlightening, and dramatic. In his review of the book, Melville said, “It is a book of unvarnished facts … [which] unquestionably presents a faithful picture of the life led by the twenty thousand seamen employed in the seven hundred vessels which now pursue their game under the American flag.” So impressed was Melville that he used Browne’s book as one of his primary sources while writing Moby-Dick.

Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820–1920

By Joan Druett,

Book cover of Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820–1920

Why this book?

Virtually every book on America’s whaling history focuses on men—the owners of ships and the crewmen who sailed on them. However, in the nineteenth century, women, and more specifically the captain’s wives, began appearing on whaleships in increasing numbers. Incredibly, by 1850, roughly one-sixth of all American whaling ships had these so-called “petticoat whalers” on board. Druett tells the fascinating stories of many of them, mixed in with more general whaling history.

Men and Whales

By Richard Ellis,

Book cover of Men and Whales

Why this book?

This oversized book traces the long history of man’s tempestuous relationship with whales, and rather than focusing solely on American whaling, it covers whaling around the world. In addition to sections on Basque whaling going back more than a millennium, other parts of the book survey whaling in Australia, Japan, South Africa, Canada, Germany, Iceland, Norway, and the Caribbean, among many other locales. The book also discusses the anti-whaling movement in the twentieth century that ultimately led to the International Whaling Commission’s (not quite universal) moratorium on whaling, adopted in 1986. There are more than 300 images that beautifully complement the text and bring history to life.

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