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On the Pequod, Captain Ahab created a unified community among the men of various races and religions. The community was united by their common goal of capturing and killing the whale Moby Dick. Despite the perceived egalitarian nature of the community it is evident that there was an established hierarchy. The white Americans of Christian faith held all the positions of power on the ship. In the Pequod community the hierarchy was also reflected in the contrasting personalities. The captain and his mates were self-serving and manipulative whereas the crew members were obedient and selfless.
Ultimately, Melville provided a wide range of characters from different racial and religious backgrounds in order to reflect the hierarchical structure in 19th century America.
The racial hierarchy on the Pequod was established immediately. The workers on the ship were ethnic minorities and were subject to the authority of the white American men in charge of the ship. However, this passage reveals that this hierarchy structure was not unique to the Pequod as racial hierarchy was commonplace in the whale industry: “not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American fishery are American born, though pretty nearly all the officers… in all these cases the native American liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles” (107).
It is important that the ship workers were ethnic minorities because they were underpaid and experienced very uncomfortable working conditions. This form of wage slavery was reflective of the working conditions in 19th century America. Immigrants constituted the majority in the working class in the 19th century and were constantly mistreated in the workplace by poor wages and long hours.
The racial hierarchy in the Pequod community was also reflected in the treatment of African-Americans. For example, in this passage the African-American cook was woken in the middle of the night and criticized for his cooking abilities: “Don’t I always say that to be good a whale-steak must be tough? There are those sharks now over the side, don’t you see they prefer it tough and rare” (237). This excerpt is an example of the verbal abuse that was frequently felt by the workers on the ship. These abuses were done solely to reinforce the inferiority and subservient nature of the crew. The condescending nature of this passage is also important because it is comparable to the manner in which a master would have treated his black slave in the American South.
The treatment of the African American character named Pip also served as an example of the racial hierarchy in the Pequod community. Specifically, this soliloquy illustrates his fear of the white men on the Pequod and his troubling relationship with God:
But there they go, all cursing, and here I don’t. Fine prospects to ’em; they’re on the road
to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet –
they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I
heard all their chat just now, and the white whale – shirr! shirr! – but spoken of once! and
only this evening – it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine – that anaconda of an
old man swore ’em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon
darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that
have no bowels to feel fear! (151)
This passage was important because it reveals that Pip was more afraid of the white men than the the violent storm. The passage also reveals that the religious customs of America have convinced him that his relationship with God is affected by his race. Later on, Pip’s fears of the white men are fulfilled in this passage: “We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don’t jump any more” (321). This was important because it demonstrates that Pip was expendable to the ship and not worth saving. It is also significant that Pip is viewed as an economic commodity. This is a direct reflection of the selling of African American slaves in 19th century America.
The racial hierarchy was further exemplified by the actions of three white mates named Flask, Starbuck, and Stubb. These white mates used the non-white harpooners on the Pequod as assistants. The following passage illustrates Flask’s use of the African man named Daggoo:
the sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo was yet more curious; for
sustaining himself with a cool, indifferent, easy, unthought of, barbaric majesty, the noble
negro to every roll of the sea harmoniously rolled his fine form. On his broad back,
flaxen-haired Flask seemed a snow-flake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider.
Though truly vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious little Flask would now and then stamp
with impatience; but not one added heave did he thereby give to the negro’s lordly chest. (184)
This was important because Daggoo was merely a tool to assist Flask in his harpooning. It is also a physical reminder of the hierarchal structure between the mates and the harpooners.
Crew members of other ethnicities were also devalued on the ship. This was illustrated in a passage when one of the boats was flipped by Moby Dick: “Ahab’s crew were all such tiger yellow barbarians, and therefore their flesh more musky to the sense of the sharks” (421). These barbarians were the scapegoats for the unfortunate situation that befell upon the crew. It is absurd to claim they had a musky smell that would have attracted the sharks.
The character Fedallah was also of importance because he was completely excluded from the community of brotherhood on the Pequod. He is constantly described throughout the story as evil and frightens many of the other crew men. The following passage illustrates their fear and disgust for Fedallah:
the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to
some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas; – a race notorious for a certain diabolism
of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret
confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they
suppose to be elsewhere. (181)
This excerpt demonstrates that not everyone can be included in the community on the Pequod. Fedallah stood out because of his race and had to be excluded from the community that was created.
The Pagans on the ship were also placed at the bottom of the hierarchy. They were devalued by the language that was used to describe them. In many instances such as this following passage, they were described as barbaric, savages, and uncivilized. “Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth…they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them” (327). Furthermore, it should be noted that the language used by the Pagans was broken English and further differentiated them from the Christians on the ship.
The Pagan named Queequeg also distinguished himself through his selfless personality. On multiple occasions he put himself in danger to save his shipmates. Queequeg’s reasoning was: “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians” (64). Queequeg also showed loyalty to his fellow harpooner Tashtego. Tashtego was in danger and Queequeg saved him from death. It is important to note that no one else desired to save Tashtego. In contrast to Queequeg, Captain Ahab was selfish and manipulative. After convincing his crew to join him in his quest for Moby Dick he says: “Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve” (143). This excerpt is important because it demonstrates that Ahab was not concerned about the dangers that would arise for his crew while they were pursuing Moby Dick.
The difficulties of accepting religious differences was illustrated by Ishmael: “I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortal, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects” (79). This is important because Ishmael appears to show religious tolerance towards Pagans. However, he also undermines this when he describes their rituals as crazy. It is clear that religious tolerance is present but it was still limited due to the believed superiority of Christianity. However, Ishmael later redeems himself when he defends Queequeg’s religion:
Finding myself thus hard pushed, I replied, “I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic
Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us,
and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First
Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us
cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in THAT we all join
This passage is important because Ishmael is stating that the common bond between human beings is more important than their places of worship.
The Pequod served as a strong community and brotherhood despite racial and religious prejudice. The men of the ship were able to unite and achieve the tasks they were assigned. They were able to kill many whales and were very obedient to Captain Ahab. The following passage at the end of the novel illustrates their communal bond between each other:
“They were one man, not thirty…all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltlessness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to” (415). Ultimately, the Pequod served as an improvement from the violent forms of racism and discrimination which were occurring in 19th century America.
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