"There is no Frigate like a Book, To take us Lands Away", wrote Emily Dickinson way back in 1873 – a salutary Handy Hint for today, especially given the oxygen devouring, Co2 belching tendencies of an airbus. A good book. By far the cheaper travel option, and less chance of deep vein thrombosis, too.

An enduring classic that's wafted many minds afar is Moby-Dick, Herman Melville's epic tale of vengeance and obsession fought out in the mid-19th century Pacific whaling grounds between a peg-legged psychotic ship's captain and a giant albino whale.

Before Jaws there was Moby. Those of a certain vintage will have but to close their eyes an instant for a crisp image to materialise of a square-jawed, mad-eyed, sea-drenched Gregory Peck in the role of Captain Ahab railing against God, Fate and Moby – not necessarily in that order – as the bleached leviathan's jaws close around the whaling boat he is helming.

August 1 marked the 200th anniversary of Melville's birth. Herman and his doings are graphic illustrations of the few degrees of separation that bind us all.


As a young man Melville himself served time on whalers, one of which he deserted from in the company of a shipmate, Richard Tobias "Toby" Greene. The deserters made their getaway on the island of Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas group, surviving with the support of local villagers. The two shipmates later became separated, with Greene managing to quit the island before Melville.

Melville's subsequent book based on the whole episode, Typee, was his only publishing success in his lifetime. The later Moby-Dick was initially panned, only garnering renown posthumously.

But in the Butler Point Whaling Museum at Mangonui, on our Far North's east coast, Melville scholar Oscar Mardell happened across mention of the fact that the ship that rescued Toby Greene later made port in New Zealand in 1842, with Greene still aboard. But for a quirk of fate, it could easily have been Melville also.

There's another Kiwi connection. A notable character in Moby-Dick is the ship's Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg – a "cannibal and a headhunter" of uncertain origin – who befriends the central character and narrator, Ishmael.

It's believed Queequeg was based on a Ngati Toa chief, Te Pēhi Kupe who, managing to insinuate himself on a British merchant ship, temporarily becalmed in Cook Strait in 1824, befriended the captain and subsequently voyaged to England. The event was recorded in a book published in 1830, The New Zealanders, to which Melville had access.

Moby-Dick himself was based on an actual massive bull albino whale, Mocha Dick, that was a well known target for whalers in the Pacific around that era. Presaging the climactic scene in Moby-Dick, another huge sperm whale had rammed and sunk a whaler, the Essex, in 1820. The survivors were left in the three whaling boats in which they'd been hunting prior to the whale's attack. Ironically, they opted not to make for the nearest landfall, the Marquesas (where Melville had earlier deserted), because they believed them inhabited by cannibalistic tribes. Instead, they headed for the much more distant American mainland, encountering such privation they ended up themselves cannibalising their own shipmates, with only about a third of the original crew surviving.

The whale trails to their traditional feeding grounds spanned the globe, as did the marauding whalers, with many venturing further south to the New Zealand killing zones. In a handful of decades, the entire magnificent species was hunted to the point of extinction.

The same approximate timeframe applies to how we've latterly decimated global resources to the point of destabilising the whole planet. As with the whales, the resource trails span the globe, with homo sapiens the serial predators.


New Zealand whalers only killed a fraction of the world's whales, but the blood was nevertheless spilled on trails that traverse the globe, and those few degrees of separation that bind us all.