Some weeks ago I had the privilege of seeing the movie In the Heart of the Sea. This is a fabulous film about how Herman Melville came to write the story of Moby Dick. The cinematography is incredible and so is the story, which is even more amazing because most of it is true.
Melville’s book is a fictionalised account about Capt. Ahab and his lust for vengeance on a white sperm whale who had previously bitten off his right leg at the knee. It is clearly based on what really happened to the whaling ship Essex on its last journey in the summer of 1819 from Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts.
In the Heart of the Sea has drawn on the account of Owen Chase, the first mate of the Essex, one of eight survivors, who recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. In 1820, an angry sperm whale sank the Essex, leaving its desperate crew to drift for more than ninety days in three tiny boats.
What the old radio show Round the Horne drew on for their parody of Moby Dick called Moby Duck, I don’t know. Their story was subtitled ‘The search for the great white duck’. If they had kept the original title goodness knows what the subtitle would have been for the search! This is something of a digress but I cannot help it because every time I hear the title Moby Dick I think of Kenneth Williams and the radio show. In that, he plays the part of a lookout in the crow’s nest and when he spies something he shouts out the classic lines,
“A vast what?” asks the captain.
“I dunno, but it’s pretty big.” replies Williams.
Anyway, back to the book and the film. Melville clearly also drew on the past history of Nantucket and its position as the whaling capital of the world at that time. In fact one of his characters, Lt. Starbuck, has a name that has been synonymous with the history of Nantucket for centuries. It also seems to me that he also based the name of the whale on the famous albino white whale, Mocha Dick, who terrorised whalers in the 1830s in the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha. This isn’t mentioned in the film but the movie so inspired me that I started doing some research.
Both the movie and the book show that whaling was a bloody, grisly and horrific experience and that the whalers did not seem to perceive their victims as noble, intelligent creatures but just floating tubs of oil. The money made at that time from whale oil was huge as it was needed in machinery and lamps and there was not another significant source then. The Nantucket population was chiefly Quaker, yet there appears to be no contradiction to their faith by the ruthless hunting and suffering of the mammals. Greed seems to have been the driving force which is why a whale fighting back was kept a secret so the market would not be affected. If stories of whales sinking boats became widely known, the insurance on the vessels would be prohibitive, one can assume….and the Essex was not the only boat to have been attacked by a sperm whale. Mocha Dick rammed quite a few.
Over the years, there have been several stories of people being swallowed by whales. I suppose the most famous one in recent times is the story of James Bartley who in 1891 sailed on the whale-ship Star of the East or The Eastern Star. During the attack on a sperm whale, the longboat he was in capsized and he disappeared. Three days later the whale, which had died from its injuries, floated up on the surface and was harvested by the members of the Star of the East. They found his unconscious body in the stomach of the whale, “covered with mucus, crouched, as if in a fit of violent convulsions”, and that his skin had been bleached by the gastric juices. Apparently the ordeal resulted in him being out of his mind for a month before he fully recovered. However, recent enquiries into this incident have shown that there is no definite proof it ever happened. There is circumstantial evidence but it does give rise to the question, can a person survive after being swallowed by a whale or any other fish?
Bartley was described as a modern Jonah and many Bible apologists used the story to give credence to the Old Testament account of how a prophet named Jonah was sent by God to tell the people of Nineveh that they would be destroyed unless they repented their ways. Jonah didn’t carry out his mission in the way he should have and when fleeing on a boat it was nearly sunk by a storm and Jonah thrown overboard by the crew. He was swallowed by a huge fish. There is no mention of a whale. The Hebrew and Greek words that are used merely mean “a great aquatic animal.” People have assumed it was a whale because that is the largest known ‘fish’ in the oceans.
It is important to clarify a crucial point. just because this story about James Bartley might be bogus it does not mean that the Biblical story of Jonah is not true. Some species of whales and some species of sharks are quite capable of swallowing a man whole. Among these are the sperm whale, the white shark, and the whale shark, all of which have been found with whole animals as large or larger than a man in their stomachs. There are many, many accounts of such swallowings.
As to whether a man could survive “three days and three nights” under such conditions, there are possible answers that could be suggested in defence of the Biblical narrative.
In the first place, it has been well established that the phrase “three days and three nights” in ancient Hebrew usage was an idiomatic expression meaning simply “three days,” and was applicable even if the beginning and ending days of the period were only partial days. The same type of phrase occurs in the account of the resurrection, i.e. ‘on the third day’. Consequently, it could refer to a period as short as about 38 hours. There is always some air in the whale’s stomach, and, as long as the animal it has swallowed is still alive, digestive activity will not begin. Thus, Jonah’s experience could possibly have happened entirely with the framework of natural law.
Moreover, Jesus accepted the account as true. He said that the people of Nineveh repented of their sins as a consequence of Jonah’s preaching (Matthew 12:41). He even said: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”. I find the last phrase very interesting in the context of the film title. Now, as Jesus accredits Jonah’s story, I would not want to be the one who calls Jesus a liar.
Strange how many seemingly unbelievable stories in the Bible are shown to be credible. One swallow may not make a summer but it seems it might make a decent meal for a whale.
Photo by Flickr user Mike Baird – grateful thanks.