ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Whaling Contracts in Moby Dick, Part II

Yesterday, in light of the on-going Moby Dick Big Readwe considered the contract to which Herman Melville's protagonist, Ishmael, signed in Moby Dick.  Today, we consider the contractual fate of his friend, Queequeg as set forth in the book's 18th chapter.  Ishmael agreed to sign on to the Pequod for a 1/300th share of the ship's take.  He did so if only to keep the ship's part-owners and agents, Captains Peleg and Bildad from coming to blows over what was equitable and just.  Ishmael's harpooning friend, Queequeg was another matter.  

Upon seeing the tatooed savage, Peleg and Bildad initially protested that they do not ordinarily enlist cannibals and insisted that Queequeg must show evidence that he had converted to Christianity.  Ishmael gamely lies, insisting that Queequeg is a Deacon in the First Congregation Church.  Bildad is having none of this "skylarking," but Queequeg offers a quick demonstration of his skills with a harpoon, and the next thing you know, Peleg is offering "Hedgehog" or "Quohog" a 1/19th share of the ship's take.  But there remained the uncomfortable issue of how one signs up an unlettered savage who cannot sign his name.

Queequeg was not at all put out by this difficulty:

Queequeg, who had twice or thrice before taken part in similar ceremonies, looked no ways abashed; but taking the offered pen, copied upon the paper, in the proper place, an exact counterpart of a queer round figure which was tattooed upon his arm; so that through Captain Peleg's obstinate mistake touching his appellative, it stood something like this: -- Quohog his mark 

To this, the pious Bildad appended a brief sermon advising Queequeg to abandon his heathen ways.  But Peleg was having none of it.  

 'Avast there, avast there, Bildad, avast now spoiling our harpooneer,'cried Peleg. 'Pious harpooneers never make good voyagers -- it takes the shark out of 'em; no harpooneer is worth a straw who aint pretty sharkish.' 

And with that, the two former shipmates launch into another debate on the place of piety on a whaling vessel, as the two new shipmates follow Peleg aboard the Pequod.


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"Originally, skylarking described the antics of young Navymen who climbed and slid down the backstays for fun. Since the ancient word "lac" means "to play" and the games started high in the masts, the term was "skylacing." Later, corruption of the word changed it to "skylarking." Skylarking is a familiar term to most sailors and a popular pastime for others. Today, it is generally looked upon with disfavor while on board ship because "goofing off" can cause accidents and wastes time. However, skylarking wasn't always viewed unfavorably. Back in the days of wooden ships, it was thought to be the better "occupation" of sailors with free time on their hands -- skylarking on the weatherdeck -- rather than engaging in mutinous talk in a ship's dark corners."

--from Origins of U.S. Navy Terminology available at

Posted by: Pete Fitzgerald | Oct 10, 2012 6:08:30 AM

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