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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMoby Dick (or The Whale) - Chapter 90 Heads or Tails.
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Moby Dick (or The Whale) - Chapter 90 Heads or Tails. Post by :marketingtops Category :Long Stories Author :Herman Melville Date :February 2011 Read :2964

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Moby Dick (or The Whale) - Chapter 90 Heads or Tails.

"De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam."
BRACTON, L. 3, C. 3.

Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with
the context, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the
coast of that land, the King, as Honourary Grand Harpooneer, must have
the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A
division which, in the whale, is much like halving an apple; there is
no intermediate remainder. Now as this law, under a modified form,
is to this day in force in England; and as it offers in various
respects a strange anomaly touching the general law of Fast and
Loose-Fish, it is here treated of in a separate chapter, on the same
courteous principle that prompts the English railways to be at the
expense of a separate car, specially reserved for the accommodation
of royalty. In the first place, in curious proof of the fact that
the above-mentioned law is still in force, I proceed to lay before
you a circumstance that happened within the last two years.

It seems that some honest mariners of Dover, or Sandwich, or some one
of the Cinque Ports, had after a hard chase succeeded in killing and
beaching a fine whale which they had originally descried afar off
from the shore. Now the Cinque Ports are partially or somehow under
the jurisdiction of a sort of policeman or beadle, called a Lord
Warden. Holding the office directly from the crown, I believe, all
the royal emoluments incident to the Cinque Port territories become
by assignment his. By some writers this office is called a sinecure.
But not so. Because the Lord Warden is busily employed at times in
fobbing his perquisites; which are his chiefly by virtue of that same
fobbing of them.

Now when these poor sun-burnt mariners, bare-footed, and with their
trowsers rolled high up on their eely legs, had wearily hauled their
fat fish high and dry, promising themselves a good L150 from the
precious oil and bone; and in fantasy sipping rare tea with their
wives, and good ale with their cronies, upon the strength of their
respective shares; up steps a very learned and most Christian and
charitable gentleman, with a copy of Blackstone under his arm; and
laying it upon the whale's head, he says--"Hands off! this fish, my
masters, is a Fast-Fish. I seize it as the Lord Warden's." Upon
this the poor mariners in their respectful consternation--so truly
English--knowing not what to say, fall to vigorously scratching their
heads all round; meanwhile ruefully glancing from the whale to the
stranger. But that did in nowise mend the matter, or at all soften
the hard heart of the learned gentleman with the copy of Blackstone.
At length one of them, after long scratching about for his ideas,
made bold to speak,

"Please, sir, who is the Lord Warden?"

"The Duke."

"But the duke had nothing to do with taking this fish?"

"It is his."

"We have been at great trouble, and peril, and some expense, and is
all that to go to the Duke's benefit; we getting nothing at all for
our pains but our blisters?"

"It is his."

"Is the Duke so very poor as to be forced to this desperate mode of
getting a livelihood?"

"It is his."

"I thought to relieve my old bed-ridden mother by part of my share of
this whale."

"It is his."

"Won't the Duke be content with a quarter or a half?"

"It is his."

In a word, the whale was seized and sold, and his Grace the Duke of
Wellington received the money. Thinking that viewed in some
particular lights, the case might by a bare possibility in some small
degree be deemed, under the circumstances, a rather hard one, an
honest clergyman of the town respectfully addressed a note to his
Grace, begging him to take the case of those unfortunate mariners
into full consideration. To which my Lord Duke in substance replied
(both letters were published) that he had already done so, and
received the money, and would be obliged to the reverend gentleman if
for the future he (the reverend gentleman) would decline meddling
with other people's business. Is this the still militant old man,
standing at the corners of the three kingdoms, on all hands coercing
alms of beggars?

It will readily be seen that in this case the alleged right of the
Duke to the whale was a delegated one from the Sovereign. We must
needs inquire then on what principle the Sovereign is originally
invested with that right. The law itself has already been set forth.
But Plowdon gives us the reason for it. Says Plowdon, the whale so
caught belongs to the King and Queen, "because of its superior
excellence." And by the soundest commentators this has ever been
held a cogent argument in such matters.

But why should the King have the head, and the Queen the tail? A
reason for that, ye lawyers!

In his treatise on "Queen-Gold," or Queen-pinmoney, an old King's
Bench author, one William Prynne, thus discourseth: "Ye tail is ye
Queen's, that ye Queen's wardrobe may be supplied with ye whalebone."
Now this was written at a time when the black limber bone of the
Greenland or Right whale was largely used in ladies' bodices. But
this same bone is not in the tail; it is in the head, which is a sad
mistake for a sagacious lawyer like Prynne. But is the Queen a
mermaid, to be presented with a tail? An allegorical meaning may
lurk here.

There are two royal fish so styled by the English law writers--the
whale and the sturgeon; both royal property under certain
limitations, and nominally supplying the tenth branch of the crown's
ordinary revenue. I know not that any other author has hinted of the
matter; but by inference it seems to me that the sturgeon must be
divided in the same way as the whale, the King receiving the highly
dense and elastic head peculiar to that fish, which, symbolically
regarded, may possibly be humorously grounded upon some presumed
congeniality. And thus there seems a reason in all things, even in

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