Summary and Analysis
As the Pequod leaves the Indian Ocean and enters the straits of Sunda (dividing Sumatra and Java) bound for the China Sea, Ishmael discusses the habits of whales that move in schools and how they are governed. He then considers some of the laws of property that apply to the whaling industry, as well as an unusual right of possession in England.
Because whales often travel in a school, or "Grand Armada," in this part of the world, Ishmael takes the opportunity to digress regarding the structure of the schools. There are two classifications. One consists of female whales that are, when fully grown, about a third the size of an average male. A powerful bull whale, the "schoolmaster," rules these "harem schools"; his role is to breed and protect the females and to chase off any young bulls hoping to replace him. The schoolmaster reigns until he is too old to defend his harem. He then is cast out to finish his days in solitude. The other type of school consists of young bulls not yet possessing a harem. While these are not yet full-grown, they are considerably more aggressive and dangerous than the females. As they reach about three-fourths of mature size, they leave the herd and seek their own harems. Ishmael sees one other important difference in the schools. If a female is wounded, the others in the harem gather round, apparently displaying concern but sometimes endangering themselves to the same fate. When a young bull is wounded, the other males promptly desert him. Ishmael thinks he sees, in this, a gender trend consistent with humans.
The Pequod captures only one or two whales in the armada, but Ishmael describes the adventure in detail, including a wondrous scene (near the end of Chapter 87) taking place beneath the transparent waters. A number of mothers are nursing their young directly below the hunters. Floating on their sides, some of the mothers and their young seem to be looking right at the men above. Queequeg, looking down, confuses an umbilical cord with a harpoon line, a graphic image contrasting the beauty of nature with the harsh realities of the hunt.
The hunt reminds Ishmael that he needs to discuss property rights in whaling. They are fairly simple. A fast-fish, one that is lashed to a ship or in the physical possession of a crew in an open boat, belongs to those to whom it is attached. A loose fish, even though it may carry someone's harpoon, is fair game for anyone who can catch it. This leads Ishmael to a discussion of an oddity regarding property rights. Whales taken along the coast of England do not belong to the sailors. The whales are divided thus: the head to the king; the tail to the queen. Because whales are little more than heads or tails, the whaler is left with nothing.
archipelagoes groups or chains of many islands.
obsequious showing too great a willingness to serve or obey, fawning.
concubines here, females in the harem.
omnivorous eating any sort of food, eating both animal and vegetable food.
De balena vero . . . regina caudam Latin, "Concerning the whale, it truly suffices, if the king has the head, and the queen the tail."
rapacious greedy; taking by force, plundering.