In Cani�al Bay,
Madeira, a dozen dead sperm whales lay at anchor. They were awaiting their turn
to be winched up the slipway into the flensing yard of the try-works, where 28
barefooted, bloody-ankled whalemen should have been waiting to strip off their
blubber. Right now, however, the whalemen had down-tooled. They were watching
Senhor Gouveia, their company manager, crouching over the sights of the brand
new 40-mm. cannon mounted in a powerboat.
He aimed at one
of the whale carcasses, paused and fired. The harpoon hit its target with a
smack and ricocheted. There was a loud cheer from above.
The cannon was
reloaded, and the boat circled for another run. This time the harpoon missed
altogether. There were louder cheers, tinged with irony.
At the third try
the whalemen just laughed. Their laughter rang mockingly across the bay, and
there was a lot more behind it than simple amusement. They had just seen their
whole way of life threatened—and reprieved.
experiment with the automatic harpoon had succeeded, it would have meant for
them new whaling methods, with diesels replacing oars, explosives instead of
strong right arms. There were old voices to be heard in that laughter—the
voices of whalemen long dead, echoing down the years from Nantucket and New
Bedford. Whaling is a business. But it is sport and adventure, too, men in a
personal duel with the great beasts of the water.
In a sense,
these barefoot men of Cani�al are living history. They follow a tradition that
elsewhere has vanished from the seas—open-boat whaling. Throughout the world,
science and modern methods have revolutionized the search for whale oil into a
thing of guns and steel, of fast steam catchers and factory ships. Nowhere now
do six trusty whalemen still stalk the sperm in an open rowboat, the harpooner
withholding his hand harpoon until the last minute—sometimes until the actual
bump of "wood on black-skin." Nowhere, that is, except in the Azores
whaleboats—there are four of them—are lined up on the "hard" with their
equipment stowed shipshape and Bristol-fashion ready for the "whale
sighted" signal. Were an old New England whaleman around today he would see
boats that are longer than in his time, about 10 feet longer, and
carvel—instead of clinker-built—that is to say, smooth-sided. But this last, he
will realize, is an improvement, because sperm whales are sensitive to noise
and these smooth sides must make less disturbance in the water.
Inside the boat
he would feel at home. There is one more oar and one more thwart, but
everything else is just where he left it one hundred years ago—the mast,
mainsail and jib lying along the thwarts, the twin line tubs amidships
containing 480 yards of neatly coiled whale line. There in the bow is the
"clumsy cleat," identical to the one he used to brace his leg against
when he was "darting the iron." And in the stern is the same old
"loggerhead," the post round which the whale line runs when the boat is
"fast" to a whale.
He moves up
for'ard, touching things nostalgically. Three lances for killing the whale—the
same. Six harpoons—the same. He draws one out. Imagine his astonishment. It is
the trusty Temple's Gig, the single-flued harpoon invented by Lewis Temple, a
New Bedford Negro, in 1848.
the similarity ends, because now the Portuguese are shore whalers. Where the
home of Herman Melville's men was in the fo'c'sle, the Portuguese live in
fishermen's cottages and grow their own vegetables and make their own wine.
Nevertheless, theirs is a primitive existence on a lonely headland. Their pay
averages out at 1,000 escudos per month—less than $30—the boatheaders top rate
at $60. They work all hours—sometimes, when a big catch has to be flensed
quickly, as long as 24 hours at a stretch.