Chapter 67 Cutting-In

        A short chapter giving a description of exactly how to tear the blubber from the body of a whale. Nantucketers began learning to do this from the local Indians in the seventeenth century. At first, it was with whales that washed ashore on their island. Soon they ventured out in boats, again tutored by the Indians in the hunt. But they soon progressed to small ships, then to medium ones, and then to full-rigged three-masted ships that housed them on marathon sailings of three and four years' duration. Along the way, they perfected the procedure detailed here by Melville for peeling the blubber off a carcass -- like peeling the skin from an orange in a continuous spiral strip. It is called "cutting-in".

        Ishmael begins by confessing to participation in "Sabbath breaking", because the cutting-in of Stubb's whale took place on a Sunday. With his typically sensational rhetoric, he tells of every sailor turning into a butcher of religious sacrifice: "You would have thought we were offering up ten thousand red oxen to the sea gods." Make no mistake, Melville characterizes this dream-voyage of his soul as a pagan walk on the wild side; memories of living among the cannibals in the South Pacific die hard.

        Yet he must get across the mundane facts to keep the interest of the practical minded. To this end, we learn that enormous tackles, ponderous things comprising a cluster of blocks [pulleys] "which no single man can possibly lift" -- this vast bunch of grapes was swayed up to the main-top and firmly lashed to the lower mast-head, the strongest point anywhere above a ship's deck. The end of the hawser-like rope winding through these intricacies, was then conducted to the windlass, and the huge lower block of the tackles was swung over the whale. To this block [pulley] the great blubber hook, weighing some one hundred pounds was attached. And now suspended in stages over the sides, Starbuck and Stubb armed with their long spades, began scarfing -- cutting a hole in the body for insertion of the hook just above the nearest of the two side-fins. This done, a broad, semicircular line is scarfed -- cut round the hole, and the hook is inserted. Striking up a wild chorus, the crew now commence heaving at the windlass, and instantly the entire ship careens over on her side; every bolt in her starts like the nail-heads of an old house in frosty weather. More and more she leans over to the whale, till at last a swift, startling snap is heard. With a great swash the ship rolls upwards and backwards from the whale, and the triumphant tackle rises, dragging after it the disengaged semicircular end of the first strip of blubber.

        "The strain constantly kept up by the windlass continually keeps the whale rolling over and over in the water, as the blubber in one strip uniformly peels off, being hoisted higher and higher until its upper end grazes the maintop. The men at the windlass cease heaving, and the prodigious blood-dripping mass sways to and fro as if let down from the sky."

        The blubber strip is cut (to the considerable danger of the man cutting it), and this "blanket-piece", so-called, is lowered through the main hatchway in the deck to the blubber-room below. The procedure is repeated. "And thus the work proceeds; tackles hoisting and lowering; both whale and windlass heaving, the heavers singing, the blubber-room gentlemen coiling; the mates scarfing, the ship straining, and all hands swearing occasionally, by way of assuaging the general friction."