Today, let's talk about coffins and harpoons. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
"Call me Ishmael," says the
narrator of Melville's
Moby Dick, as he walks through New
Bedford in the 1840s. He's looking for cheap
lodgings. He comes to an inn run by a man named
Peter Coffin. The rooms are filled. The best Coffin
can give Ishmael is the other half of a bed
occupied by a mysterious harpooneer.
The harpooneer turns out to be a wild tattooed
native of New Guinea named Queequeg. Queequeg and
Ishmael are soon close friends. Then we meet the
other two harpooneers who ship with Captain Ahab --
an Indian named Tashtego and an African, Dagoo.
None of these three
quarterbacks-of-the-whaling-team are white.
That matches what history says about New England
whalers. By 1840 one New Bedford or Nantucket
citizen in 15 was a free black -- often a
craftsman. Those were cosmopolitan centers.
Background meant little. What you could do meant
In 1841, when he was 24, Frederick Douglass, former slave
and abolitionist orator, went to New Bedford to
work in shipbuilding. He found blacks were better
off in the whaling towns than anywhere he'd been.
He addressed his first white audience in Nantucket.
Here the Moby Dick connection rises
unexpectedly. The person who extended the
invitation to speak was one William Coffin. Coffin
was a well-known name in New Bedford. I don't know
if there really was an innkeeper named Peter
Coffin, but there was a Coffin Wharf.
In 1836 a blacksmith named Lewis Temple set up shop
on Coffin Wharf. Temple was one of many black
inventors among the whalers. In 1848 he invented
the toggle harpoon. It had a toggle device that
latched into the flesh of a whale and anchored a
line connecting back to the whaleboat.
Melville wrote Moby Dick a year or two
later, and it is rich in technological metaphors.
The lines that bind the whalers to the whale are
woven through the story. The problem of anchoring
lines in the whale is a central motif. In the end
Ahab is tied to Moby Dick by tangled lines and
carried down into the sea.
Only Ishmael survives the encounter with Moby Dick.
And how is he saved? Well, Queequeg had seen death
coming and built his own coffin. As the ship sinks,
that coffin bobs to the surface and becomes
Ishmael's lifeboat. The tale begins and ends with
Melville spoke in a language of deep-running
metaphors -- like Queequeg showing us
nineteenth-century racism, not just as it was, but
also turned upside down and inside out. Now, out of
the metaphor of the harpoon, and the coffin, and
the metaphor of Queequeg, emerges the very real
blacksmith, Lewis Temple, on Coffin Wharf.
It's more than just Temple, of course. Melville has
summoned up an important early port on the long,
still-unfinished voyage -- toward racial equity in
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds