Critical Intel

Critical Intel
As Usual, PETA is Wrong About Whaling

Robert Rath | 14 Mar 2013 16:00
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By 1715 when AC4 is set, New Englanders had killed their population of near-shore grey whales and were venturing out in sloops into the offshore grounds. Whalers stripped the blubber from their kills at sea and stored them in barrels, hoping the frigid New England air would preserve it until they reached port. However, declining whale fisheries meant that by 1750 (long after Edward Kenway scoured the Caribbean) whalers hunted further offshore, aided by a tryworks - a system of brick ovens and cast iron pots that rendered the oil aboard, meaning whale ships could undertake longer voyages. As whale fisheries dropped under the pressure, Nantucket and New Bedford men chased the creatures into the Caribbean, Arctic, South America, and eventually into the unexplored depths of the Pacific. This not only extended the economic power base of the new nation through its domestic and international whale product market, whalers served as vast unsanctioned and unofficial exploration fleets that helped initiate American expansionism. Already by 1775, even before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Edmund Burke spoke in Parliament about how Royal Navy vessels seemed to find American whalemen wherever they went. "No sea but what is vexed by their fishery," he complained. It only escalated from there. In 1853, Commodore Perry threatened to bombard Edo if Japan refused to open its ports to foreign trade - a demand that came about partly because Yankee whalers wanted to sell product there.

But by the time of the Perry's Expedition, the U.S. whaling industry was already headed toward a crash. Not only would kerosene increasingly replace it as a lamp fuel, but worldwide whaling by Americans as well as the British, Japanese, Basques, Norwegians and other Europeans were quickly exterminating its primary asset base. One estimate puts the number of whales killed during the 19th century at 236,000, which is a terrible burden for an animal that exists in fairly small numbers and reproduces slowly. Technological innovations like harpoon guns and industrial whaling made pressures on the population even worse. Two hundred years after commoditizing whale oil, humanity had destroyed the whale population, plundered its corpse, and moved on to the next great commodity. It's this part of whaling history that's so compelling to game developers. Living in the age of petroleum, it's more than a little tempting to comment on our current relationship to crude oil by looking back at the mistakes we made in the whaling trade.

For evidence of this introspection, I direct you to Dishonored, a game that made whaling and whale oil a primary component of its world building. Citizens of Dunwall, by and large, see whaling as an extremely good thing. Not only did it propel the city's technology forward hundreds of years, but the whale oil industry created large numbers of jobs and a cheap source of energy. However, as players living in a time where whale oil is no longer a major commodity, and the public is well aware of the harm whaling does, we sense a dark undercurrent to the industry. Even before the appearance of the rat plague, jobs in Dunwall's whaling industry were dangerous, filthy and unglamorous - just as in real life. One book found in the game states that the Greaves Whale House operated off of child labor with minors filing "tragic" roles. And even the most cursory speed run through the game leaves the impression that whale oil didn't do much for the lower classes except provide perilous labor and street lighting - everything else seems to be government-owned weapons. In addition, the fact that charms and runes carved from whalebone hold magical properties suggests that the whales populating the Isles have an unknown spiritual power, and that in destroying them the people of Gristol are eradicating something precious and irreplaceable. Some books in Dishonored, along with statements by Granny Rags, even infer that the godlike Outsider's true form is that of a leviathan.

Dunwall's whaling culture itself, which is how the player mostly learns about the industry, drips with darkness and violence. Song lyrics frequently talk of murder and even the relatively fresh whale carcasses seem unclean and stinking. Incredible as it seems, that isn't made up for the sake of the game - real whalers spent their lives in a deadly, lonely and terrifying profession, and their culture developed a preoccupation with death. They hunted the largest creatures ever to live on planet earth with little but spears and open boats. Raging whales could crush longboats with a slap of their tail or even sink a ship if they rammed it hard enough, as happened to the whaleship Essex in 1820. Crewmen had to crawl inside the heads of sperm whales to ladle out the precious spermaceti, meaning they were literally surrounded by death. A popular couplet, half prayer and half dockside toast, sums up the bloodiness and fatalism of the whaling profession: "Death to the living, long life to the killers. Success to sailors' wives and greasy luck to whalers." If a player read that couplet in a Dunwall tome, it'd fit right in, but seem a little over the top. This isn't "glorifying." If anything, it's extremely negative.

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