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  • ISBN10: 0316738670
  • ISBN13: 9780316738675
  • Paperback
  • 336 pages
  • Back Bay Books

Demon of the Waters: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Whaleship Globe
by Gregory Gibson

Reviewed by A. Bowdoin Van Riper

Rating: 5 out of 5

  • Posted 14 years ago
  • Viewed 2234 times, 0 comments
  • Average user rating: (5/5)

A Little-Known Story, Superbly Told

Maritime history is full of great stories, and the most famous of them have been told and retold many times. There are hundreds of books on the sinking of the "Titanic," a score (at least) on Captain James Cook, a dozen each on the "Bounty" mutiny or the Battle of Midway, and a half-dozen on Ernest Shackelton and the "Endurance." Every so often, though, a writer uncovers a new (or forgotten) story from maritime history and turns it into a book. Sebastian Junger did it in "The Perfect Storm." Nathaniel Philbrick did it in "In The Heart of the Sea" and again in "Sea of Glory." Now, happily for all of us who're fascinated by maritime history, Gregory Gibson has done it with the "Globe" mutiny.

The "Globe" was a whaling ship based on the island of Nantucket and built for years-long voyages to the Pacific in search of sperm whales. Like all whaling ships of her era (the 1820s), she was a seagoing factory. The pursuit and killing of the whales was done from small, light six-man rowboats but the hard, dirty work of cutting up the whale and processing it into usable commodities (oil for lamps, spermacetti for candles, baleen for corset stays) was done aboard or alongside the ship. Whaling was big business, and the ships owners took it very seriously. The captains and officers--whose pay and chances of future employment depended on their productivity--took it seriously as well. The crews (mostly men in their teens and twenties) took enormous risks for a modest share of the profit and a chance to move up the ladder of command (to harpooner, mate, or even captain) on a subsequent voyage.

What happened to the "Globe" is one of those stories that would be utterly unbelievable . . . except that it's true. Led by harpooner Samuel Comstock, a group of discontented crewmen rose up, murdered the captain and mates, and commandeered the ship. They took the rest of the crew prisoner and sailed to a tropical island, only to have six of their would-be captives steal the ship back and sail it thousands of miles to Chile. The mutineers, meanwhile, found themselves stranded in a "paradise" whose native population was increasingly disenchanted with their presence . . . and hunted (though they did not know it) by a U. S. Navy ship dispatched to find them and bring them to justice.

Gibson, working from eyewitness accounts and other primary sources, painstakingly recreates the mutiny. Like Junger and Philbrick, he's occasionally faced with events for which there is no clear record, and like them he uses logic and inference to fill in the blanks. Readers just looking for "a good story" may not relish his explanations of how he did it, but I found them fascinating. He also provides, woven through the story, a great deal of background on the whaling industry and life aboard a whaling ship. It's familiar ground to readers familiar with the nineteenth-century whaling, but essential for those who aren't (and well-done in either case). He's particularly good at conveying the extent to which whaling was a highly technical, highly sophisticated *industry* . . . with all that implies.

The book's only serious defect is Gibson's attempt to make psychological sense of Samuel Comstock. It feels flat and unsatisfying, in part because contemporary accounts of the mutiny (including on by Comstock's brother) give him too little to work with. In the end, the demons that drove Comstock to commit murder on the high seas are as much a mystery as they were at the start. It's a tribute to Gibson's narrative skill that I didn't really mind.

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