Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The terrifying search for the whale Moby Dick runs almost vertiginously off the known map.  The absence of bearings are particularly apparent in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of the map, in frequently disorienting ways; the apparently unreliable narrative carries readers on a quest for Moby-Dick into unknown areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, as if to persuade the whale to reveal itself by charms–or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft. 

As the voyage progresses across the seas, Ahab descends to madness as he falls into maps in his desire for stability and power.  The book is an epic of consciousness, of Shakespearean scale, and a study in a landscape of psychic interiority.   As if conjuring the character of Ahab, on the final flyleaf of a volume of Shakespeare’s works, Melville echoed the words that Captain Ahab deleriously howls as he mock-sanctifies the harpoon he feels destined to kill Moby Dick.  The devlish incantation sums up his monomaniacal absorption, inverting the sacred ritual of baptism of a Christian soul, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine Patris et/Filii et Spiritus Sancti–sed in nomine/Diaboli”–after which Melville added:  “madness is undefinable” in its hubristic drive for “converse with the Intelligence, Power, the Angel.”   If Melville was raised in the austere Calvinist, learning the catechism in the Dutch Reform Church, taught to  “acquiesce in God’s will, no matter how unjust or cruel it might seem,” without recrimination for the divine plan, Ahab’s attempt to conjure the Great White whale moves not by summoning angels or demons but by conjuring his location on maps, as if to trying to conjure the whale by imprecations, charms and talismans.  The charms, we learn in Chapter 100, begin first and foremost in his obsessive reading of nautical charts and maps. Ahab’s mad drive is no where more unbalanced than on his obsessive poring over maps to reveal the location of the whale, as if he might geolocate his position by latitudes and longitudes. Ahab’s investment of maps with mystical powers is almost a clear echo of the Theurgic magic that Melville saw as the belief in his ability to conjure the whale he so obsessively seeks.

Of course, as Melville would remind us, the map is all in the eye of its reader.  Maps, in contrast, provide a sense of stability to Ishmael, and were the basis of historical orientation to the seas.   ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael descriptively evokes the mysterious origins of his fellow sailor and companion, Queequeg, whom he praises as “George Washington cannibalistically developed.”   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure of being “off” the map.  The sailors’ concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas, but which the conjurer Ahab invests with devilish properties as if they had the Theurgic properties he so diabolically desired.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course on a map, however, and in ways not often historicized in the mapping of whales, a sort of hubristic act in the case of the Great White that Ahab tracks, and yet a cartographic image of location of the great white whale’s course that Ahab seems perversely and maniacally determined to be able to conjure by a map–perhaps an intimation of madness. As much as revealing the hubris of such determination, Melville’s description of Ahab’s madness is historicized, in a telling footnote, in contemporary maps of whale routes, whose potential promise, limits, and benefits he would have known well as a man of the seas.   

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

image.png .

We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys [sic], with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s obsessive interpretive project in Melville’s novel.  The fantasy of an ability to harness sperm whale as a medium or vehicle for global travel had appeared in the Currier & Ives satire on the California Gold Rush circa 1849, “California Gold,” that conflated value with the huge “Blower” a ’49er placed in a harness to steer his chunk of gold across the Cape Horn, rendering the prospect of laborious journey to California as a fantasy of the domestication of wild mammal put to use as a private frigate:  while the whale’s course was never to be so predictable the Currier & Ives cartoon suggested the appeal to a broad imaginary, a joke on global travel if not the presumptuousness of circuits around continents.


The map serves not as a nautical chart, to plan one’s voyage to a geographical destination or actual port, but rather purported  to locate the individual location of the whale on predict its migration.  In Moby Dick, the maps seem to chart the food supplies that Moby Dick will follow, holding value not deriving from its own cartographical accuracy or precision, but the functions of probability that will allow him to track the whale:  “So assured, indeed, is the fact concerning the periodic migration of sperm whales to specific mating grounds, that many hunters believe that, could he be closely observed and studied throughout the world; were the logs for one voyage of the entire whale fleet carefully collated, then the migrations of the sperm whale would be found to correspond in invariability to those of the herring-shoals or the flights of swallows.  On this hint, attempts to construct elaborate migratory charts of the sperm whale.”  Such a scheme of mapping the paths of the leviathans fit with the larger plans of Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury, the Superintendent of the Naval Observatory and founder of modern oceanographic mapping both of famous wind and current charts in the 1840s and a comprehensive map of the ocean floor in 1855, who had sorted data from sailors’ “actual observations” into isothermal charts of ocean temperatures and currents, into a comprehensive map of its floor that tracked the physical geography of the sea “as the main spring of a watch; its waters, and its currents, and its salts, and its inhabitants, with their adaptations, as balance-wheels, and cogs, and pinions and tools” (Physical Geography of the Sea (1855), 54).  Maury’s bridging of natural history and physical geography in his pioneering treatise comes close to treating the ocean’s depths as its own living form–that would facilitate the very sort of human interactions with oceans to which Melville also returned.

MauryM.F. Maury, “Bathymetric Map of the Atlantic,” Physical Geography of the Ocean (1855)

As a sailor and writer, Melville must have reacted in part to the huge collation of shipping routes and the observations of whaling ships, one of the largest and most ambitious open data projects of the late nineteenth century.  When in April of 1851 Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-73) announced his fabrication of a chart designed for charting migrating whales he served as the Superintendent of the United States Navy’s Department of Charts and Instruments, and was one of the best-known oceanographers and cartographers in the nation. Maury issued the map when he worked at the Naval Observatory, and his cartographical productivity and activity has led him to be championed as hero of open data on the order of Charles Babbage.  Maury’s monumental charting of safe routes of navigation had focussed on winds and currents, allowing sailors to chart the most convenient shipping routes, in an attempt to lend a cartographical legibility to the seas in works such as his Wind and Current Charts, to make legible opportune paths of oceanic transit, as in this map of voyages to the coast of Africa from 1847.  Maury collated the available records stored in thousands of ships’ logs and charts to plot winds and currents issued form the US Hydrographic Office so as to determine the most advantageous routes of sea travel, and also to derive the general “laws” that he believed governed transit across oceans, by preparing a map whose surface would create “the field for observing the operations of the general laws which govern the movements of the great aerial ocean,” effectively embodying meteorological data from notations kept on trade-winds, pilot charts, and thermal charts in readily constable form for commercial use, to record of “a system of oceanic circulation” for pilots to consult.

Maury would subsequently come to construct the map of whale migration that Herman Melville attributed him from nautical logs, synoptic oceanographic data, and charts, collated by retired whaling captains.  He announced plans to publish a whaling just six months before the publication of Moby Dick, which appeared the following year, and Melville acknowledged its appearance in a relatively small “Author’s Note.”  But Maury’s earlier maps from the 1840s already stood as monuments of the description of oceanic travel and sea-going, mediating collective accounts of winds–if not sightings of whales–that served to condense data from nautical logs in ways that not only captured the tacit knowledge of seamen but synthesized their collective observations in thick descriptions of nautical experience in collections of “open data” that he took as a summation of the expansion of shipping routes.

Maury took advantage of the medium of color charts to trace a record of the observations of individual ships, by their respective ports of call.  His accumulation of a collective content stands at a considerable remove the experience of navigating the choppy seas, which he collated through the start of the Civil War, was animated by a deep desire to map what he believed was the “uniform character” of the surface of the Great Ocean, treating its natural observations as revealing a set of absolute rules of the circulation of the force of trade-winds and currents, seasonal variations, horse latitudes and equatorial calms, as if a coherent picture of their variations could appear from the synthesis of collective observations of almost mathematical harmony:

Maury maps trade windsMaury, “The Winds” (1858)

The mapping of “wind and current” charts were based on the mapping of collective observations along shipping routes, through the synthesis of data observed along shipping routes from 1785 to 1860, the courses of each of which he recorded in multicolored lines corresponding to their ports of leave, in ways that served to distill something like a residue of tacit knowledge in graphical form of collective itineraries:

US Hydrographic Office

The amassing of individual logs of specific ships was placed in clear evidence for consultation in color charts, which amassed individually dated voyages, color-coding each dated and identified voyage in correspondence with individual ships’ ports of call, in a way he would continue to use to transpose individual findings of mariners to give his subsequent maps of whale-sightings a readable form:

dated voyages1847 map; courtesy Barry Lawrence Ruderman, Rare Maps

The project for mapping the seas was analogous to a monument of modern description design for principally economic ends.  Maury’s ambitious announcement, Favorite Haunts, included a preliminary chart that was later expanded to a Whale Chart of the World, provided an unprecedented mapping of the open seas.  The map was a sort of extension of his belief in the benefits of publishing open data in print.  Herman Melville praised how Maury’s map divided the world’s oceans by five degrees of latitude and five degrees of longitude, and charting the number of days that whales spend in each region in each of the twelve months, and to note the number of days that sperm or right whales seen in the course of the year.  (The incident occurred the same year Melville published Moby Dick).  But the motivation for charting the courses of ships and the paths of whales constituted two halves of a deep concern–or obsession–that motivated Maury’s work, provoked in part by the evocation in scriptures, in Psalm 8, of “the paths of the seas,” which inspired the deeply religious Maury’s hope to delineate currents, track winds, and indeed track ocean-living mammals in their paths across the ocean’s expanse to ken the pathways he attributed to divine design.  His hopes to transcribe such a record provoked the intensive tracking of ocean voyages in the South Seas, off Western Australia, by 1852, immediately before his 1857 monumental Physical Geography of the Seas (Washington), amassing individual measurements of American and non-American ships, an area of intense whale hunting and spice routes:

1852 Western AustraliaBarry Lawrence Ruderman, Rare Maps

The notion of being able to preserve a legible geography of oceanic pathways, currents, winds, and indeed tracks of whale-migration suggested a trust in statistics to provide an almost alchemical attribution of a “physical geography” to ocean waters, which he believed to be–as the currents–a creation of God rather than Nature, and for that very reason supremely legible.

The project of data collection was monumentally ambitious in its own right.  The striking enjambment of the Maury’s ambitious act of data-collation and the perverse reading that Ahab makes of it to trace not one breed of whale, but to find one specific whale in it, is a sort of mania of map-reading, rooted in a magnificent imaginative leap of the sort that maps provoke, in which one looks for a single voter in a data distribution, or find one’s building in a city view, as if searching for a needle in a haystack but compelled almost by the map’s comprehensive claims to continue in the belief that it can be found:  the White Whale has assumed so great centrality in Ahab’s imagination that he is convinced it will appear, and that he can find it, in Maury’s map, which positioned sightings for observers, designated below by icons of individual whales, on a rectilinear grid, to guide the whaling ships on the cusp of a significant depletion of whales from the ocean waters.


The map of whale sightings corresponded, no doubt to the huge expansion of whaling routes from the eastern seaboard (and from Nantucket) in the 1850s, which had allowed Maury to compile one of the first repositories of open data, drawing from the largest historical collections of shipping records ever assembled.

The tables were later digitized, apparently in Tianjin, China, between 1993 and 1996, in a set of digitized records Ben Schmidt mapped, preserving the coloration of routes that Maury used to distinguish different ships’  ports of call.  The visualizations captures and maps growing knowledge of the open seas, as both American shipping routes spread in the Atlantic and whaling and other routes in the previously unexplored Pacific and South Seas in ways that put places like Salem, New Bedford, and Nantucket on the global map.


Feb 1845

Dec 1845

May 1841

Feb 1843

March 1844

jan 1846

July 1852

Sept 1851

These visualizations created from Maury’s dataset tell a story of the expanse of American shipping–before they ceased about the time of the Civil War, in part because of his Confederate loyalty, and lack of access to the full dataset he had at his disposal previously, hiring not only old captains but old whaling masters to transpose and copy the results of old log books and observations, not only to map the seas but to determine the best paths for navigational routes and speeds, noting as they did, both current, wind, cloud cover, and directions in a single standardized format and made them readable in printed form as data in ways.  (Schmidt writes that the printed books were so persuasive to encourage European national shipping agencies in London to send log books to him to abstract records of their data by similar distinctions.)

The result is to create an abstracted but legible record of shipping patterns, if one that we are able to visualize digitally in ways that are more successful that Maury’s very useful maps of the directionality of ocean winds could prove to modern eyes, mapping ships by their ports of destination by different colors to display the shifting proportions of shipping boats that set sail from different Atlantic ports in the United States:

may 1852

March 1854

August 1852

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The charts that Maury prepared of ocean charts were able to reduce times of ocean transit by up to several weeks, or so he boasted:  they provided keys to plan sea travel whose collation of data was intensely popular among trained readers for their ability to imagine advantageous meteorological conditions on the open seas–for which there existed no collections of data, and on which sailors had to rely on individual or collective experience to determine advantageous routes of travel, “reading” the winds from a fixed position, and lacking any communication of weather changes.


Perhaps pressed by commercial reasons, as much as his ambitions to provide a clearer map that would better facilitate sea-commerce, but perhaps captured by hopes for a new sort of nautical omniscience that he believed transposed the concepts of a benevolent Creator, Maury acted as the medium to translate sailor’s first-hand observations to legible form by amassing or “opening” data on whale sightings in the 1850s, in order to refine existing maps of ocean currents.  The preparation of legible records offered an unprecedented conversion of trade secrets to a repository of “open” data on the sightings of whales in the hopes of mapping commerce on seas–if not a dream of the transformation of individual logs to a comprehensive ocean chart.

The publication of Maury’s maps of whales spotted at sea did not in themselves in fact provoke the depletion of whales in the world’s oceans from the 1850s–nor could they have, as they responded to a problem that was already afflicting whalers, and was probably not caused only by over-fishing.  But, as Ben Schmidt noted, Maury’s logs revealed the extent to which whaling provided a seasonal driver that contrasted with fixed routes of commerce:  the distinct rhythm and narrative flow unlike that of shipping routes or the global commerce across the Atlantic.  Indeed, whaling tells a specific tempo of nautical travels Melville whose distinct rhythm Melville sought to narrativize across what he called the “watery prairies,” as if they were a modern extension of westward exploration, based not on fixed commercial routes of travel or trade, but the pursuit of moving targets on large ships destined for expeditions in search of whales–hunts such as those Melville experienced on the Acushnet and Essex, which was the model for the Pequot’s sinking in Moby Dick.  The networks of whaling and shipping can be surveyed at Schmidt’s visualization of US Shipping routes:

Schmidt plotted the courses of two ships on which Melville sailed based on Maury’s mountain of data:

Melville's Voyages on the Acushnet in context

But the charting of whales–and conditions of fine whaling–provided Maury with the far more elusive subject of mapping by transposing log books of Nantucket whalers into a form of open data that would enjoy considerable popularity.  Can one imagine Ahab’s consultation of maps in his cabin as a sort of initial, albeit manic and single-minded, individual confrontation with open data that he believes allows him access to the whale of which he is not able to let go?  Did the comprehensive ambition of mapping two halves of a story–that of whales’ migrations, and the travels of its sailors–open an effective absence of narration that Melville moved to fill, by telling a story not of the currents created by God, but of the ship commanded by human desires?  Is the reading of such currents, collated observations, and open data for Melville a form of something approaching the hubris of over-confidence?

Maury’s chart boasted the ability to collate from the courses of whaling routes the ability of tracking sites of whale populations for ready consultation as if it had acquired the status of fact.  The masterpiece of publishing open data cannot be blamed in itself for the fearful depletion of actual whales by the 1850s in ocean waters,–which led Melville himself to worry “if the Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase” after being pursued so systematically by whalers in the novel Moby Dick.  The map that Maury had crafted, if perhaps slightly more visually legible to modern eyes than his maps of winds at sea, as much as providing a basis for the oceans’  depletion of whales, may have well provided Melville with a model for that of Ahab’s obsessive use of maps to track the whale of which he was in such hot pursuit, and his consultation of maps to guide the Pequod so single-mindedly obsessed.  The map may have even provided a model for the intensity–and map-inspired madness–that drove Ahab’s manic search for Moby Dick, lending credence to Ahab’s perverse hope for tracking a whale across open seas.

hale chart, with quadrantsSmithsonian Institution

What sort of space of possible routes for whaling did the Maury map provide, if not for the near-obsessive observation of whales?  Did its totality evoke the dream not only of the ongoing search for whales in ocean waters, but the prospect of finding and mapping one particularly identifiable whale, based on a similar collation of previous reports of whaling masters, now undertaking by a somewhat crazed captain?

But the relation between the novel and the map, which might have provided Melville with a sort of guide or template to write his novel, have relations that are considerably more complex.  Maury’s subsequent map, of far greater scope, was intended to allow sailors to better locate whales with facility in the course of their migrations, to intersect with them in their own maritime pathways.  He situated the routes and itineraries of whale migration an even more refined grid, as well as color-coded approximate ranges of travel, as if the path of the whale were both predictable and well-known, in ways that would lend some credence to what would otherwise be the somewhat preposterous project of setting out to track one sperm whale across the sea:

Whale Chart 1851Leventhal Map Center in Boston Public Library    

Did the predictive element of Maury’s plans for maps seem a deranged hope for

Maury had hoped to increase the commerce of whaling by tracking the migration of whales across the seas for whalers.  By using extant logs to chart their population of the oceans, his was a rudimentary economic statistical chart of sorts, save that it did not chart commerce or products, save the routes of migration that Melville both mythologizes and ponders as natural mysteries.  Did the 1851 map also give some credence, in an odd way, to the obsession that Ahab is able to develop?  The paths, Melville was quick to point out, were indeed far more precise in their collation of routes, that wind-propelled ships which were brought to different places by oceanic currents, could hope to profit from, and represent the paths of marine mammals that human ships could never hope to replicate.

The paths or “ocean-lines along which whales travelled” were, Melville tells us in his text, of “such undeviating exactitude, that no ship ever sailed her course, by any chart, with one tithe of such marvellous precision,” but Ahab trusts, hubristically, in the charts he has gathered, even though “the direction taken by any one whale be straight as a surveyor’s parallel,” as a guide to “place and time himself on his way” that allowed him to hatch “his delirious but still methodical scheme.”  As the projection of the desire to track whales, this maps itself combines something similar to Ahab’s method and madness, by which “crossing the widest expanses of water between [separate feeding] grounds, could Ahab hope to encounter his prey.” The map becomes something of a topos for a contest between nature and culture, or the limits of human comprehension of the magnificence of the wild. On the map, Ahab had noted with his customary obsessive care all sightings of the whale, and, most meaningfully of all, perhaps, because in it lay the root of all his madness of mapping Moby Dick:   his own intersection with Moby Dick’s path at “that tragic spot where the monomaniac old man had found the awful motive to his vengeance,” and lost one of his legs to the cunning Leviathan and with is the place from which the narrative of Melville’s novel essentially takes its spin and motive energy, and which unlocks the secrets that Ishmael only comes to perceive.  (Grim Ahab was particularly effected after “he found himself hard by the very latitude and longitude where his tormenting wound had been inflicted” in Chapter CXXX.)  This absent center, which will be matched at the end of the book by the drowning of the ship Pequod, and of Ahab’s death, remains a mystery to us, but was the site of the creation of Ahab’s crazed drive, which the expansive narrative of the novel weaves itself around.

Such maps are the imaginary fields in which Ahab isolated himself and maddeningly withdrew from his crew.  They created the very space and field “with which Ahab threw his brooding soul into this unfaltering hunt” from which he would not permit himself to rest, giving a semblance of meaning to the pursuit of “the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale” in a crazed act of willfulness that perpetuates itself with unhinged obsessiveness.  Having charted the waters, he grew obsessed with his hope track the great whale in its course, as if the charts allowed him to materialize the elusive whale itself.  This cartographical fantasy of omniscient knowledge may lie at the root of Ahab’s madness, Melville suggests, if it is not analogous to it:  “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”  Starbuck later finds Ahab, in his cabin, as the Pequod approached Japan, “with a general chart of the oriental archipelagoes spread before him; and another separate one representing the long eastern coasts of the Japanese islands–Niphon, Mastmai, and Sikoke,” studying them obsessively “with his snow-white new ivory leg braced against the screwed leg of his table, . . . wrinkling his brown, and tracing his old courses again” (Chapter CIX).  This is the very moment when he obsessively refuses to turn back from his chase of the whale, even on hearing dangerous indications of a leakage among the oil in the ship’s hold, and the first mate counsels returning to Nantucket–who is not say that he is not possessed of the fantasy of a map?

Maury Title Page Cartouche

That demonic searching of Moby Dick seems partly born of the map.  The polymath Maury, like Melville, was a southerner who had circumnavigated the globe, and in his work as an astronomer, educator, geologist, cartographer, author, and astronomer was in odd ways far more a public citizen than Melville in the mid-nineteenth century.  Maury’s career (and perhaps ambitions) came to an odd end as he joined the Confederacy to serve his native Virginia in the Civil War, as Chief of Sea Coast, River, and Harbor Defense–and ended up traveling Europe in search of naval materials for the Southern states, and hoping that European intervention could resolve the Civil War’s devastation. This odd projected voyage to secure international help for the Confederate fleet was in its own way Ahab-like in its obsession and pursuit:   Virginia benefitted little from secession, although his introduction of naval mines wrecked detestation for the Union and commercial shipping routes, and Maury, after waging unsuccessful campaigns in the newspapers and public speeches, retired after the war to Lexington, Virginia, a steadfast friend of Robert E Lee and professor at the Virginia Military Institute.  He served both as Lee’s pall-bearer and he set for himself a future burial plot in Lexington directly across from that of his former comrade in arms Stonewall Jackson.

The marine maps that offered such comprehensive coverage of oceanic expanse provided little road map to his own career, and he remained based in Lexington until his death, sort of–though Melville could not have predicted–Ahab consulting maps in his cabin in the Pequod.  Maury had dedicated himself to writing a monumental physical geography of his native Virginia in the hopes to revive a local economy war had so devastated by means of a map for regional geological prospecting.


Herman Melville had of course detailed with grimmer precision how Ahab descended into madness in the hopes of chasing and finding the white whale that he had long pursued.  In a particularly desperate moment, Ahab seems to throw a final gauntlet at  the very project of mapping the locations of whales that Maury had optimistically sketched in the proposal that Melville well knew:  just after Ahab “calculated at what latitude he might be at this precise instant,” he fell into a “reverie” he looked up to the sun and in what might be better described as a moment of rage was murmuring to himself, just before the chase for Moby Dick–addressing the sun in the sky as he held the quadrant in hand. “Thou tellest me truly where I am–but canst thou cast the least hint where I shall be?  Or canst thou tell me where some other thing besides me is this moment living?  Where is Moby Dick?  This instant thou must be eyeing him.”

It is not a coincidence that for his first mate Starbuck, Ahab’s madness is revealed from the haughty tone of his dismissal of nautical instruments.   The distrust of all instrumentation is evidence of “his fatal pride”:  “gazing at his quadrant,” Melville wrote, “and handling, one after the other, its numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered:  “Foolish toy!  babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of they cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee:  no! not one jot more!  Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with they impotence thou insultest the sun!  Science!  . . . Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven . . . .  Curse thee, thou quadrant!’ dashing it to the deck, “no longer will I guide my earthly ways by thee; the level ship’s compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me and show me my place on the sea.'”  Melville later described how “For a space the old man walked the deck in rolling reveries,” and when “he saw the crushed copper sight-tubes of the quadrant he had only the day before dashed to the deck” would crow that ‘Ahab is lord over the level loadstone yet.’ (CXVIII)     Starbuck worried:  “‘Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant?  and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not, his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?'” (CXXIII) Maury’s own chart mapped the courses of whales similarly derived from logs and sightings, and provided something of a model for Ahab’s own obsessions of predicting the White Whale’s course.  Maury’s own particular obsessiveness with charting the paths of whales was something of the mad genius of the south–from where Melville of course saw himself as hailing–and a model of militaristic advocacy of secession so unlike Melville’s own path.


Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data

4 responses to “Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

  1. Pingback: In the Solitude of His Cabin « Musings on Maps

  2. Gary Pett

    Terrific article. Have you shared it with The Melville Society? Of particular interest to Moby-Dick fans.

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