In this chapter, Ishmael proceeds as though in a court of law, to make clear to the reader that the story of Moby Dick is grounded in truth and isn’t an utter fabrication. Ishmael avers that whales have been known to be wounded and then to wriggle out of their harpoons and attack whaling vessels; some whales, like Moby Dick, also become “famous” because they are easily recognizable from boats (because of notable features, like a hump), and because they are able to escape numerous whale-hunting attempts.
It is perhaps Ishmael’s anxiety over the unbelievably or implausibility of certain parts of the novel, which causes him to insert this chapter, arguing that it is, in fact, possible to track a whale around the world, and to recognize that whale from afar. But, of course, Ishmael is a fictional character, and the whales he references in the ensuing parts of the chapter are fictional “famous” whales.
Ishmael goes on to list some other famous whales, including “New Zealand Tom” and “Don Miguel,” who have also been hunted after numerous attempts and successfully killed—in the same manner Ahab hopes to kill Moby Dick. Ishmael says that “landsmen,” or people who are not sailors, do not understand just how dangerous whaling can be, and just how many people are killed each year in whale-hunting accidents, as accurate figures for these deaths are not kept by any central authority.
The whaling industry in the 1800s was notoriously under-regulated, like many aspects of American society at that time, and so it is unsurprising that no statistics regarding whaler deaths were kept. Whaling companies and captains might also have feared that, if the true dangers of whaling were known, young men from the interior of the country would not want to try their hand at the trade, and the ships would be short-staffed.
And Ishmael continues, saying that some whales, when they are large enough, can even capsize not just whaling-boats but large vessels like the Pequod itself. Ishmael lists several instances in the 19th century wherein whales have done just this, and he references the journal of a man named Langsdorff, whose boat was nearly capsized after repeated rammings by an enraged sperm whale. Ishmael ends this rather informative and non-narrative chapter by adding that, in the time of the eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople, when Justinian was in command, a “leviathan” was found in the Propontis region (a nearby body of water) that was so large it could only have been the skeleton of a sperm whale. Ishmael uses this evidence as further proof that sperm whales have been “terrorizing” mankind for many centuries, across the globe.
One of Ishmael’s tics, in the novel, is to directly foreshadow, with “scientific” evidence, the events that will appear later in the novel. Here, Ishmael wants the reader to be sure that a whale could, in fact, sink a boat simply by ramming into it; Ishmael will repeat this assertion later, and, finally, the Pequod itself will be sunk by a collision with Moby Dick. On one side, these comments seem to be attempts to attest to the realism of the novel. On the other, they continue to pile on the feeling that the events of the novel are fated, even as that fatedness may in fact be the subject of Ishmael telling his story through the lens of what he knows happened.