Ishmael then states that, soon after seeing the Albatross, the Pequod came near another vessel, the Town-Ho, which had just returned from a series of terrible events. Ishmael introduces a novel narrative element into the novel—he relates the story of the Town-Ho as he later told it to a group of Peruvians in Lima, after the events of the novel “Moby Dick” had taken place. Ishmael claims he is doing this in order to retain the drama of the original story, which he did an excellent job of telling among the Peruvians.
This is one of the novel’s stranger chapters, if only for its structure, which deviates from that of most of the rest of the text. Here, Ishmael implies early on not only that he survives the voyage on the Pequod, but that he thrives after the events of “Moby Dick,” traveling to Peru, making a number of estimable friends, and becoming quite a story-teller in his own right.
The Town-Ho, as Ishmael relates, was a whaling vessel that had been taking on water slowly, and a crew of dozens of men was at the pumps down in the ship’s hull, attempting to pump out the water while the Town-Ho approached a suitable harbor in which to repair the hull. One man, named Steelkilt, was in Ishmael’s telling the most noble, most handsome, and finest sailor of the Town-Ho—a “Lakeman,” or sailor from Lake Erie, who had learned the seaman’s trade on the Great Lakes. Radney, the ship’s first mate, took an instant dislike to Steelkilt, jealous as he was of the latter man’s abilities.
Steelkilt is, in some ways, a foil for Ahab himself, although Steelkilt is a mutineer who wishes to reject the orders of his own captain. For Steelkilt is governed by his terrible pride, which keeps him from giving in even when the rest of his compatriots turn against him and his cause. Steelkilt’s single-mindedness allows him to survive even after the mutiny is quashed. The difference, of course, between the two is that Steelkilt survives the encounter with Moby Dick, while Ahab, at last, does not.
Thus, one day, when Steelkilt was working the bilge pump with other sailors, Radney came to him and ordered him to sweep pig-droppings off the Town-Ho’s decks—a job typically reserved for young boys on the boat. Steelkilt, offended at this order, refused, and Radney pushed him, eventually threatening to hit him with a hammer. In order to defend himself, Steelkilt punches Radney in the face, breaking his jaw, and when Steelkilt is attacked by other sailors on the boat sympathetic to Radney, two “canallers,” or fellow men from the Lake Erie region, rush to Steelkilt’s aid and congregate in the forecastle of the ship, claiming that, if the captain shoots them, it will start a mutiny or cause the vessel to sink, since it is still taking on water.
Radney, on the other hand, is an even more flawed, and more cowardly, version of Starbuck. Radney does not wish to follow Steelkilt, and indeed seems jealous of that man’s immense abilities. Thus Radney sets himself to the destruction of his fellow-sailor. Starbuck, for his part, would not so actively thwart his fellow man—indeed, Starbuck has a chance to murder Ahab later in the novel, and does not do so. But Radney’s inward turmoil is similar to that experienced by Starbuck, as Ahab continues his quest to find the white whale.
Steelkilt and the two other canallers manage to bring several other crew members to their aid, and do commence a mutiny against the captain of the Town-Ho, asking that they be permitted to abandon the ship the minute it reaches the closest port. But the captain will have none of it, and a group of the crew that has remained neutral manages to subdue Steelkilt and his sympathizers; they are then placed in a small hold in the ship’s hull, and given only minimal rations of water and biscuit. After several days, all but Steelkilt and the two canallers have begged forgiveness and been allowed back onto the decks by the captain.
A mutiny was considered an immensely serious charge on the sea as well as on land. Captains of their vessels were in total control of the boat—indeed, they were almost like dictators. Any opposition to a captain was treated as a capital offense on land; that is, sailors could be hanged for their participation in a mutiny, or even for the contemplation or planning of a mutiny. Steelkilt recognizes the dangers of his position, but presses on regardless.
Finally, Steelkilt tells the two canallers that he is going to burst out of the hold the next morning and go on a murderous rampage on the decks, killing as many of the captain’s men as he can. The canallers tell Steelkilt that they are with him in this final act of mutiny, but that night, they bind Steelkilt with cord and turn him over to the captain, hoping the captain will forgive them, punish Steelkilt, and allow the rest of the mutineers to leave the vessel at port. But the captain lashes the canallers and Steelkilt, after having them tied up in the rigging.
An instance of treachery, on the part of the fellow mutineers from the Great Lakes region. Of course, Steelkilt has also resisted authority, but he remains true in his opposition—he does not give in to the captain’s or to Radney’s demands. The Great Lakes men, on the other hand, seem to be opportunists, intent on saving themselves, no matter the principles they must violate in order to do so.
The captain, in a moment of mercy, however, then allows the canallers and Steelkilt to work their original jobs on the vessel, in the hopes that the mutiny has been quelled peacefully. Steelkilt hatches a plan to dash the brains in of Radney, the first mate, while Steelkilt and Radney are on night watch—this, as a form of revenge against the man who instigated Steelkilt’s mutiny—but just as Steelkilt is about to put his plan in motion, a crew member raises the call that Moby Dick, the white whale, has been spotted not far off. The crew of the Town-Ho prepare to catch Moby Dick.
Moby Dick, in this instance, resembles the “deus ex machine,” or the “god from the machine” of classical drama. This “god” descends from the celling of the stage just when the drama in a play becomes the most intense, or when the hero’s situation becomes the most dire. Here, Moby Dick—already believed to be a god by so many on the high seas—relieves Steelkilt of the burden of his mutiny, and drags the captain and Radney into a fight in the deep.
Steelkilt goes out on a whale-boat with Radney, who is tossed from the small boat once Moby Dick is hooked on a line. Moby Dick then eats Radney, leaving only Radney’s torn garment floating on the waves, and Steelkilt cuts the line to the whale, worried that Moby Dick is strong enough to sink the entire whaling boat. Steelkilt and several of the other mutineers then return to the Town-Ho and leave the ship as soon as the Town-Ho has docked at a Polynesian island.
Moby Dick appears capable not just of taking off the limbs of a man, but of eating an entire man whole. It is less clear whether sperm whales were actually inclined to this in the wild, especially if not provoked. But Moby Dick is a special case, hellbent on tormenting men wherever he finds them—and even consuming them, when he feels it is necessary.
Ishmael closes out his story by stating that the captain of the Town-Ho allowed Steelkilt and the other mutineers to leave the boat, since he was powerless to stop them (they were too strong and violent). The captain then staffed the vessel with Tahitian crew-members taken from a nearby island. Steelkilt and his allies were said to have taken up on another whaling vessel headed for France, although no one is sure of his whereabouts to this day. One of the Peruvians, hearing Ishmael’s story, wonders if it can be true, and Ishmael swears that it is. Ishmael states that he heard the story from those who “gammed” with the Town-Ho, including Tashtego—he also states, somewhat mysteriously, that he has spoken with Steelkilt, somewhere, after the events of the near-mutiny occurred (that is, a time between the end of the narrative of the novel Moby Dick and the beginning of Ishmael’s time among the Peruvians. This tale and chapter end.
An incredibly strange ending to the story. What Ishmael swears, at the close, is that, after the sinking of the Pequod, and before the events in Peru that bring on this “conversation” with his fellow Peruvians, Ishmael has had occasion to run into, and talk to, Steelkilt. Where this has happened, and under what circumstances, the reader will never know.