Critical Intel

Critical Intel
As Usual, PETA is Wrong About Whaling

Robert Rath | 14 Mar 2013 12:00
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Normally I wouldn't engage PETA in any form of debate. While I don't doubt its commitment to the cause of animal welfare, most of its statements of late seem aimed at gaining attention rather than moving forward their agenda. That being said, when the organization released a statement condemning the whaling mechanics in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag as an attempt to "glorify" the whaling industry, I found myself wondering how even PETA could be so shortsighted.

Make no mistake: Whaling is and was an odious business that involved the torture of intelligent animals, but the history of whaling is also pregnant with historic value and has a great deal to teach us about environmental conservation. Ignoring the very real lessons of whaling simply because we're afraid to depict it is a mistake, especially when a game like Dishonored already proved developers can reframe the subject for a modern audience.

First of all, I understand PETA's concern. I grew up watching whales in Hawaii and have myself worked in ocean environmental advocacy. Thinking about the cruelties of the whaling trade - both to animals and humans - makes me sick to my stomach. But regardless of my distaste for the practice, whaling played an important role in world history. Before kerosene and vegetable oils began to replace it in the 1850s, whale oil was one of the substances that drove the Industrial Revolution. Whale products served so many uses that it seems farcical. A young lady in the 19th century might prepare for an evening out by washing with whale oil soap and highlighting her face with cosmetics made from spermaceti - a waxy oil ladled out of the heads of sperm whales. Afterward, she'd cinch herself into a corset and a hoop skirt supported by strips of baleen, the keratin filter feeding plates whales use to catch krill. Running late, she'd alight into a buggy varnished by whale oil as the footman clicked his tongue and goaded the team with a baleen horsewhip. Her annoyed date might glance at a pocket watch lubricated by blackfish unguents. They'd then attend a party lit by whale oil lamps and clean, odorless spermaceti candles, which burned so bright that in 1860 the British government used them as the base value for candlepower. Ambergris perfume, made from a digestive secretion of sperm whales, would cover the smell of dancing bodies crushed into a small ballroom - it would also be in the wine. The next morning the guests might take concoctions of it to ease their hangovers. But whale products weren't just necessary for high society life, the rendered fat of oceanic giants kept the spinning jennys of 18th and 19th century textile mills running at peak capacity and fueled the oil streetlights in cities across the globe. Both the public and private enterprise snapped up whale-based products with immense demand.

Global thirst for whale oil was part of what established the United States as an economic power and developed the northern states as an Atlantic trade hub. Whaling began in New England when the colonies were little more than villages huddling inside wooden palisades, but really took off when Quakers hewed to it with an almost religious zeal. At first the colonists practiced drift whaling - stripping the carcasses of dead whales that washed up on shore. Soon they decided that waiting for Providence to provide meat and oil were not enough, and towns started shore whaling, a process that involved launching longboats when lookouts spotted a whale, then killing the creature and dragging it to shore to render the fat. Whalers would quietly row up to the whale and harpoon it with a lance tied to wooden floats. The terrified whale would take off, dragging the floats along with the attached longboat on a "Nantucket sleigh ride," skimming the mariners across the water at the speed of a modern powerboat. Eventually, when the whale rolled in the waves, listless and exhausted, the whalers would carefully approach and stab it with a wide-bladed killing lance, twisting the point down into the collection of blood vessels around its blowhole. The whale would choke on its own blood, vomiting krill or chunks of squid, "surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations," as Melville described it in Moby Dick. "At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frightened air." I describe this process in detail because historically, this is the 18th century method you'll be using in Assassin's Creed IV. Unless you're air-assassinating them from the mast, of course, or it's an absurd QTE.

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