The Pequod leaves Nantucket on a cold Christmas Day. Bildad and Peleg pilot the ship out of port. Ahab still has not appeared on deck. Ishmael finds the start of the voyage disconcerting and is meditating upon his situation when he receives a kick and a scolding from Peleg. The Pequod is soon clear of the harbor and into the open ocean, and Bildad and Peleg take a small boat back to shore as the whaling ship “plunge[s] like fate into the lone Atlantic.”
Ishmael offers a brief portrait of Bulkington, a sailor whom he first meets in New Bedford. Ishmael watches Bulkington steer the Pequod and thinks of him as a restless pioneer, fated to die at sea. Ishmael considers this kind of death infinitely preferable to fading away through cowardice, and, in an imaginary address to Bulkington, declares that the death at sea will transform Bulkington into a god.
Ishmael proceeds to stand up for the whaling profession, arguing that whaling is heroic, economically critical, and has expanded geographical knowledge. He defends the dignity of whaling by pointing to the involvement of noble families in the industry, to the fact that the Bible and other books mention whales, and to the fact that Cetus, the whale, is a constellation in the southern sky. Ishmael closes by declaring that anything worthwhile that he might accomplish can be credited to his time spent on a whaling ship, his “Yale College” and his “Harvard.”
Ishmael adds some speculation to the previous chapter’s “facts.” He reminds the reader that sperm whale oil is used in the coronation of royalty, and suggests that sperm oil has been used to anoint kings because it is the best, purest, and sweetest of oils.
In the first of the two chapters called “Knights and Squires,” we meet the first mate, Starbuck, a pragmatic, reliable Nantucketer. Starbuck believes that it is rational—and necessary—to fear whales, and his reverence for nature inclines him toward superstition. He is characterized by the other officers of the Pequod as “careful,” although this term is relative when used to describe a whaler. Speaking about Starbuck leads Ishmael to reflect upon the dignity of the working man. Ishmael finds evidence of God in even the “meanest mariners” and admits that he will frequently ignore people’s faults to emphasize their “democratic dignity.”
This chapter introduces the rest of the Pequod’s officers. The pipe-smoking second mate, Stubb, a native of Cape Cod, is always cool under pressure and possesses “impious good humor.” The third mate, Flask, a native of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, is a short, stocky fellow with a confrontational attitude and no reverence for the dignity of the whale. He is nicknamed “King-Post” because he resembles the short, square timber known by that name in Arctic whalers. Each mate commands one of the small harpoon boats that are sent out after whales, and each has a “squire,” his harpooner: Queequeg is Starbuck’s harpooner; Tashtego, “an unmixed Indian from Gay Head,” on Martha’s Vineyard, is Stubb’s harpooner; and Daggoo, “a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” from Africa with an imperial bearing, is Flask’s harpooner.