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In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906

Author(s):Davis, Lance E.
Gallman, Robert E.
, Karen Gleiter
Reviewer(s):Paterson, Donald G.

Published by EH.NET (August 1999)

Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman

and Karen Gleiter, In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions,

Productivity and Profits in American Whaling, 1816 – 1906. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press,, 1997. Xii +

550 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-226-13789-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald G. Paterson, Department of Economics,

University of British Columbia.

It is said of Herman Melville that he toned down the detail of Moby Dick

because his Victorian readership would have found it too disturbing and highly

fantastical. Davis, Gallman and Gleiter provide the story that Melville left

out. A history of American, mostly New England, whaling in the nineteenth

century, this book deals with the technology and institutions of this ephemeral

industry. It examines the course of productivity that saved the industry

numerous times as the prices of whale products fell and the business forces

that led men to hunt the whale fish.

This is a book written with style and an exemplary economy of argument. The

authors are content to

tell the story with an abundance of evidence and the economics just necessary

to the main theme. There are many instances in the book where, one suspects, in

the hands of less seasoned veterans the reader might have to wade through the

best of modern theory and interpret elaborate and novel econometric tests. For

instance, there is no explicit use of modern fishery models and search theory.

However, it will be clear to any reader who is familiar with formal fishery

modeling that the authors rest their work on that foundation. The complex

economics of natural resource depletion are fully understood by the authors,

which of course is no surprise, and their economic narrative reflects this

fact. The result is an elegant and easy-to-read history that is highly


The book traces the growth of the US whaling industry from its expansion into

the Pacific to its decline in the last years of the nineteenth century. In the

early years the Americans were in competition with the British whalers but

curiously the main discussion of this is left to late in the book (Chapter

12). Some, if not all, of this material belongs earlier in the text. Throughout

the authors assemble a vast array of quantitative information. Readers who are

familiar with the Starbuck data published in the 1870s will be pleased to see

how this information has been supplemented by extending the data beyond the

1870s, by providing more information on each vessel-voyage, and by the

inclusion of the records of other ports. (Starbuck recorded the customs

information for New Bedford and adjacent ports by voyage). With this most

impressive data collection the authors examine, each in a separate chapter: the

natural resource base;

labor; capital; the technology of the hunt; productivity, profits and the

roles of the entrepreneurs and middlemen. I found several of the sub-themes in

various chapters particularly interesting. One is the change in the size and

rigs of ships as the whalers sought to find the most efficient combination of

capital/lab or consistent with a particular type of whaling voyage. Another is

the system of payments to labor in the industry that from the earliest of times

was payment by share. On this subject there is a very nice discussion of the

allocation of risk. Readers will find many other well-contained topics.

Although whaling was never an industry central to overall US growth it did have

great importance in the regional economy of New England. Its rise was

coincident with the decline in New England farm productivity. However, the

wide appeal of this book will come from its completeness in following a

renewable natural resource industry through its rise and decline. Economic

historians, business historians and American historians in general will find

the book of interest. Students of American literature with aspirations to

enter the Melville industry must read this book to be current. In Pursuit of

Leviathan would also be an excellent supplement in both undergraduate and

graduate courses in natural resource economics.

Donald G. Paterson is Professor of Economics at the University of British

Columbia. He is the author (with W.L. Marr) of Canada: An Economic

History (Macmillan, 1980) and has published on the history of the North

Pacific fur seal fishery.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century