Pip illustration by Rockwell Kent.
The phrase “luckless child,” used by Captain Ahab to describe Pip, the young African American cabin boy of Moby-Dick, could be applied to the majority of African American children back in the 1840s, given their inferior status to every other group in America at that time. This inferiority expressed itself in many ways—they were, as children (whether freeborn or enslaved), inferior to adults, and as black children, inferior to white children. That slave children were property, and thus unable to feel a sense of safety and security in their parents’ care, would have burdened them additionally. Although laws prohibiting the sale of very young slave children existed, this did not apply to orphaned children. These laws, designed primarily to protect children under the age of ten, would scarcely have protected a child such as the fictional Pip since, as children got older, the possibility of separation increased.
According to Marie Jenkins Schwartz (author of Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South—available at Plainfield Library), approximately ten percent of adolescent slaves from the upper South were separated from their parents and sold between the years 1820 and 1860.This statistic, however, must be considered a fraction of the actual percentage of lost families. Separation of children from their parents was not confined to the south, however, nor was it confined to slave children, i.e., children born into slavery. Slave children were only marginally worse off than freeborn black children, whose lives also contained the threat of separation, usually in the form of kidnapping.
For the purposes of this discussion, kidnapping will be defined as it is in Carol Wilson’s Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865, i.e., as the abduction of free blacks, whether manumitted or freeborn, into slavery. I would like to bear in mind, however, the definition posited by abolitionists, who contended that any enslaved black was “kidnapped” from a natural state of freedom into the unnatural state of servitude. Untold numbers of blacks were kidnapped into slavery and, although laws against kidnapping existed, and abolitionists sought redress through the courts, state, as well as federal, authorities often turned a blind eye to those who flouted the law.
As mentioned above, children had no legal rights, and were thus, dependent on adults to guard their freedom. The general economic condition of the vast majority of free blacks, however, was quite poor, and their children’s security was under constant threat. They were, in effect, luckless children, not unlike Pip, the cabin boy.
The sense of abandonment that Captain Ahab ascribes to Pip toward the end of Moby-Dick, would not, then, have been considered unusual or odd, given the condition of most African American children in antebellum America. One might examine Pip’s particular “lucklessness” from several perspectives. It could derive from his status as a black child in antebellum America, or his status on board the Pequod, as well as from his lack of family ties, and the nurturing that a child might be expected to receive. In Chapter 93, Ishmael notes that he is “…the little negro Pippin by nick-name, Pip by abbreviation.” Here we discover that the lowly Pip’s true nickname, “Pippin,” has been condensed yet again to “Pip,” a foreshortening that further illustrates his lack of status and importance.
His correct genealogy is confusing as well, since it appears that Melville has given two locations for his birth. There are several implications for each of these places, in terms of what Melville’s intentions might have been.
Pip first appears at the end of Chapter 27, titled “Knights and Squires,” and fittingly so. After describing in detail the mates and harpooneers who make up the multiracial crew of the whaling ship, narrator Ishmael ends the chapter with a final meditation on these “Isolatoes,” as he calls them, all “…accompanying old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world’s grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever came back. Black Little Pip—he never did! Poor Alabama boy!”
In this first reference to Pip as an “Alabama boy,” Ishmael’s exclamation suggests that he might be a fugitive from the slave-holding state of Alabama. His status as a slave is further compounded by his status as a child. Ishmael’s comments continue, foreshadowing the larger role that Pip will play:
On the grim Pequod's forecastle, ye shall ere long see him, beating his tambourine; prelusive of the eternal time, when sent for, to the great quarter-deck on high, he was bid strike in with angels, and beat his tambourine in glory; called a coward here, hailed a hero there!
Ishmael notes that Pip beats his tambourine like an angel—an image that Melville might have seen (blacks playing tambourines and singing spirituals), an image that continues to be reflected in African American iconography to this day. The “great quarter-deck on high” is a direct reference to a celestial/heavenly future. “Called a coward here, hailed a hero there!” evokes the Christian admonition toward pacifism over confrontation.
Pip is thus made a part of the future of Melville’s America—intertwined with the possibly tragic future of a nation headed on a dangerous path. Ishmael’s lament gives the reader a first glimpse of Pip, who is consigned to the fateful voyage am ong the other “isolatoes,” and yet is doomed not to return.
Pip is not what he seems at first—he is not an Alabama slave child, he is no runaway, and he has no identifiable family ties—what, then, brought him to the Pequod? Whaling ships sailed for months, even years, before returning to their homeports. Had Pip been on board the Pequod previous to this journey? Had he been picked up along the way? Where was he from? Was he a runaway? I’ll take this up in the next post.