The Last Whalers

Little, Brown & Company, 2019.
$15.99, 368 pages.

Consider the experience of sitting in a darkened theater to watch a show, where the artistry on stage cooks up a bit of sorcery for all to witness and enjoy. It’s a way to peek in on unfamiliar worlds, and yet share the human condition. Such is the tale spun by Doug Bock Clark, who has so captured an indigenous tribe of subsistence waterfolk in a narrative nonfiction account of life in Lamalera.

Lamalera is an isolated community of fifteen hundred living in the shadow of a volcano on a remote island in Indonesia on the edge of the Savu Sea. In The Last Whalers, Clark draws back the curtain to reveal a cast of characters living in a barter economy where dried whale meat is the de facto currency, to be traded with other villages for vegetables and sacks of corn. Lamalerans believe the spirits of their Ancestors accord them the living they derive from the sea. Fail to respect the Ancestors, and the whale hunt will not be successful.

Clark shifts the scene from the village, where their lives are wound together like strands of the leo, the spiritual harpoon rope, to the pitching decks of whale boats, or téna, that chase sperm whales as they migrate past the island. The livelihood they have pursued for hundreds of years is dangerous work:

As Ignatius embedded a harpoon in the whale, he glimpsed through the froth of battle a grotesque beast: its head and belly were streaked with white, as if it were partially albino, and its lower jaw had been snapped in half during some ancient battle. In response to this new harpoon, the whale began lobtailing—inverting itself so that its tail stood out of the water and its nose pointed at the seafloor, and then sledgehammering its flukes into the waves. Ignatius ordered a retreat, spooling out rope. 

Enter technology: even the introduction of the outboard motor, an invention more than 110 years old, causes the fabric of Lamaleran society to fray. Because motors may displease Ancestors, they must not be used for the sacred whale hunt. But the elders allow them to be used on smaller boats (called jonsons) for other kinds of fishing, such as when using gill nets recently brought to the village. These powered craft are also used to tow the téna to the whales, though not during the hunt itself, a decision that later begins to affect their rights as indigenous peoples practicing traditional subsistence whaling. Other technologies have been accepted over the years — though the elders are often slow to allow them for fear of angering the Ancestors. Such innovations include using forged-iron harpoon heads (replacing the brazilwood points of their tradition) and allowing crews to carry cell phones.

Clark weaves in a complex and multigenerational cast of villagers. Elders sit in council to judge the wishes of the Ancestors, while widows and the infirm benefit from the society’s traditional sharing of the catch. The chief harpooners or lamafas are the heroes here, leaping from the bow platform or hâmâlollo of each téna to spear the whales.

Most essentially, Clark presents stories of the village’s young people against the backdrop of the wider world, necessary since they have become connected to it via mobile phones. They have hopes for how their lives will turn out, just as any young person does, and strive to succeed in Lamalera. But that society sometimes doles out harsh treatment as it competes for the hearts and minds of its youth. Ironically, Lamalera’s patriarchal society takes advantage of modernity too, turning its young women loose to work as maids in the developed world, and to send wages home to finance the education of their brothers. Yet young men often follow young women. Clark describes the reaction of Ben, a young Lamaleran, to Lewoleba, a developed town on the other side of the island.

The first week in the city, he had been intimidated by the unfamiliar faces—there were none back in his village—and the bustle, but before long he decided he never wanted to return home. Plumbing meant he did not have to walk a kilometer to the well to fetch jerricans of water. And twenty-four-hour electricity allowed him to watch European soccer games late into the night. In Lewoleba, no one boiled rice over a wood fire. An acquisitiveness that he had not experienced in Lamalera, where most possessions were shared, kindled in him: he yearned for his own TV, sound system, and motorbike.

Only by repudiating the interdependency can those who leave function in the modern world, just as those who have left have a hard time when they try to return. Village life has no analog in the outside world and is an inner source of strength for every member.

It’s easy to imagine the firmament above the village, a splash of stars stretching from the peak of the volcano to the horizon, same as it ever was. Yet now it competes with a new constellation, made up of mobile device screens in each house, and drawing eyes away from the guidance of the Ancestors.



















Jason Y. Wood is a writer and angler who lives with his wife and daughter on the Connecticut coast, where he revels in the change of seasons and savors the stretches in between.


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