A toy, a source of light and a cup of coffee; three objects linked by etymology and symbolic of our globalized world. Let’s start with the word itself, which belongs to my favorite category of words: those which are created because they sound ‘right’.
Moby Dick was a giant sperm whale. In real life, there was such a whale, a killer of ships, notorious in the waters around the island of Mocha, off the coast of Chile. He may have sunk as many as twenty sailing ships in the early nineteenth century, but attacked only when provoked. Whaling ships do have a tendency to provoke whales. This whale became known to seamen as Mocha Dick [Melville also refers to other notorious whales called Tom and Jack with placenames, but omits Harry], but Melville modified the name to Moby simply, as far as we can guess, for euphony. Why were the ships there, risking lives for whales, in the first place? Because whale oil was far superior to animal fat as a fuel and burnt without smoke, and the dawning industrial age demanded light for streetlamps, factories, light-houses. Sperm whale oil was the petroleum of its time; then kerosene was discovered in 1849 and the global trade withered.
So the word ‘Mocha’ became ‘Moby’. There was another Mocha, another Moby. The other Mocha was, still is, a port in the Yemen from which the best arabica coffee was exported. The coffee trade began in the late 15th century, when beans grown in Ethiopia were first exported overland to Yemen then shipped to Europe and, later, the Americas. Columbus, da Gama and then Magellan had opened up the world at this time, providing the trade routes that let the coffee flow. The world, previously compartmentalized into mutually-ignorant regions, became commercially globalized for the first time.
Fast forward to the end of the 20th century and container ships. The ship Evergreen Laurel, bound from Hong Kong to Tacoma, hit monstrous waves and lost twenty-eight forty-foot containers in mid-Pacific. One of the containers held 28 thousand little rubber ducks, and when the container burst open the cheerful chicks floated away, borne by currents and winds. Moby Duck is a book tracing their subsequent adventures, and their use as an investigative tool by oceanographers and environmentalists. The oceans of the world are full of garbage, much of it indestructible; a sad side-effect of today’s globalization. Coffee and whale oil bio-degrade, polyethylene does not.
So there’s the linkage, make of it what you will.
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