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James Fenimore Cooper - THE SEA LIONS, or THE LOST SEALERS

1 rating: 4.0
Sea Adventure Tale of Life and Death in the frozen Antarctic
1 review about James Fenimore Cooper - THE SEA LIONS, or...

1819: when a man's "success in taking the whale" made young women's hearts beat faster

  • Nov 18, 2010

James Fenimore Cooper (1789 - 1851) wrote two sea adventure novels (a genre he had invented in 1824 with THE PILOT starring real naval hero John Paul Jones) about young lovers separated by religious beliefs. The first was THE WING AND WING (1842) set in the warring waters around 1799 Italy. The second was THE SEA LIONS, or THE LOST SEALERS (1849), played out 1819 - 1821 between Long Island and the Antarctic.   ***   


"The Sea Lions" are, curiously, the names of two small virtually identical schooners made within weeks of each other at the eastern end of Long Island in 1819. One Sea Lion shadows the other down to the Antarctic Circle to share in harvesting a vast supply of tame seals and walruses on a virtually unknown island far south of the tip of South America. The rival vessels, though too small to be conventional whalers, do manage en route to the Antarctic, to find a large herd and to fill many a barrel with oil of the sperm whale.  ***   


At one time author Cooper, himself a former US Naval Officer, owned profitably a whaling vessel based on Long Island. in THE SEA LIONS Cooper recreates the atmospherics around Sag Harbor and other whaling communities of Suffolk County, Long Island just before the great international boom decades in demand for whale oil. Champion whalers' fame was then entirely local. But "it was just as natural that the single-minded population of that part of Suffolk should regard the bold and skilful harpooner or lancer with favor, as it is for the belle at a watering-place to bestow her favors on one of the young heroes of Contreras or Cherubusco" (battles of the 1846 -1848 US war with Mexico) (Ch. 1).    ***   


On Oyster Pond Point lived affluent lived childless widower Deacon Ichabod Pratt and his orphaned 19-year old niece and ward Mary. Also based there: impoverished scion of an ancient local founding clan, 26 year old mariner, Roswell Gardiner. All three adhered to a rigid Puritan sect imported from neighboring New England. The Deacon was a practiced Pharisee in religion, with the besetting sin of covetousness or greed for money. He even kept a daily account of how much he had expended over the past ten years on Mary, $1,000! Mary was pious, kindhearted and charitable where her uncle was stingy. She loved, but had rejected twenty marriage proposals from, Roswell Gardiner, recently made Captain of her uncle's new vessel, The Sea Lion. There is only one point of religious difference between the young lovers: was Jesus God or not? Captain Gardiner, (pronounced Gar'ner) proud lover of reason and philosophy,  would not worship a God he could not understand. Jesus was selected by God to atone for the sins of Adam and mankind. But he did not have to be divine to do that. Therefore he was not divine, reasoned honest Roswell.   ***   


Given the conventions of novel writing of the 1840s, the odds are prima facie great that Mary and Roswell will eventually wed -- we can assume this from the beginning -- but not before they are both of the same mind regarding the dogma of the Incarnation. Quite the religious plot propeller!  Be it mentioned, however, in passing: Cooper had surprisingly resolved the religious differences in his earlier THE WING AND WING by killing off the light-hearted atheist and having his pious Catholic lover then enter a convent. ***   


The Deacon has come to possess two old charts in whose truth he passionately believes: the location of a hidden Antarctic island full of sea lions and sea elephants and a West Indies cove with buried pirate treasure. He buys a ship and sends Captain Gardiner to find both and make the greedy Deacon even wealthier than he already is. But another sea captain, Jason Daggett of Martha's Vineyard, also knows about the charts and is determined to grow rich from seals and pirate treasure. Lacking the latitudes and longitudes known to the Deacon, Daggett decides to build his own ship and shadow Captain Gardiner into both the Antarctic and the West Indies and make him share his finds. Eventually, Gardiner determines to shake off Daggett, but does not entirely succeed. Wily Daggett behaves well when the two captains and crews dispute the capture of a mighty sperm whale and this disposes Gardiner imprudently (from the point of view of profits for Deacon Pratt) to trust the Martha's Islander. This kindly mistake leads Gardiner to stay too long on the sealing grounds in order generously to help late arriving Daggett fill his hold with hides. Result: both ships and crews spend a winter trapped in the ice. The scenes of suffering through winds, snow, ice and hunger and general coping with fate are unforgettable. I will not spoil the novel's ending for you by saying more.   ***   


This is a far better than average novel. I would rate it 4.4 stars, rounding down to 4.0. It is not only a sea and ice adventure. The novel is also religious, in the spirit of  Thornton Wilder's THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY or Graham Greene's THE END OF THE AFFAIR. The great overriding theme is God's Providence, its role in human history and especially in the buffeted lives of our hero Captain Gardiner and his wily opponent Captain Daggett, as well as in the lives of heroine Mary Pratt and her miserly, covetous uncle the deacon. I hope that you will enjoy this one.   -OOO-


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James Fenimore Cooper - THE SEA LIONS, or THE LOST SEALERS
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