LONDON – “It is the principal object of this work to describe, probably, the largest inhabitant of the globe, known commonly under the name of the spermaceti whale.”

So begins the second edition of Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, published in 1839, a superb copy of which will be offered as lot 93 in the sale of Franklin Brooke-Hitching’s astonishing library of travel books, the first part of which is on 27 March, at Sotheby’s London.

A sketch of a south sea whaling voyage, London: John Van Voorst, 1839. To be sold alongside Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, Second edition.

This is not, perhaps, a book with which many people are familiar, yet it has the distinction of being a crucial source for one of the greatest ever novels written in English. For it is this edition of this book from which Herman Melville culled most of the technical information on the whale for his masterpiece Moby Dick, written in 1851. Anyone who has read the novel will recall that great swathes of it are given over to the natural history of the whale. In particular, chapter 32, “Cetology,” contains the narrator Ishmael’s exposition on “the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow.” Pointing his readers to literature on the subject, he is in no doubt which works should be consulted:

“There are only two books in being which at all pretend to put the living sperm whale before you, and at the same time, in the remotest degree succeed in the attempt. Those books are Beale's and Bennett's; both in their time surgeons to the English South-Sea whale-ships, and both exact and reliable men.”

Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, Second edition. Estimate £400–600.

We know that Melville felt the same as his narrator, for his copy of Beale’s work still exists, (safely ensconced at the Houghton Library at Harvard University). Even better, it contains many marginal annotations in his hand. And better still, it’s available to all to consult in full, at the wonderful website Melville’s Marginalia Online.


Exploration & Discovery 1576-1939: The Library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching Part I, A-C will be sold at Sotheby's London on 27 March.