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White-Jacket 1st.jpg
First edition title page
AuthorHerman Melville
CountryUnited States, England
GenreAdventure fiction
  • 1850 (London: Richard Bentley)
  • 1850 (New York: Harper & Brothers)
Media typePrint
Preceded byRedburn 
Followed byMoby-Dick 

White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War is the fifth book by American writer Herman Melville, first published in London in 1850.[1] The book is based on the author's fourteen months' service in the United States Navy, aboard the frigate USS Neversink (actually the USS United States).


Based on Melville's experiences as a common seaman aboard the frigate USS United States from 1843 to 1844 and stories that other sailors told him, the novel is severely critical of virtually every aspect of American naval life and thus qualifies as Melville's most politically strident work.[citation needed] At the time, though, the one thing that journalists and politicians focused on in the novel was its graphic descriptions of flogging and the horrors caused by its arbitrary use; in fact, because Harper & Bros. made sure the book got into the hands of every member of Congress, White-Jacket was instrumental in abolishing flogging in the U.S. Navy forever. Melville scholars also acknowledge the huge number of parallels between White-Jacket and Billy Budd and view the former as a rich source for possible interpretations of the latter.[2]

The novel takes its title from the outer garment that the eponymous main character fashions for himself on board ship, with materials at hand, being in need of a coat sufficient for the rounding of Cape Horn. Due to a ship-wide rationing of tar, however, White-Jacket is forever denied his wish to tar the exterior of his coat and thus waterproof it. This causes him to have two near-death experiences, once when he is reclining among the canvases in the main-top and, his jacket blending in with the surrounding material, he is nearly unfurled along with the main sail; and once when, having been pitched overboard while reeving the halyards, he has to cut himself free from the coat in order not to drown. He having done so, his shipmates mistake the discarded jacket for a great white shark and harpoon it, sending it to a watery grave.

The symbolism of the color white, introduced in this novel in the form of the narrator's jacket, is more fully expanded upon in Moby-Dick, where it becomes an all-encompassing "blankness."[3] The mixture of journalism, history, and fiction; the presentation of a sequence of striking characters; the metaphor of a sailing ship as the world in miniature—all of these prefigure his next novel, Moby-Dick.


Many of the enlisted crew became figures in White-Jacket. Foremost among them is Melville's hero Jack Chase, captain of the maintop, in reality Englishman John J. Chase, age 53. Chase had fought at the Battle of Navarino and deserted the USS St. Louis to fight for Peruvian independence. The log confirms Chase returned to the frigate 29 May 1842 and was pardoned at the request of the Peruvian ambassador for his services to the government of Peru.[4] Another character is the ship purser (Edward Fitzgerald) and like many naval officers a slaveholder. In October 1841 with the written consent of the Secretary of the Navy, purser Fitzgerald entered his “servant” (slave) Robert Lucas as a landsman (in reality his personal steward) as a crew member and collected Lucas nine dollar per month wages.[5] In the novel White-Jacket, Lucas becomes “Guinea” the body servant, the only person aboard except the hospital steward and the invalids exempt from being present at muster for punishment.[6]

United States Navy, Muster of the crew of the frigate USS United States 1844 re Robert Lucas Landsman crew no. 433.
Purser Edward Fitzgerald USN to A.P. Upshur 18 Oct 1841 re permission to bring slave Robert Lucas (Guinea) aboard USS United States


This list is not exhaustive.

  • White-Jacket, the main character and narrator, so nicknamed because his coat is the only white one on board; a novice sailor (at least on a naval ship), his jacket often gets him into trouble, mostly because of its whiteness
  • Jack Chase, a sailor of British origin who is universally regarded by his fellow seamen and even by the officers as the epitome of a true and good sailor; he shows contempt for any man who has shipped out on a whaler
  • Captain Claret, a captain of usually severe tendencies, his name reflects the fact that he is also an alcoholic
  • Commodore
  • Selvagee, a foppish lieutenant whose leadership style is tyrannical
  • Mad Jack, a lieutenant whose leadership style is collegial
  • Old Coffee, the ship's cook
  • Mayday, a ship's cook deputy
  • Rosewater, a ship's cook deputy
  • Lemsford, a sailor who aspires to be a poet
  • Quoin, a sailor "indefatigable in attending to his duties, which consisted in taking care of one division of the guns"[7]
  • Nord, a sailor of surly look and melancholy disposition; when White-Jacket first encounters him, the only friend Nord has on board is Lemsford
  • Williams
  • Wooloo, the commodore's Polynesian servant
  • Old Revolver
  • Old Combustibles
  • Chaplain
  • Cuticle, the ship's Surgeon
  • Shakings
  • Bland, the ship's master-at-arms
  • Tawney, a sheet-anchor man, a "staid and sober seamen, very intelligent," whom White-Jacket sometimes invites to join the crew in the main top and tell stories. Tawney is the only black character in the novel to be treated equitably in relation to the other characters.[8]
  • Guinea, a slave owned by the ship's purser
  • Ushant, a much admired sexagenarian and crew member of the fore top who, along with many other sailors, cultivates a long flowing beard or "homebounder." When Captain Claret commands all facial hair be shorn to meet Navy regulations, a small rebellion ensues but ultimately Ushant is the sole remaining dissenter. He is flogged, put in chains, and held in the brig for weeks, but arrives in Norfolk harbor with his beard intact and a hero among his peers. White-Jacket takes a hair from Ushant's beard as a memento.
  • Emperor Don Pedro II

Publication history[edit]

White-Jacket was published in London by Richard Bentley on February 1, 1850, and in New York by Harper & Brothers on March 21, 1850.[9] Melville referred to it and his previous book Redburn as "two jobs which I have done for money—being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood."[10]

Legal impact[edit]

At the urging of New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale, whose daughter, Lucy, would later become the fiancée of John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of President Abraham Lincoln,[11] the United States Congress banned flogging on all U.S. ships in September 1850.[12] He was inspired by Melville's "vivid description of flogging, a brutal staple of 19th century naval discipline" in his "novelized memoir" White-Jacket.[12]

The man whom Melville based the fictional commodore on, Thomas ap Catesby Jones, a former commander of the USS United States (1797), was brought up on a court-martial in 1850 and found guilty on three counts mostly related to "oppression" of junior officers. Jones was relieved of command for two and a half years. In 1853, President Millard Fillmore reinstated him, and in 1858 the United States Congress restored his pay.[13]

Log of the USS United States August 18 1843 record of entry of author Herman Melville O. S. as crew

During Melville's time aboard 1843–1844 the USS United States, the ship log records 163 floggings, including some on his first and second days (18 and 19 August 1843) aboard the frigate at Honolulu, Oahu. The official log entry for 18 August 1843 simply states, “Commenced with moderate breezes from the Nd & Ed. and clear. Shipped Herman Melville. “O.S.” and Griffith Williams “O.S.” ... at 9 a m . mustered the crew at Quarters, Punished Jno Hall, “O.S” with 12 lashes with cats for striking sentry on Post. Geo Clark “OS” with 12 of cats for smuggling liquor, Bos. C. B. Stanly “App” with 12 lashes with Kittens for fighting and Wm B Ewing “App” with 6. for using provoking language. Suspended the Boatswain from duty for disrespectful - conduct to the Officer of the Deck,- by replying when ordered by same through – Midn [Midshipman] Key, to call all hands stand by their washed clothes “ that he would ‘receive no more orders in this Ship”, or words to that effect.” The following day 19 August 1843 the log records yet another muster for punishment. "From 8 to meridian, moderate breezes from the Nd & Ed and clear, at 9. hoisted in the 3d Cutter, and got the lower booms alongside. Punished Geo Davis, Wm Stewart and Antonio Guavella “Bandsmen” with 12 lashes each for drunkenness." In “A Flogging”, (chapter 33) Melville, changed this brutal scene from 19 August 1843 in Honolulu Oahu to sometime later when the frigate was at sea. He also changed the names of the crewmen punished to John, Peter, Mark, and Antone and the charge from drunkenness to fighting. “Antone, the Portuguese” is clearly based on his recollection of Antonio Guavella." [14] [15]

USS United States 1843 - 1844 muster roll Herman Melville Ordinary Seaman is recorded as number 572


  1. ^ Hayford, Harrison, "Chronology," which is included at the back of all three volumes of the Library of America edition of Melville's writings.
  2. ^ Hayford, Harrison and Sealts, Jr., Merton, eds. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), "Editors' Introduction", p. 31. ISBN 0-226-32132-0.
  3. ^ Melville, Herman and Bryant, ed. Tales, Poems, and Other Writings, p. xxv. ISBN 0-679-64105-X.
  4. ^ John G.M. Sharp The Ship Log of the frigate USS United States 1843- 1844 and Herman Melville Ordinary Seaman 2019, pp3-4 accessed 12 May 2019 http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/portsmouth/shipyard/usunitedstates-hmelville
  5. ^ Edward Fitzgerald to A.P. Upshur 18 October 1841 Department of the Navy, Officers Letters, RG 45 NARA
  6. ^ Sharp, p. 4
  7. ^ White-Jacket, Quality Paperback Book Club edition (reprint), p. 51. 1996. No ISBN found.
  8. ^ Northwestern University, Newberry Library edition of the Collected Writings of Herman Mellville, vol. 5, Chapter 74, pp 311-17.
  9. ^ Thorp, Willard (1970). "Historical Notes". In Harrison Hayford; Hershel Parker; G. Thomas Tanselle (eds.). White-Jacket. Evanston and Chicago: The Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library. pp. 407–08. ISBN 978-0810102583.
  10. ^ Delbanco, Andrew: Melville, His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, p. 111. ISBN 0-375-40314-0
  11. ^ O'Reilly, William. Killing Lincoln, New York: Holt, 2011, pp. 28-30.
  12. ^ a b George Hodak, "Congress Bans Maritime Flogging," ABA Journal September 1850, p. 72. Found at ABA Journal website. Accessed October 18, 2010.
  13. ^ Gene A. Smith (2000). Thomas ap Catesby Jones, Commodore of Manifest Destiny. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-848-8.
  14. ^ John G.M. Sharp The Ship Log of the frigate USS United States 1843 1844 and Herman Melville Ordinary Seaman 2019, pp. 16-17n50 accessed 12 May 2019 http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/portsmouth/shipyard/usunitedstates-hmelville
  15. ^ USS_United_States_1843_-_1844_muster_roll_Herman_Melville_Ordinary_Seaman_is_recorded_as_number_572.jpg

External links[edit]