‘The Last Whalers’ Illuminates a Dying Way of Life
Doug Bock Clark’s deeply reported book immerses readers in a society that still relies on whale hunts for sustenance, while adapting to the creeping influences of modernity
In a tiny village on the flanks of a jungle-blanketed volcano on a remote island in far-eastern Indonesia, a call goes out. A sperm whale has been sighted. Hundreds of men race to the beach, find their clansmen, and paddle out into the Savu Sea in small, hand-hewn wooden boats. On a raised platform attached to the bow stands a lone figure scanning the horizon: the lamafa (harpooner). Once the motorless boat is maneuvered to within striking distance of the whale, the lamafa launches himself from the platform, driving the harpoon in with his body weight before swimming back to the boat, which is now tethered to the leviathan. As it runs and dives and resurfaces, the whale is pricked with harpoon after harpoon in a highly choreographed sequence, and the Lilliputian fleet is dragged for miles. If the hunt is successful, the whale expires and the boats unfurl palm-leaf sails and tow it back to shore. It is butchered on the beach, and thanks are given to the ancestors before its flesh is divided among villagers in a manner proscribed by hierarchy and tradition.
It all sounds like a fantasy, something more out of the 18th century than the 21st, and yet this was what Doug Bock Clark encountered in 2011 when he first visited the village of Lamalera, on the south coast of the Indonesian island of Lembata. Clark, a widely published magazine journalist, was finishing a yearlong Fulbright fellowship on a nearby island when he went to see the Lamalerans for the first time. They are widely thought to be the last purely subsistence whalers on earth, and the place exerted a powerful pull on him. From 2014 to 2018, he returned seven times, spending in total over a year on the island learning their language, observing their hunts, and becoming enmeshed in village life. The result is his forceful debut book The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with an Ancient Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life ($30, Little, Brown and Company), which follows a cast of Lamalerans as they navigate the tension between a world governed by their own traditional “Ways of the Ancestors” and the strange new notions of “progress” lapping up on their shore. Clark’s finely wrought, deeply reported, and highly empathetic account is a human-level testament to dignity in the face of loss and a stoic adherence to cultural inheritance in the face of a rapidly changing world. It forces us to reckon with the question of what stands to be lost as the tide of modernity sweeps over the last redoubts of hunter-gatherers like the Lamalerans.
And what hope, then, do these whalers have of resisting the onslaught? “There is a saying in Lamalera,” Clark tells us. “Preme ki, ‘Hope, but not too much,’ reflecting the belief that the whales would never come if the people demanded them.”
The Lamalerans’ hunting is allowed under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, so long as they are consuming rather than selling their catch. For the 1,500 Lamalerans, the roughly 20 sperm whales they take on average annually are a dietary necessity. The poor soil and lack of flat areas in their small territory make agriculture impossible. They rely on what they can take from the sea, including fish, rays, dolphins, and sharks. But sperm whales still form the protein bedrock of their diet as well as their most valuable commodity for bartering for corn and other necessities with nearby mountain tribes. It’s a hardscrabble life, and a poor fishing season can leave a family, or even the entire village, on the brink of famine. It is for this reason, Clark writes, that they are “one of the most generous societies in the world,” with portions of each whale reserved to be handed out to members of clans or families who have not had a successful hunt, a sort of ritualized social-welfare program that assures nobody starves.
Given their reliance on the whales, it is no surprise that their entire culture and belief system is oriented toward the hunt. Their cosmology is built around the seasonal return of whales: shamanistic rituals are designed to guarantee a good hunt, and every gust of wind has a potential message about the whales, delivered by the omnipresent spirits of the ancestors. The hunt itself has a vocabulary so specific that it brings to mind that old (and debunked) cliché about the number of words the Eskimo have for snow. The specificity serves a purpose, allowing whalers “to compress paragraphs of information about the hunt into a few syllables,” Clark writes. “More than that, though, they were also linguistic microcosms of a whole way of life, and will be among the first words to vanish if the Lamalerans’ culture weakens.”
That “if” may be more of a “when.” Already the old whaling songs go unsung and are forgotten. A diesel generator is installed and the tribe’s whale-oil lamps begin to rust. A gong formerly used to call together traditional gatherings corrodes and cracks. A banner featuring the face of a congressional candidate is repurposed as a sail, displacing traditionally woven, labor-intensive palm-leaf sails. Television arrives, then a road, a port, cell-phone towers. An electric drill is used to rebuild a traditional ship, even as the rest of it is shaped by hand in accordance with the way such boats have been constructed for centuries. Clark writes of the aging whaler overseeing that reconstruction: “Frans had to accept that no amount of effort could resurrect the past or freeze the present. The only choice, then, was how much to evolve.”
Adaptation is not new to the Lamalerans. They themselves are immigrants who had to adjust to a new place when they arrived perhaps 500 years ago after an odyssey from their original home island somewhere to the east. Over the past century, their isolation has eroded, but their culture has proven pliable. They have integrated Catholicism, which arrived on the island in 1920, into their traditional animism, and they have incorporated new fishing techniques brought from overseas. Perhaps the biggest change began in the 1990s, when the tribe added a new type of vessel to its fleet of traditional paddle-and-sail-equipped whaleboats: small motorboats they called jonson after American-made Johnson outboards that were the first to reach the island. The motorboats, as Clark explains, were just a new tool, but the other, more crucial elements of the culture remained intact: the ethos, the pride, the deep sense of belonging, the boys who aspire to stand on the prow and harpoon a whale. But it is by such small accretions, perhaps, that larger things are lost. Some of the older whaling boats molder from disuse, “splattered with chicken poop and blotted with moss.”
Clark successfully depicts these people in their full human complexity rather than as primitive tropes.
Clark’s prose soars, sometimes a little too high—things evanesce, sunsets fume, the stars are a heavenly chandelier—but that’s a small quibble. There are just as many lovely turns of phrase, like the “bricks of flesh” that pile up as a whale carcass is flensed. Furthermore, Clark’s sympathy for and devotion to his subjects is real: he speaks both Indonesian and Lamaleran and fosters an intimacy that allows him to disappear entirely in the telling of their story. He brings us into his characters’ lives, showing us the rhythms of Lamalera and the day-to-day tensions the villagers face: the apprentice whaler who likes texting with girls and thinks about moving to Jakarta to pursue an easier life; the young woman who moves back to the village after graduating from university, only to wonder whether she can see a life for herself there; the aging harpooner who doesn’t know if his sons will be able to follow in his footsteps. Clark sees in them, possibly, an element of the cure for our corrosive modern times. “The worst forms of modernity look a lot like an addiction, and perhaps the Ways of the Ancestors are an antidote,” he writes. “Their great heroism is that they are striving, despite overwhelming odds, to control the process that has hijacked all of humanity.”
Heroic though it may be, such an outlook toes the line of romanticism. For the most part, Clark successfully depicts these people in their full human complexity rather than as primitive tropes. But he tends to favor the traditional over the modern, as when, in speaking of a clan that was wealthy enough to send its children to school before the others, he can’t help but lament that “their future harpooners became paper pushers.” His sympathetic view also glosses over certain less savory aspects of the village’s traditional way of life: the capriciousness and grinding poverty of the subsistence lifestyle, the rampant drinking and smoking, the curtailed life expectancy, and, more recently, the alleged trafficking of wildlife parts to the lucrative Chinese market.
Whaling—including subsistence whaling by indigenous groups—is a fraught subject and under various threats, and there are times as a reader where you’re left wanting Clark to zoom out and offer a bit more on the broader context. Outsider fishermen, for example, have begun arriving in greater numbers in the Savu Sea, enticed by global markets in places like Japan and China, and Lamalerans report diminished catches of rays and sharks, perhaps due to overfishing. With the road, new port, and better cell-phone coverage, the village has begun to attract more visitors and even started appearing on websites for adventurous travelers.
Lamalera has also attracted the unwanted attention of conservation groups. In 2017, for example, the Nature Conservancy began working with the Indonesian government on a push to limit the hunt, arguing that the introduction of motorboats meant the Lamalerans had already given up their traditional culture. There is a dark irony here, that having escaped colonialism for five centuries, the Lamalerans could be forced to lay down their harpoons by the neocolonial effects of conservation. “For the Lamalerans, the very idea of conservation is foreign,” writes Clark, and they’re not wrong to be dubious. “History has shown time and again that depriving indigenous people of their livelihoods often leads directly to their end, as they lose their identities within a generation.”
The Lamalerans are left wondering whether their hard-won knowledge and remarkable skill set, crafted over centuries and handed down over generations, have any value in this new world. They retain their dignity, but it is increasingly tinged with a fatalistic sadness. The lamafa is a revered figure among the tribe, but an aging whaler wonders what those skills might be worth in this modern world. For “no matter how great a lamafa he was, he still lacked the ability to provide for [his family] in a changing world, where his skill with a harpoon was of diminishing importance.”
But the problem is more than a matter of retraining and retooling; it is existential, a question of cultural survival. Or as Clark puts it, “After all, who are whalers who do not whale?”