In A Nutshell
Many literature professors consider Herman Melville’s classic tale of whale vs. whalers the first and only American epic. Whatever we may think of Moby-Dick; or The Whale, a story about an albino sperm whale fighting back seems like, well, a fish story. While Melville’s story is fictional, it was inspired by two real whales who took on their human hunters with deadly results.
The Whole Bushel
Herman Melville spent seven years (1837–44) at sea, first as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, then on three different whaling ships in the Pacific, and finally as a seaman on a US frigate. When he returned home to Albany, New York, his head was full of stories, and a string of books about his sea adventures soon followed.
Melville had nearly finished his fifth book, this one about life as a whaler, when his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of the Scarlet Letter) convinced him to completely revise the book into fiction of universal significance. The result was a story about the whaling ship Pequod and its Captain Ahab, obsessed with the great white whale who had bitten off his leg.
Ahab was probably based in part on George Pollard Jr., captain of the whaler Essex when it set sail from Nantucket in 1819. The Essex sailed around Cape Horn and into the South Pacific where they stopped at Charles Island in the Galapagos. As a prank, an unknown member of the crew set a fire which quickly got out of control, forcing the whaler to abruptly depart. The fire decimated Charles Island, and it’s believed it directly caused the extinction of the Floreana tortoise and mockingbird.
In November 1820, the Essex was 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi) from the Marquesas and Society Islands in Polynesia. One day, Pollard was out with most of the crew in whaleboats, hunting cetaceans, while First Mate Owen Chase remained aboard the Essex supervising a repair crew. Chase spotted a 26-meter (85 ft) whale lying quietly off in the distance. Then, as if it were a steam engine stoking its firebox, the whale blew three spouts and charged the ship. Chase estimated the whale was traveling at 3 knots when it smashed headfirst into the hull.
The whale passed under the ship before it dived. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase said. The First Mate ordered the crew to man the pumps while he patched up the hole in the hull. They were in the midst of the repairs when the whale reappeared and charged again, this time with half its head out of the water and at 6 knots. It hit the bow just under the cathead. The Essex was doomed.
When Pollard returned, they loaded up three whaleboats with food and water, and the 20 survivors sailed south while their ship slowly sank. What followed were 96 hellish days adrift at sea. When the food ran out, the men turned to cannibalism. Eight members of the crew—Pollard and Chase among them—were eventually rescued.
While Melville didn’t meet Pollard until after Moby-Dick was published, his Ahab clearly echoed the haunted captain of the Essex, tortured by memories and a whale. Pollard was said to lock himself in his room and fast every year on the anniversary of the leviathan’s attack on his ship.
Melville also based Ahab’s antagonist on a cetacean that terrorized whalers off the coast of Chile near Mocha Island for 28 years. He was a 21-meter (70 ft) albino sperm whale, dubbed “Mocha Dick” after his favorite romping waters. (It was typical for whalers to give their prey common names like “Tom” or “Dick.”) The bull was recognizable by his skin “as white as wool” and had so many barnacles growing on his head that his skin was “absolutely rugged with shells.”
Embedded in his back were a dozen harpoons, with “fifty to a hundred yards of line trailing in his wake.”
Mocha Dick is credited with destroying 20 whaleboats in the nearly three decades that whalers tried to bring him to heel. He finally met his demise one day in 1838 when he was swimming with a large pod of fellow whales. Whalers lured Mocha Dick by first killing a small calf and then killing the mother that tried to rescue it. Enraged, Mocha Dick attacked and was harpooned in the side.
Mocha’s death was described by the famed writer Jeremiah Reynolds: “the monster, under the convulsive influence of his final paroxysm, flung his huge tail into the air, and then, for the space of a minute, thrashed the waters on either side of him with quick and powerful blows; the sound of the concussions resembling that of the rapid discharge of artillery. He then turned slowly and heavily on his side, and lay a dead mass upon the sea through which he had so long ranged a conqueror.”
“Moby-Dick” was not embraced by either literary critics or the public and only a few thousand copies were sold in Melville’s lifetime. His literary career was all but over and he spent the rest of his life as a recluse, writing forgettable poetry.