THE REAL WHALE IN MOBY DICK
The ferocious, malevolent whale in Moby Dick---the first Great American Novel---was inspired by a real sperm whale, a gigantic leviathan that attacked and sunk a 238 ton whaler in 1820. Here’s the true story, fascinating and awful at the same time.
It begins in 1819 at Nantucket, Massachusetts, a small, mostly Quaker, community of 8,000. 20 young men (there were initially 21 but one deserted the ship before the disaster)---six of whom were black (many free blacks served on whale ships)---set out in the whale ship, Essex, in search of whales.
Only eight would return.
Twelve would suffer terrible deaths.
But, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so let’s start from the beginning of the story about the real whale in Moby Dick.
Since the mid-1700s, Nantucket had been the center of the world’s whaling industry and boasted over 100 whale ships in 1819.
Generations of whalers, from grandfather to fathers to sons went to sea in search of whales.
More precisely, the whale ships were in search of sperm whales, the largest and by far the most valuable animals on the planet.
And, an important---essential, actually---part of the Industrial Revolution which transformed the world.
When the New England whaling industry began, there were probably about 1,100,000 sperm whales in the oceans.
Without predators (except Orcas which sometimes killed a calf), and very long lived, sperm whale bulls were 30-50% larger than females and weighed up to three times as much.
Back then, a big bull could reach 85 feet in length (20’ longer than those living now) and could produce up to 3,000 pounds of sperm whale oil, the most valuable of all the whale oils.
But, even an average sized animal produced from 30-40 barrels of oil.
As the decades passed, sperm whalers had to travel farther and farther for their prey and, by 1819, were forced to sail far out into the Pacific. This was the destination of the Essex which was outfitted with enough food for two and a half years.
In those years, whaling was both cruel to the animals and dangerous for the hunters.
When a pod of animals was discovered, small boats would take crews out to the animals where they would attempt to harpoon their prey.
The harpoon was attached to a very long rope and, if the harpooning were successful, the crew in the little boat would often be dragged for hours as the animal tried vainly to escape. When at last it was too exhausted to go farther, the boat would come alongside and the animal killed.
And, of course, there was great danger to the hunters, too. Animals would sometimes come up directly under little boats or slap them with their huge tails, often destroying the craft and injuring or killing the mariners.
But, as dangerous as the little boats were, the one safe place was the whaling ship because, in all the decades of hunting, not a single ship had been attacked.
That is, until the run in between the real whale in Moby Dick and the Essex.
The Real Whale In Moby Dick
Five months after setting sail from Massachusetts, the Essex reached the southern tip of South America, Cape Horn, and encountered such ferocity it took them five weeks to cross the Cape.
Finally, in October 1820, the ship and its crew got to the fishing grounds (people though whales were fish back then), only to discover that they had already been almost fished out.
Other whalers reported newly discovered fishing grounds 2,500 nautical miles (2,900 miles) farther west and the Essex set sail.
Disaster struck unexpectedly the morning of November 20, 1820. The morning broke fine and clear when, about 8 a.m., the crew-man at the masthead cried: “There she blows.”
A pod of sperm whales was off in the distance and the Essex sailed towards it, stopping about half a mile away.
Three whale boats were lowered and the chase was on. The captain, George Pollard was in the first boat; First Mate Owen Chase was the harpooner in the second.
When the pod sounded, Chase harpooned one of the sperm whales which, he later related:
“feeling the harpoon in him, he threw himself in an agony, over towards the boat (which at that time was up alongside him), and giving a severe blow with his tail, struck the boat near the edge of the water, amidships, and stove a hole in her.”
As the whale tried to flee, the little boat was in serious danger of sinking, so Chase cut the rope, plugged the hole with the mariners’ jackets, and headed back to the Essex to survey the damage and make repairs.
It was there that he first saw what became the whale in Moby Dick.
A bull sperm whale.
A huge bull.
Nearly as long as the Essex itself and about 100 yards from the whaler.
The creature came out of the shoal where two more of his pod were under harpoon.
He wasn't trying to escape.
Far from it.
The whale spouted, went underwater for a couple of seconds, and spouted again, coming up about a ship’s length away. Then, without warning, it attacked the 600,000 pound enemy, hitting the bow so hard with its head that the mariners were knocked off their feet.
It was immediately apparent that the blow had opened the hull and the ship was taking on water.
The whale lay abreast, seemingly unconscious for a moment, but as the seamen scrambled to contain the damage with pumps, it swam a distance away and then turned once again towards the ship.
“I was aroused with the cry of a man at the hatchway, ‘here he is---he’s making for us again.’ I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (about 500 yards) directly in front of us, coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him, and his course towards us was marked by a white foam of a rod (about 20 feet) in width, which he made with the continual thrashing of his tail; his head was about half out of water, and in that way he came upon his, and again struck the ship.”
Even as the sperm whale bull swam off, it was apparent that the ship was lost as water flooded the hull.
And, at that moment, a legend was born: the ferocious, deadly, vengeful whale in Moby Dick.
But, the crew, 20 strong, wasn't thinking about the future. They were in deep trouble, more than 2,100 miles from South America.
And desperately alone.
Able to salvage only their quandrants and navigators, but no maps, and enough food and fresh water to last about two months---that is, a few ounces of biscuit and half a pint of water per person per day---and confined to three “frail” whale boats, they set off.
Many days the tropical Equatorial heat was scorching and the men were unable to find shade from the blinding sun; other days, huge gales and lightning storms tossed them helplessly about in monstrous waves.
Starving, and desperately miserable from too little water, they reduced their daily ration of bread to about eight ounces. About two months after the shipwreck, the three little boats separated one night, never to find each other.
One was never seen again. All souls were lost.
One-by-one, the men in the two remaining boats starved as their daily ration of bread was reduced to an ounce and a half.
Their bodies, terribly sunburned, had developed awful sores.
As man-after-man died, their remaining shipmates were forced to eat them simply to survive.
And, in one boat, the crew were so close to starvation they drew lots to determine who would be shot, then eaten (a practice on other whale boats as well). Alas, the unfortunate victim---who willingly agreed to sacrifice himself---was the nephew of the first man to throw tea overboard in the Boston Tea Party.
92 days after the shipwreck, Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdale were rescued by another whaler and it was recorded:
“They were ninety-two days in the boat & were in a most wretched state, they were unable to move and found sucking the bones of their dead Mess mates, which they were loth to part with.”
Shortly thereafter the remaining three survivors in the little whale boat commanded by First Mate Owen Chase were also rescued off the coast of Peru.
They were in such deplorable condition that their bones were pressing through their skin, their legs and feet were shrunken, and their skin described as “one ulcer.”
They were initially taken upon the American frigate, Constellation, for medical care. The Constellation, America’s first warship in its young navy, was off Peru to protect American interests in a war raging there.
One of those survivors was cabin boy Thomas Nickerson who later drew the picture below of the real animal that became the whale in Moby Dick.
After returning to Nantucket, in 1821 Chase recounted the terrible events in the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket; Which was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti-Whale, in the Pacific Ocean.
The attacking animal in his book became the model for the whale in Moby Dick.
Melville and the Whale In Moby Dick
In 1841-42, Herman Melville was a deck hand aboard the whaler, Acushnet, where he learned about the Essex, met Owen Chase’s son, William Henry Chase, and read a copy of The Narrative. It was perhaps there that the seed of Moby Dick was sewn.
In 1850, Melville began writing Moby Dick and about a year later, while still writing it, he received a copy of The Narrative from his father-in-law. Fascinated, as always with it, he wrote pages of annotations which, along with his copy of The Narrative, still survive at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Melville not only tells the story of the Essex in Moby Dick, he drew from it to create the climax of his book---the great white whale in Moby Dick.
Indeed, even after the book was published, Melville’s fascination of the Essex remained so strong that a year later he traveled to Nantucket---he had never been there---simply to meet Captain Pollard!
The U.S.S. Constitution
Earlier, I mentioned that the ship where three of the Essex survivors were taken after their disastrous encounter with the huge leviathan that would become the whale in Moby Dick, the Constellation, was the first warship in the United States’ navy. What I didn’t mention is that it is still on the water, the oldest boat on the planet still afloat.
It’s tied up at Constellation Dock in Baltimore and you can go into the very same sick bay where Owen Chase and the other Essex survivors recuperated after their disastrous encounter with the bull sperm whale that became the whale in Moby Dick.
And, now, you know the rest of the story.
“There she blows.”
The real whale in Moby Dick.