This Real-Life Whaling Disaster Inspired ‘Moby-Dick’

In 1820 a massive sperm whale rammed a Nantucket whaling ship, sending it to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Stranded 1,500 miles from land, the surviving crew’s horrific quest for survival came to symbolize the primordial struggle between man and nature.

“Death to the living, Long life to the killers, Success to sailors’ wives, And greasy luck to whalers.” So went a popular toast when Nantucket, Massachusetts, was still the center of the whaling industry in the early 19th century.

But times were changing: Whale populations in the North Atlantic had declined, forcing whaling ships to head to more distant waters, first plundering the rich pickings off the South American coast, then striking out into the Pacific. The economic stakes were high: Each expedition could yield hundreds of barrels of precious whale oil. There was also valuable ambergris, a substance from the sperm whale used in making perfumes and medicines. Expeditions could last for years while being highly profitable.

But the story of the Essex would be different. The 88-foot, 238-ton whaleship left Nantucket on August 12, 1819, scheduled for two and a half years at sea. At the helm was Captain George Pollard, Jr., age 28, with first mate Owen Chase and second mate Mathew Joy. The 18-man crew included teenagers like Owen Coffin, the captain’s cousin, and Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy, age 14. Seven of the sailors were African American. Later there would be talk of how strange omens appeared in Nantucket the summer the Essex set sail. In July a comet had crossed the skies, and a plague of locusts had destroyed the crops. The local newspaper, the New Bedford Mercury, recorded sightings of “an extraordinary sea animal” resembling a serpent.

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