A True Nantucket Tragedy

~ by Amy Jenness ~

George Pollard

Thomas Nickerson

After surviving the gruesome loss of the Nantucket whaleship Essex in 1820, George Pollard, the ship’s captain, and Owen Chase, its first mate, returned home in June of 1821. Pollard immediately returned to the sea in command of a another whaleship. But Chase stayed home for six months and with the help of a ghost writer, put the story of the Essex down in a book titled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

In his book, Chase described how a large sperm whale had rammed their ship and damaged it so badly the crew had to leave the crippled vessel behind and drift in their small whaleboats in the Pacific Ocean for three months without food and water before being rescued. By the time Chase’s boat was discovered all but 8 of the 21 crew members had died and the survivors decided to resort to cannibalism.

The Essex survivors and their Nantucket neighbors put the harrowing incident behind them and went back to the business of whaling. But a young New Bedford whaler named Herman Melville heard about the Essex many years later, became fascinated by the story and its players and revived a fictionalized version of it in his classic novel of the sea Moby-Dick.

Owen Chase

Owen Chase

Melville, who was three months old when the Essex left Nantucket in 1819, signed onto the crew of the New Bedford whaleship Acushnet in 1840 at age twenty-one. While at sea he heard people discuss the voyage of the Essex and he heard of yet another sad misfortune for Owen Chase. Now a successful whaleship captain, Chase was out whaling when he received word that his wife had given birth to a child fathered by another man.

Melville wrote of hearing the news:

“For, while I was in the Acushnet we heard from some whaleship that we spoke, that the captain of the Charles Carroll – that is Owen Chace – had recently received letters from home, informing him of the certain infidelity of his wife…. We also heard that this receipt of this news had told most heavily upon Chace, & and that he was of the deepest gloom.”

Melville also met Chase’s son while at sea who gave him a copy of his father’s narrative, and 11years later Melville based elements of Moby- Dick on the loss of the Essex as well as the true story of Mocha Dick, an albino whale that proved impossible to capture.

It was not the first time Melville’s writing was influenced by a Nantucket whaleship. After finishing school, the young brothers Henry and Charles Coffin took over their father’s Nantucket shipping business and renamed the firm of Charles G. & Henry Coffin. Their company operated some of Nantucket’s most famous whaleships for most of the 1800s, including the voyage of the Charles & Henry with Herman Melville on the crew. Melville later wrote about this experience in his 1847 autobiographical novel Omoo, a followup to his adventure story Typee, which had achieved commercial and literary success the year before.

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Melville continued to write, but his subsequent books didn’t have the success of Typee and Omoo. His sixth book, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, was published in the fall of 1851. Melville considered Moby-Dick his masterpiece and was bruised by critic’s harsh analysis and the public’s lack of interest. In 1852 he published Pierre, another commercial disappointment and then stopped writing novels.

A year after publishing Moby-Dick, Melville visited Nantucket for the first, and only, time. Accompanied by his father-in-law, Melville stayed at the Ocean House (now the Jared Coffin House) and the pair visited with Thomas Macy, son of historian Obed Macy, William and Maria Mitchell, and Essex survivor Captain George Pollard.

Pollard’s whaling career ended in 1823 when the ship he commanded wrecked during a storm near the Hawaiian Islands. He returned to Nantucket and became the island’s night watchman.

Later Melville recalled the encounter with Pollard by saying, “I—sometime about 1850-3—saw Capt. Pollard on the island of Nantucket, and exchanged some words with him. To the islanders he was a nobody — to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”

The meeting left a deep impression on Melville and in 1856 he wrote about Pollard in his poem Clarel:

“Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come;
not sour In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.”

After abandoning novels, Melville published short stories, privately wrote poetry and worked as a clerk at the New York Customs House. When he died in 1891, Melville was almost completely forgotten as an author. It was D.H. Lawrence who revived Moby-Dick in the 1920s by calling it “the greatest book of the sea ever written” and brought the book back into the public’s consciousness.

Today it is considered one of the Great American Novels and a leading work of American Romanticism. The Nantucket Atheneum and Nantucket Historical Association will hold their annual marathon reading of Moby-Dick on October 21, 22 and 23. Anyone interested in reading a chapter or two is encouraged to sign up at the main desk of the Atheneum, 1 India Street. The reading is open to the public, drop in for a little bit or stay for the whole thing!

Amy Jenness is the author of On This Day In Nantucket History.