Friday, April 06, 2007

Moby Dick

"Moby Dick" by Herman Melville is one of the most famous American novels. It is also the name of the villain of the piece, the "great white whale"! Like most of you I assumed that "Moby Dick" was wholly a product of the author's imagination. Imagine my surprise to learn that it was in fact largely based on a true incident that happened in 1819 in the central Pacific Ocean, when for the first time it was recorded that a huge male sperm whale (ca. 85 ft long) charged a whaling ship and hit it not once but twice (evidence of true intent to harm it), and caused it to sink. The ship was the "Essex" from Nantucket Island, that was the whaling capital of the world in that era. I learnt about this story from a book entitled "In the Heart of the Sea: the tragedy of the whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick, a historian living in Nantucket.
At that time whale oil was one of the mainstays of the American industrial revolution, and ensuring a steady and cheap supply was the industry of Nantucket. In order to do so the whale ships had to pass through the south Atlantic, where most of the whales had already been depleted by then, and pass through Cape Horn at the tip of S. America, in order to enter the Pacific (before the Panama Canal had been built). Also, in order to ensure a large harvest of whales to make the voyage, that could last over 3 years, worthwhile, they had begun to venture over 3000 miles from the S. American mainland into new areas where there were large shoals of sperm whales.
On its journey the Essex was in the midst of a huge pod of whales, mostly females and calves. Two of its whale boats were out harpooning and the third boat had been damaged by a whale that rose up underneath it (this was not uncommon). So the third boat was being repaired on deck. This involved much hammering, and it was known that the sound made by male sperm whales is a similar hammering sound. Whether or not this had anything to do with it, out of the blue so to speak, this huge whale surfaced and deliberately rammed the Essex. Then it moved off in the opposite direction and turned and in about 10 mins repeated the attack. The ship was so damaged that it sank to its gunnels within about 10 mins.
These whales were named sperm whales because they contained a large amount of fine oil in their huge bulbous head. When the head was cut open it exuded the so-called sperm oil or spermaceti that was at first clear, but in the air took on the appearance of white sperm. The sperm whales are also toothed whales and have a large narrow jaw. They are the largest creatures known to exist on earth and are also formidable predators. Although the attack on the Essex was the first such incident known, later three other such attacks were recorded. It is possible that such an incident had happened before, but there had been no survivors.
In this case all 20 men aboard survived the attack and managed to get into the three whaling boats. They then undertook a journey that lasted 3 months. They did stop for a few days on a deserted atoll in the south Pacific called Henderson Island. Three of the men chose to stay there and were eventually rescued. Most of the men died from hunger, thirst and exposure, and there were only 5 survivors in two of the boats who made it to S. America.
Those who survived did so by cannibalism, eating their dead comrades. They covered over 4,000 miles, the second longest journey known, after that of Captain Bligh of the Bounty whose journey covered 4,500 miles. However, the Essex men's journey took twice as long because they chose to go east against the currents, while Bligh went west. Incidentally, Henderson Island was within a few days sailing of Pitcairn Island where the Bounty mutineers hid, but this island was not marked on any maps at that time. In fact, the Captain and his two mates made a major error in not heading for the islands of Polynesia and Micronesia closer to the west, rather than returning to S. America from whence they had come. Since they were unfamiliar with these islands, they assumed that they contained cannibals, and were afraid to venture further west. They also assumed that they had enough provisions, but that proved wrong.
The first mate of the ship, Owen Chase, wrote his account of the incident and the journey during which he kept a daily log, that was published as a book soon after, and caused a sensation at that time. Captain Pollard did the same later. Herman Melville shipped out on a similar whaler a few years later and met the youngest son of Owen Chase who was a cabin boy. Captain Ahab from the novel was based on Owen Chase not Captain Pollard. Pollard was "unlucky," his next whale ship also sank in a gale and he retired as a night watchman. Whereas Chase, a large hard man, made a long career as a whaling Captain. It was rumored that throughout his career he sought to find and kill the huge whale that had so injured him, his ship and his crew. He never succeeded, but it made a wonderful story. Somewhere along the way the whale became "white" although it was not in actuality. Thus are legends made.


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