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On November 20, 1820 the Essex, an American whaling ship, which had set sail from the hub of Massachusetts’ picturesque island of Nantucket a year before, sank. George Pollard Jr was its captain, and in a harrowing clash, he was faced with a monstrous 80-ton sperm whale some 2,000 miles (3,200km) from the western coast of South America. Just over 30 years later, the events of that chilling day became the story behind one of America’s most cherished stories, Moby-Dick.
Written by Herman Melville in 1851, Moby Dick, or The Whale as it is often called, is widely considered to be among the most influential novels in history.
Hailed around the world, the iconic English author D. H. Lawrence perhaps best summed up Moby Dick when he described it as “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world”.
At the time of its release it was considered a commercial flop and was out of print by the time Melville died some 40 years after its release. But the story of the sailor Ishmael and his quest with the obsessive captain Ahab to find the beast that bit off his knee endured over the course of the next century.
It took the New York City-born author around 18 months to finish, and drew on Melville’s own experience as a sailor between 1841 and 1844. Among the other influences was the real-life story of an albino whale, Mocha Dick.
But most intriguingly, it was inspired by Pollard Jr, the Nantucket-bred whaling captain who guided the ships The Essex and Two Brother during his career, both of which sank.
Essex met its fate in the South Pacific 202 years ago after it was rammed by a sperm whale. In order to survive, Pollard Jr and the surviving crew members used three small boats that were aboard Essex to stay afloat.
Soon, though, hungry and suffering from dehydration, the survivors turned to cannibalism while they drifted in the open ocean for an astonishing two months before being picked up by another vessel.
That encounter reportedly provided Melville with the main plot for his novel, and the author, according to the Nantucket Historical Association, said of Pollard Jr: “To the islanders he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble – that I ever encountered.”
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His influence over Melville was also cited by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, part of the US Department of Commerce, which also described Pollard Jr’s legacy.
It wrote: “The young Melville was famously inspired by the story of George Pollard, the former captain of the whaler Essex. While on a two-year whaling expedition crisscrossing the Pacific, the Essex was rammed by a sperm whale.
“Quickly abandoning ship and thousands of miles from land, Pollard and his crew escaped in leaky lifeboats to begin a horrific ordeal resulting in sickness, starvation, and cannibalism.
“One of the few to survive, Pollard was given a second chance at captaining another whaler, the Two Brothers.
“But after 18 months in the Pacific, Pollard ran the Two Brothers aground, sinking the ship in what is now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.”
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His stint on Two Brothers made headlines nearly two centuries later when maritime heritage archaeologists, working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, unearthed its shipwreck nearly 600 miles (965km) northwest of Honolulu, often described as “Hawaii’s main gateway to the world”.
In a statement from 2011, the agency said: “This rare archaeological discovery is the first discovery of a wrecked whaling ship from Nantucket, Mass, the birthplace of America’s whaling industry.”
Previous expeditions between 2008 and 2010 had found Two Brothers’ large anchor, as well as cast-iron pots for melting whale blubber and harpoon tips.
The recovery stunned researchers, as it had been untraceable for decades, though many knew it had rested somewhere in a piece of water near the French Frigate Shoals.
The ship had largely been forgotten about in 1931 when all searches were stopped. According to a 2014 report entitled A Sounding Lead on a Distant Reef, Captain Pollard’s Lessons Learned American sailor Thomas Nickerson famously said of the reef: “We have not seen a vestige of our ill-fated ship nor haven’t heard what a vestige of her has ever been seen since.
“I believe this reef has been claimed as a new discovery, but although our reckoning places its position one degree of Latitude to the northward and three degrees to the westward, still I believe with Captain Derrick that it is no other than the French Frigate Shoals and that our navigations were mistaken the more so as I remember that owing to thick weather we had been several days without observation.”
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