Mixed reviews and sluggish sales, Herman Melville, a 32-year-old author, had great expectations for his new work, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, in July of 1852. That month, he traveled to Nantucket aboard a steamer for the first time, to see the Massachusetts island where his novel’s iconic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod, called home. Melville acted like a tourist, meeting local authorities, dining out, and taking in the attractions of the place he had always dreamed of.
In his final day on Nantucket, he ran upon the broken-down 60-year-old captain of the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the 1820 tragedy that had inspired Melville’s novel.
Captain George Pollard Jr., who was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, survived and returned to Nantucket to command the Two Brothers, a second whaling ship.
When the ship sank two years later on a coral reef, the skipper was labeled a “Jonah” at sea, and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard spent the rest of his life on the farm, working as the village night watchman.
Pollard had relayed the whole incident to his other captains and a missionary called George Bennet over supper immediately after his rescue from the Essex tragedy. The story seemed like a confession to Bennet.
92 days and nights at sea on a leaking boat with little food, his remaining crew going insane under the scorching sun, final cannibalism, and the tragic fate of two adolescent lads, one of them was Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin.
As Melville knew, the problems for Essex began on August 14, 1819, only two days after it set sail from Nantucket on a two-and-a-half-year whaling mission.
A squall slammed the 87-foot-long ship, destroying its topgallant sail and nearly sinking it. Pollard persisted, and five weeks later he arrived at Cape Horn. However, the 20-man crew discovered that the waters off South America were virtually fished out, so they opted to cruise to the South Pacific, far from any coasts, in search of remote whaling grounds.