TRIVIAL PURSUITS: What True Whaling Disaster Inspired the Book ‘Moby-Dick?’

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the story of a doomed whaling voyage that ends when the ship is rammed and sunk by a massive white sperm whale.
By PS

What true whaling disaster inspired the book “Moby-Dick?”

Herman Melville drew on his experiences as a whaler for his 1851 novel. The real-life whaling ship Essex’s grisly fate inspired Melville, who knew the ship’s first mate personally and used his writings as research.

A summary in National Geographic explains that only three days into its voyage, a violent squall battered the Essex, terrifying the inexperienced crew. The ship began to creak and listed dangerously. Captain George Pollard, Jr. managed to reach the island of Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa, at the end of September, where they repaired the ship. They set sail again for the South American coast and caught their first sperm whale in the waters near Brazil. This region was largely fished out, so they headed to the Pacific in search of better luck.

The trip went fairly well from then until on November 20, 1820, the crew sighted a huge male sperm whale leading a pod. Three small whaling boats were launched under the command of the captain and the ship’s two mates. They had soon managed to corral several of the whales when a calf smashed into one of the mate’s boat forcing him to return to the main ship. It was then that a young cabin boy spotted a looming shape underneath the bow of the Essex. It was a mighty sperm whale some 85 feet long, weighing as much as 80 tons.

The huge creature smashed into the Essex repeatedly, on each occasion causing it to list even more. The men just had time to save some of the provisions and regroup in three small whaling boats before their ship succumbed to the waves.

The three boats eventually separated, lacking supplies. And the men turned to cannibalism to survive.

In the end, only eight men were rescued.