George Pollard: Ill-fated Captain and Inspiration for Moby-Dick

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George Pollard, as fortune would have it, grew up on Nantucket (1791 – 1870), at a time when the little island off Massachusetts was one of the most active whaling centers in North America. Considering the overwhelming influence of the island’s association with the whaling business – the lucrative vocation of hunting sperm whales for their blubber and oil – it would have been surprising had the sea not become young George’s destiny.

Fortuitously, Pollard went into the trade on the very whaler he would later command to such misfortune: The Essex. He started out in the crew, learned the ropes, rose in rank (to first mate), and was then made captain by the ship’s owner, Gideon Folger, in 1819, when he was only 28 years old. He must have been a competent sailor to take command, at that point, and his horizons surely seemed wide open.

That same year the Essex set sail, in August, heading for the Pacific Ocean with a crew of 21. According to the account of Nathaniel Philbrick, the Essex almost immediately ran into a severe storm and was rolled over into the sea on its side, suffering extensive damage and losing two whaleboats. Pollard wanted to return to Nantucket for repairs, but both his first and second mates, Owen Chase and Matthew Joy, urged him onward, to the Azores.

The terrifying attack of the real Moby-Dick on the Essex

Finally rounding South America at Cape Horn, the Essex sailed into the Pacific in January, 1820, heading northwest into a wide expanse of empty ocean. Eleven months later, on November 20th, the Essex was attacked by a very annoyed, and very large, sperm whale (it was said the whale was around 80 feet in length). The whale rammed the ship not once, but twice, at great speed and force.

“I was aroused with the cry of a man at the hatchway, Here he is – he is making for us again. I turned around, and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.”

The above quote is from Owen Chase’s “Narrative of the most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex”, on the attack of the sperm whale which sunk the whaling ship, Essex, and inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Finding themselves in a sinking ship 2800 kilometers west of Galapagos, the crew saved what it could, splitting supplies, food, and water, plus navigational equipment, between three whaling boats. They also used the masts and sails of the Essex to rig a way that the smaller boats could take advantage of the ocean breezes.

Where to now? Cannibalism and days without end

Apparently there were three alternatives. Head for the Marquesas Islands due west for 1,200 miles and face cannibals. Or by-pass them and go another 700 miles to the Society Islands (a total of 1900 miles), the plan favored by Pollard. Or – the plan suggested by the first and second mates, Chase and Joy – go south until they picked up the winds and currents which would take them to South America. Pollard once again suspended his better judgement and acquiesced to the advice of his second in command.

Catastrophe. By late December they were all starving. Three of the men remained behind at Henderson Island, which after a short stay was deemed to possess too meager a forage to keep the crew alive (these men were eventually picked up by a ship called the Surry). Sometime in early January, 1821, the first mate’s boat (Chase) became separated from the others in a gale. The second mate, Joy, soon died. On January 20th the remaining crew began to eat the others as they succumbed to sickness and privation, one by one.

On the remaining two boats, they could no longer even wait for natural death. A sailor named Ramsdell came up with the idea of drawing lots to see who would be killed to feed the others. And Pollard’s cousin, Owen Coffin, was the unlucky man. They shot him and ate him.

On Februrary 23rd, the whaler Dauphin came upon the unlucky, and much diminished, crew, rescued them and dropped them off at Valparaiso, Chile, where they met again the survivors from Chase’s lost boat, who had been retrieved by the British merchant ship, Indian. After several months of recuperation Pollard made his way back to Nantucket.

Second Chance: the Two Brothers goes down north of Hawaii

Later, Pollard was given another command – of the Two Brothers, the ship which had returned him to Nantucket from Chile. And once again Pollard lost the ship; not in a fight with a sperm whale, this time, but in an entanglement with an atoll called the French Frigate Shoals, which is about 600 miles northwest of Hawaii. The water was shallow and the crew was rescued within a day with no loss of life, no horrors, no cannibalism, no endless days of sea. But a second wreck for the captain seemed to have unhinged him. Pollard’s “reasoning powers had flown,” wrote Thomas Nickerson, a member of both unlucky cruises. And, really, who can blame him?

This was the end of George Pollard’s life on the sea. He spent the remaining years of his long life living on Nantucket, serving as its night watchman. When he was older who but Melville showed up at Nantucket, to chat with him about his adventures with the rogue whale. Pollard died in 1870, apparently content and well-thought of by his home island.

Recently the wreck of the Two Brothers has been discovered! This is very rare – to find a sunken whaler with all its artifacts. It was discovered by marine archeologists from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. It was a fluke (like all the best discoveries are, it seems). The team’s members had a few days to kill before returning to Honolulu and were just poking around when they came upon an anchor. The water was only 15 ft. deep, so it was very clear, and they have recovered quite a lot – cooking pots, whaling tools, anchors, etc.

One final word. While the stories of the fearless whale hunting crews plowing into deep and dangerous waters, defying peril and death, are romantic and heroic, let’s remember that the determination and bravery of these men also drove many species of whales to the brink of extinction. In the end it was another short-sighted, stupid and self-defeating endeavor by human beings who evidently are incapable of understanding the benefit of mutual preservation and the inter-connectivity of all earth’s life. That is the real lesson of George Pollard and the whalers. We shouldn’t forget.