Series Blog

Nautical Discovery Sheds Light on the Hazards of 19th Century Whaling

Almost two centuries ago, the Two Brothers, a Nantucket whaling ship, sank 600 miles off the coast of Honolulu. Last week, officials from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument -- one of the world's largest ocean reserves -- reported that marine archaeologists had discovered the 1823 wreckage along with artifacts including harpoons and try-pots, were used to liquefy whale blubber into oil.

A typical vessel of American whaling's "golden age" in the 19th century, the Two Brothers was captained by George Pollard, who was no stranger to shipwrecks. Three years before sinking Two Brothers, Pollard had captained the infamous voyage of the whaling ship Essex. The tale of the Essex, recounted in the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, was the inspiration for Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick.

The Essex sailed from Nantucket in 1819, the year of Melville's birth. The 28-year-old Pollard was undertaking his first captaincy when a sperm whale the size of the 87-foot ship rammed the vessel to pieces 3,000 miles off the Pacific coast of South America. The crew watched helplessly from three small whaleboats as the Essex sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Over the following three months, the crew endured dehydration, starvation, and eventually cannibalism in their effort to survive and find dry land. By the time the crew was rescued in February of 1821, Pollard was one of only eight surviving crew members.

Two years later, Pollard captained Two Brothers, once more heading to the Pacific Ocean in search of whales. After a storm sank the whaleship, Pollard and the crew survived thanks to the shallow water by the French Frigate Shoals. Returning to Nantucket, Pollard quit the seas and took up a position as a night watchman. Although the film recounts Pollard's terrible ordeal with the Essex, the story of Two Brothers is not as well known. What led to Pollard's unfortunate adventures at sea? Was he a terrible captain, too audacious or risk-taking? Or was he just incredibly unlucky?

Whatever the reason, George Pollard was a man that Herman Melville looked upon with respect and admiration. The summer after the publication of Moby Dick, he wrote on the back pages of an old narrative of the Essex: "Met Captain Pollard on Nantucket. To most islanders a nobody. To me, one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met."

Bianca Wythe is a student at Northeastern University and is currently an intern at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.