It just keeps getting worse: George Pollard and the Truth behind Moby Dick

Moby Dick

In 1851, Herman Meville first published his classic novel Moby Dick. While the final piece is filled to the brim with biblical allegory, there was a germ of truth behind old Captain Ahab, or, at least the eponymous whale.

In 1819, twenty-eight-year-old George Pollard, Jr. was appointed the captain of the Essex, a whaling ship from Nantucket. In August of that year, he and a crew of 21 men, including his teenage cousin Owen Coffin, set out for the Pacific in search of their prey.

In December 1821, the fate of these 22 men reached Edinburgh’s Caledonian Mercury, and it was grim indeed. But, Scotland was not the first to hear the harrowing tale. News first reached Valaparaiso, Chile after two of the survivors, the captain and a teenage boy name Charles Ramsdell, were found by a passing whaling vessel. Although the two were completely dissociative when they were found, they eventually related their story to the port officials and made it known that three other crewmen remained marooned on Ducie’s Island.

But what had happened?

Although later accounts differ in the details, the first report to reach Scotland was as follows:

On 13 November 1820, the boat crews of the Essex had been dispatched and were in the process of harvesting a pod of Sperm whales when one “of the largest class” rammed the ship and, remaining alongside, attempted “to clasp the ship with her jaws”. She then retreated about a quarter of a mile only to turn and ram the ship again with such force that the vessel not only stopped its forward movement but was sent in reverse! The water rushed in and the ship was quickly destroyed; the crew divided into the remaining whaling boats, along with all any supplies they could salvage. Unable to convince his crew to journey west in hopes of reaching the Marquesas islands—they feared that the native inhabitants were cannibals—Pollard instead attempted to lead them to South America. They soon came upon Ducie’s Island, but, finding no sustenance there, all but three of the men departed the island.

They had been 90 days at sea before they were fallen in with, and had experienced the most dreadful of all human vicissitudes; from the extremity of hunger they had been reduced to the painful necessity of killing and devouring each other, in order to sustain a wretched life, that was hourly expected to be terminated.– Eight times had lots been drawn, and eight human beings had been sacrificed to afford sustenance to those that remained; and, on the day the ship encountered them, the Captain and the boy had also drawn lots, and it had been thus determined that the poor boy should die! But, providentially, a ship hove in sight and took them in, and they were restored to existence. Doleful in the extreme as it is to hear such things, and painful as it is to relate them, it is nevertheless asserted as a fact by Captain Raine, that the fingers and other fragment of their deceased companions were in the pockets of the Capitan and boy when taken on board the whaler.

What this account leaves out, of course, is that first to be devoured was the Captain’s own cousin.

Having been in Valparaiso at the time of the survivor’s arrival, Thomas Raine, Captian of the British convict transport Surry, was so distressed by the tale that he altered his route to Australia in order to rescue the marooned men. On the 5th of April, Raine came upon the island and fired his guns to attract their attention.

shortly after the three poor men were seen to issue forth from the woods. The boards were presently lowered, Capt. R. taking one himself. On approaching the shore it was found not only dangerous, but utterly impracticable to land, of which circumstance they were informed, in weak and tremulous voices, by the almost starved and nearly worn-out creatures themselves, who could scarcely, from the miserable plight they were in, articulate a syllable. One poor fellow summoned up courage to plunge into the waves and with great difficulty reached the boat; he said one of the others only could swim. After warily backing in the boat as near as the rocks as possible, amidst a heavy surf, they succeeded in getting on board, much bruised and lacerated by reported falls; which object was no sooner effected, than each devoutly expressed his gratitude to that benign Being, who had so wonderfully preserved them from sharing in the destruction to which their unhappy shipmates had fallen victims.

The Surry, tending to the miserable survivors, conveyed them to New South Wales where a fuller account of their trials was presented. Later accounts would find that, in total, eight of the crew were rescued: The captain and Charles Ramsdell, the three men on Ducie’s Island, and another three from a different boat; they too had resorted in cannibalism in order to survive.

What is particularly interesting about this particular account is the order in which the narrative is conveyed. Rather than following a chronological path (as I have done here), the editor first presented an account of Pollard’s cannibalism, then the heroism of Captain Raine, and finally the full account of the attack and the sinking of the Essex.

Why? There are two possibilities.

The first is that the editor of the Sydney Gazette, in which the article first appeared, felt it would be more compelling in that order; it would evoke a feeling that it just keeps getting worse.

The other, more likely, scenario, is that the editor simply set the type as the news trickled in, first from Raine and later from the three men who had been marooned on Ducie’s Island.

Don’t believe me? Try setting a full column of nineteenth-century typeface and see how keen you are to start again from scratch.

5 thoughts on “It just keeps getting worse: George Pollard and the Truth behind Moby Dick

  1. Joseph Greeley

    And then in 2015 Ron Howard butchered their story even further . . .

  2. I thought it was an excellent movie even if it wasn’t entirely accurate.

  3. When novels were first written, they were considered immoral because they were works of imagination (thought of as “lies”), not representing real events. The vestiges of that kind of naive thinking can be found in the comments on this page as well as critical reviews whenever a work of art deviates from historical facts. Historical events for a writer or movie director serve as the starting point for their art. The final product should be observed on its own artistic merits, as a possible unfolding of an event, not as a scene-by-scene account of real occurrences.

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