White Whales and Wooden ShipsPosted: November 20, 2008
There is a great story over at Wired about the whaling ship Essex, which in 1820 was rammed and sunk by a Sperm Whale somewhere in the Pacific. This is the story that partly inspired Melville to write Moby Dick a book everyone should read at least once. Melville of course was a seaman on several whale ships and stories like this would have circulated among his fellow crewmembers. One of the best things about Moby Dick is the way Melville blends the mechanics and science of whaling and whales with their mythic power. The real story of the Essex is fantastical in itself, but Melville’s novel turns the whale into a force beyond nature. From the article:
The ship’s three remaining whaleboats — one had been destroyed by a whale’s flukes during an earlier hunt — were dispatched for the kill. As the harpooning began, First Mate Owen Chase, commanding one of the whaleboats, looked back and saw a large sperm whale, which he estimated at 85 feet, approaching the Essex.
As he watched helplessly, the whale propelled itself into the ship with great force. Some crewmen on board were knocked off their feet by the collision, and Chase watched in disbelief as the whale drew back and rammed the ship again. This time the Essex was holed below the waterline, and doomed.
The crew organized what provisions they could and two days later abandoned ship aboard the three whaleboats. Twenty men left the Essex. Eight would ultimately survive the harrowing ordeal that played out over the next three months.
Here’s the link to the story, which comes with an excellent slideshow entitled ‘The Creatures That Ate Hollywood’.
Here’s my take on Melville’s novel.