By George Dobbs

(via Wikimedia)

“We really do believe,” states an 1851 edition of The London Atlas, “that Melville knows more about whales than any man from Jonah down.” But do we today have the same faith in Herman Melville's depiction of a monster whale? And could the eccentric and tyrannical Captain Ahab have developed from anything other than fiction? Melville's early life holds some clues:

Illustration from an 1892 edition of Moby-Dick (via Wikimedia)

The Fatal Attack

November 20, 1820, far out in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, 23-year-old Owen Chase saw a chilling sight:

"I observed a very large spermaceti whale, as well as I could judge, about eighty-five feet in length. … [he] was lying quietly, with his head in a direction for the ship. He spouted two or three times and then disappeared. In less than two or three seconds, he came up again … and made directly for us."

Chase, the first mate of Essex, the 21-man whaling ship out of Nantucket, was about to face a desperate struggle for survival. The whale struck the side of the ship “with full speed” and with a force that “threw us all on our faces,” then disappeared into the depths:

"He had stove a hole in the ship. … I turned to the boats, two of which we then had with the ship. … While my attention was thus engaged for a moment, I was roused with the cry of a man at the hatchway: 'Here he is — he is making for us again.' I turned round and saw him … directly ahead of us, coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed and … with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. ... I bawled out to the helmsman, 'Hard up!' But she had not fallen off more than a point before we took the second shock."

The ship's bow cracked. Chase rushed below to gather what supplies he could for survival at sea, but it was already too late: “the water by this time had rushed in.”

The shock and despair felt by this previously “lucky” crew is evident in Chase's report a year later: “We were more than a thousand miles from the nearest land, and with nothing but a light open boat.”

Illustration from a 1902 edition of Moby-Dick (via Wikimedia)

Chance Meetings

Melville met Chase's son William on a whaling voyage 20 years later, close to the spot where the Essex sank, and was shown a rare printed copy of the account, from which he later made detailed notes. For comparison, here is the whale attack in Melville's Moby-Dick:

"The whale wheeled round … catching sight of the nearing black hull of the ship; seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethink it — it may be — a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam."

Compare this to another excerpt taken from Chase's account: “He was enveloped in the foam of the sea. … I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together as if distracted with rage and fury.” It seems evident that Melville used the account as his primary source, not only for details of Chase's experiences but also for its vivid language.

Unfortunately Owen Chase's nightmare did not end with the whale attack. The surviving crew of 20 gradually died of starvation and thirst, and Chase finally resorted to cannibalism to survive: “[We] cut all the flesh from the bones; after which we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again, sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” Only a chance encounter with another ship brought Chase and the seven remaining men to safety. The captain, a man named Pollard, retired to Nantucket, where Melville later interviewed him and described him as “the most impressive man” he had ever met.

Illustration from a 1902 edition of Moby-Dick (via Wikimedia)

Tyrants at Sea

Captain Ahab is too mercurial to pin to one source, but Melville wouldn't have had to reach far for inspiration when it came to a tyrannical captains and a discontented crew. “On June 2, 1843, Captain Pease filed … a comprehensive affidavit of deserters, including Herman Melville ... at Nuku Hiva,” states Mary C. Bercaw Edward's in her essay, “Questioning Typee.” According to a 19th century source, Melville was so “disgusted by the caprice and tyranny of the captain” that he fled the ship into the jungle. He was one of two sailors to hide and remain at large on the Marquesas Islands, where it's claimed he lived with a band of cannibals, the Typee, for over a month.

But Melville's battles with authority were far from over. Mark Howard's essay “Melville and the Lucy Ann Mutiny” shows that, as the Lucy Ann, circled Nuku Hiva: “five beachcombers were taken aboard as replacement crewmen. One of these individuals was Herman Melville.” A short time later “a violent incident … occurred when the acting third mate struck a seaman who had shown him disrespect.” After this incident, 10 men mutinied, including Melville. He was imprisoned and made a statement to the court that he “would share the same as the others who refused to do their duty” rather than bow to his commanders. He was eventually let off and allowed to join the crew of another U.S. ship bound for home, but by then his trials had made a strong impression.

Melville was an eclectic-minded writer and to reduce his wider inspiration to single events doesn't really do him justice. But in some particular aspects of Moby-Dick, it's impressive to realise that he was writing from what he actually knew. There were some whales that fought back against the whaling ships, and there were some crewmen — Melville included — engaged in a fight against tyranny.

George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.

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