‘Call me Ishmael.’ Even one hundred and sixty-two years to the day after it was first published, the opening line to Herman Melville’s famous book, Moby-Dick, is considered one of the most recognizable in Western literature. The novel centres around a whaleship under the command of Captain Ahab that seeks out to destroy a ferocious and enigmatic white sperm whale, which had, in a previous encounter, wrecked Ahab’s boat and bitten off his leg. The book and its characters, of course, are a work of fiction, but two real-life events nonetheless served as the genesis for Melville’s tale.
The first event was the sinking of The Essex in 1820. The Essex was a 238 tonne whaleship from Massachusetts that was attacked by a huge sperm whale in the southern Pacific Ocean when the hunters on board attacked its family. The angry whale struck the ship and sank it. The twenty-one sailors on board the ship escaped in small boats, landing on the uninhabited Henderson Island. However, resources on the island soon ran out and the sailors decided that they would starve to death if they remained there much longer. Three men opted to stay on the island whilst the others set sail again. Soon, though, they had exhausted the fish and birds that they had collected for their voyage and, one by one, the remaining men began to die. They started to drink their own urine and even resorted to cannibalism to survive. The men drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed to feed the others. It was the younger cousin of Captain Pollard (whom, ironically, he had sworn to protect during the voyage) who drew the black spot, and he was shot and eaten by the others.
By the time the surviving five sailors were rescued, half-starved and delirious, seven men had been consumed by the others. The three men that remained behind on Henderson Island were also found and rescued. First Mate Owen Chase, a survivor, later wrote an account of the disaster called A Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.
The second event that inspired Herman Melville was the killing of a real-life white sperm whale called Mocha Dick. The whale was often sighted in the vicinity of Mocha Island off the coast of Chile, hence his name. Mocha Dick had survived many skirmishes (at least 100 by some accounts) with whalers, and his survival, coupled with his unusual colour, made him famous among the whale-hunters of Nantucket. Many captains attempted to hunt him after rounding Cape Horn in South America. He was apparently quite docile, sometimes swimming alongside the ship, but once attacked he retaliated with ferocity and cunning. When he was finally killed in 1838, he reportedly had several harpoons already in his body from previous encounters.
In 1841-42, Herman Melville spent eighteen months as an ordinary seaman aboard the whaler Acushnet, and during a rendezvous at sea between ships, he met the son of First Mate Owen Chase of The Essex, William. William showed Melville a printed copy of his father’s book on the disaster, which was rare and out of print at the time. Upon reading the account of First Mate Owen Chase in the book, Herman Melville soon set about writing his own masterpiece, which was published in 1851 – all thanks to a few stubborn and angry whales.