I’m not going to front. I fucking LOVE Moby Dick. It’s probably my second favorite book (after East of Eden, of course). The trick is to skip the nautical chapters and stick to getting inebriated off the prose, starting with the second line of the book- the first might be the most famous, but the second is enough to make a believer out of any Lit major. It’s also an immensely quotable book. The last time someone pissed me off, I told them ” from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” That showed them.
Anyways, I went through a Moby Dick phase a couple of years ago. I couldn’t get enough- after I devoured the book I was renting sperm whale documentaries, reading up on Nantucket- it was bad. What wasn’t bad, what was actually pretty amazing, was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea– the true story that inspired Moby Dick.
The story that inspired Moby Dick is far more interesting than the actual plot of the novel. It makes you wish Melville had stuck a bit closer to fact.
Ahab’s Pequod was based on the Nantucket whaling ship, The Essex. In 1819, twenty men boarded the Essex and set off from the coast of Nantucket on an epic two-year voyage. Unfortunately for them, most of the good whaling happened in the Pacific, which meant a hell of a detour down our fair continent and around the tip of South America.
On November 20, 1820, a month after hanging out in the Galapagos Islands and bringing aboard 120 tortoises (which were really just walking, shitting steaks to the sailors) the Essex crew was nearly as far at sea as anyone can be on Earth. And it was then that the real life Moby Dick struck.
They noticed the sperm whale off of the port bow, but rather than retreating from their awesome menacing harpoons, it approached them, curiously at first. Then all at once it dove, disappeared, and smashed headlong into the front of the ship. The crew was dumbstruck- not frightened at first- the way you’d react if a gang of squirrels suddenly jumped you.
The whale then shook itself off, headed out a distance, and started snapping its jaws and thrashing in the water, building up its primal rage. It turned around and torpedoed towards them at double the speed. But rather than just hit the ship, it slammed into it and then patiently pushed it over. (For a sweet illustration of the cataclysmic event, check out the cover to heavy metal troubadour Mastodon’s Leviathan album- here.)
That night the crew watched the last bit of the Essex sink from their three tiny whale boats. Then they set off into the darkness, hoping not to become separated from each other.
A few days later, one of the boats was attacked by another whale- this time a killer whale- who took a bite of the boat, and then spent a few hours ramming it playfully, until the whalers struck it enough with their oars. The boat barely survived the attack.
A month after The Essex sank, the sailors, all starving and on the verge of death, spotted an island. The elation was overwhelming… until they scoured the island, and found that it only had a trickle of fresh water and no animals or plants to eat. It was one sick joke after another.
One week after setting down, they had to jump back into the boats and hope for the best.
If they only knew what was coming… The captain of the ship, one George Pollard, decided to head east from the island because cannibals were rumored to live in the islands to the west. If only they had a map… These poor guys were unbelievably close to a slew of cannibal-less islands, full of delicious animals.
Instead they headed south east, actually dodging a few islands over the next two months.
With nothing to eat the men faced week after week of diarrhea, blackouts, edema and magnesium deficiency, which made them get violent. Soon they began drinking their own urine, stealing what tiny food they had left, and losing all hope of survival.
And then one by one, they started dying off.
The first to go were buried with a noble push off the boat. These were the lucky ones. Starving and eager to eat absolutely anything, the men soon decided to go cannibal. Ironic? They were too miserable to care.
Now here’s where the tale gets really fucked up. It got to the point where the men decided that they could either all die, or sacrifice one of their own for the good of the others. The four men on Captain Pollard’s ship drew lots to see which one would be eaten. The one with the shortest straw ended up being Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard’s cousin. The very man he’d sworn to protect- to Owen’s mother, his aunt no less. Pollard refused to kill him, but Coffin was resigned to fate. So they shot him and ate him. And a few days later, another sailor died on their boat- leaving just two alive, gnawing on the bones of their friends and relatives and wondering which one would kill the other.
When a ship came across their boat, February 23rd, what it saw were two Gollum-esque men covered in boils, eyes bulging out, beards caked in blood and salt, lying in a pile of human bones. They were sucking the marrow out of them, and jealously clutching them. They looked like “two starving dogs found trapped in a pit.”
The book is riveting- you can read the rest here.
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