Tonight we’ll be on the 3rd Floor of the Main Library in Reference Conference Room West. Hope to see you there!
Tonight we’ll be on the 3rd Floor of the Main Library in Reference Conference Room West. Hope to see you there!
Why do you believe the tale of the Essex needed retelling? Why is it important to tell now?
Except for at a few old whaling ports such as Nantucket and New Bedford, the story of the Essex was known, if it was known at all, as the story that inspired the climax of Moby-Dick. It seemed to me that the Essex was something more than the raw material for Melville’s miraculous art; it was a survival tale that also happened to be an essential part of American history. Back in the early nineteenth century, America had more frontiers than the West; there was also the sea, and the Nantucket whaleman was the sea-going mountain man of his day, chasing the sperm whale into the distant corners of the Pacific Ocean. Americans today have lost track of the importance the sea had in creating the nation’s emerging identity. It wasn’t all cowboys and Indians; there was also the whalemen and Pacific. More than a decade before the Donner party brought a story of frontier cannibalism to the American public, there was the Essex disaster.
You brought a historic tale to life with vivid detail and emotional content that rivals narrative fiction. Did it feel like you were writing fiction?
I am trained as a journalist, and instead of inventing anything, the way a fiction writer would, I was trying to figure out, as best I could, what really happened. Where information concerning the Essex and her crew was lacking, I turned to other whaling voyages for examples of what had occurred under similar circumstances. I was very much concerned with the personalities of the men, so I combed documents on Nantucket to help me identify what their backgrounds had been. I looked to modern-day scientific studies in an attempt to figure out what the crew was experiencing, not only in terms of their suffering at sea, but also in terms of the interpersonal dynamics of a survival situation. I resisted the temptation to create dialogue or presume to know what the men were thinking. On the other hand, I realized that this was an amazing story, and I didn’t want my research to interfere with the inherent drama of the tale. I found that if an informational sidebar had its own story to tell, it added to, rather than detracted from, the drama. But I didn’t want to litter the book with references to arcane literary and scientific studies. One of the reasons the end note section of the book is so long and detailed is that I wanted to remove the scholarly apparatus that so often gets in the way of the plot in academic history. I wanted to let the story tell itself. If a reader has questions about what sources I used and what decisions I made in crafting the narrative, he or she should refer to the notes.
What criteria did you use to delineate between reliable and unreliable sources? Who do you feel is a more reliable source, Owen Chase or Thomas Nickerson? Why?
Owen Chase, the first mate, wrote his account of the disaster within months of his rescue, while Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, waited half a century before he put pen to paper. Since the normal rule is that the person writing the closest to the actual event is the most trustworthy, that means that Chase’s account should be given precedence. However, Chase was an officer attempting to put some very bad decisions in the best possible light. Even though Nickerson was writing decades after the event, he was remembering a traumatic event that had occurred in his teenage years, and psychologists tell us that an older person’s memory of such an event is quite reliable. Instead of contradicting Chase, Nickerson adds details that the first mate chose not to reveal. For example, Nickerson reveals that Chase had had an opportunity to lance the whale after the first attack but chose not to. With the help of Nickerson, whose narrative was not discovered until 1980, I aimed to broaden, and in some cases challenge, the received wisdom of Owen Chase.
Do you think that Captain George Pollard was a poor captain or just unlucky?
Pollard was certainly unlucky, but he also had difficulty asserting his will upon the crew. Pollard was a first-time captain and seemed hesitant to overrule his subordinates. In just about every situation, his instincts were correct, but he inevitably allowed himself to be talked out of his convictions by his two mates, Owen Chase and Matthew Joy. As leadership psychologists will tell you, a leader, particularly in a survival situation, must make decisions firmly and quickly. Pollard was too much of a Hamlet.
Were you surprised that after the Essex disaster so many of her survivors returned to the sea?
No, I wasn’t. On Nantucket in the early nineteenth century a young, ambitious man had few options. If he wasn’t going to go whaling, there wasn’t much else for him to do. When asked how he could dare go back to sea, Pollard simply said that the lightning never struck in the same place twice. These men had every reason to believe that they had survived the worst that fate could ever throw at them.
What fascinates you about a survival tale such as this? Why do you think that such true survival tales are so popular today?
A survival tale peels away the niceties and comforts of civilization. Suddenly, all the technology and education in the world means nothing. I think all of us wonder while reading a survival tale, what would I have done in this situation? Would I have made it? There’s a part of us that feels our pampered twenty-first-century existence is a kind of lie, I think. We read these stories to experience vicariously the essential truths of life and, of course, death.
Why do you think, given the fascination the true story of the Essex held for so many, that Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick failed to garner much attention immediately following its publication?
Part of Melville’s problem with Moby-Dick was timing. American popular tastes had shifted. Instead of the wilderness of the sea, Americans were, after the Gold Rush of 1848-49, most interested in the Wild West, and Moby-Dick was published in 1851. The other strike against Moby-Dick was that it was, for the mid-nineteenth century, a very unconventional and challenging novel. For us, it’s different. A generation reared on Joyce and Faulkner finds the subtleties and outrages of Moby-Dick a wonderful delight. For readers of Longfellow and Whittier, Melville’s novel was very, very strange.
You say in your Epilogue that the Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. Can you explain?
To my mind, an adventure is something a person willingly undertakes. Shackleton attempting to traverse Antarctica or Mallory climbing Mt. Everest are adventurers. If they run into troubles, they are, by and large, troubles of their own devising. The crew of the Essex were whalemen simply trying to make a living when they were attacked by an 85-foot whale. There was nothing adventurous about the sufferings they subsequently endured. I would certainly call them heroic, but they were not adventurers.
As a current resident of Nantucket, what do you perceive to be the town’s relationship with its whaling history?
Nantucket today has, I think, a somewhat tortured relationship with its past. On one hand, Nantucketers are proud of the island’s whaling history; on the other, they care deeply about the marine life they see in the waters surrounding the island. Just last Fourth-of-July weekend a pod of pilot whales beached on the north shore of the island, and Nantucketers worked ceaselessly for an entire day in a vain attempt to save the very same whales their forefathers would have instinctively massacred. Times change.
What’s next for you? Have you plumbed the depths of Nantucket history?
I don’t think it’s ever possible to plumb the depths of this island’s rich history. However, my next book does take me away from the island, even if it is, I think, a natural evolution for a Nantucket historian. It’s about the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, an unprecedented voyage of discovery by the American Navy that would do for the Pacific Ocean what Lewis and Clark had done for the American West. Following in the whalemen’s considerable wake, this expedition would chart hundreds of Pacific Islands and bring back so many scientific specimens that the Smithsonian Institution would be created, in part, to house them. For good measure, this expedition would also venture toward the South Pole and establish for the first time that Antarctica was a continent. Two ships would be lost; dozens of men would never return. It’s yet another amazing story of the sea with which modern-day Americans have lost touch.
Thomas Nickerson was the fourteen-year-old cabin boy aboard the Essex who wrote his account of the event not immediately after returning home, but after returning to sea many times, becoming a captain himself, and retiring to a house in Nantucket. Read part of the account at http://www.galapagos.to/TEXTS/NICKERSON.HTM.
You can read Owen Chase’s account of the tragedy in its entirety at http://mysite.du.edu/~ttyler/ploughboy/1821%20-%20Owen%20Chase%20-%20Essex%20Narrative.htm.
February 11, 2011
(Honolulu, HI) Maritime heritage archaeologists working with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have found the nationally-significant wreckage of a famous 1800’s Nantucket whale ship, Two Brothers, on a reef off French Frigate Shoals, nearly six hundred miles northwest of Honolulu, in the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
This rare archaeological discovery is the first discovery of a wrecked whaling ship from Nantucket, Mass., the birthplace of America’s whaling industry. All of America’s whaling ships are now gone, broken up or sunk, except one, the National Historic Landmark Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.
Two Brothers was captained by George Pollard Jr., whose previous Nantucket whaling vessel, Essex, was rammed and sunk by a whale in the South Pacific, inspiring Herman Melville’s famous book, Moby-Dick. Pollard gained national notoriety after the Essex sinking, when he and a handful of his crew resorted to cannibalism in order to survive their prolonged ordeal drifting on the open ocean. The story of Pollard, Essex and Two Brothers was reintroduced to American audiences by author Nathaniel Philbrick’s New York Times bestseller, In the Heart of the Sea.
Capt. Pollard went to sea again as the Master of Two Brothers and was likely the last person to think “lightning would strike twice,” but it did on the night of Feb. 11, 1823, when Two Brothers hit a shallow reef off French Frigate Shoals. Pollard did not want to abandon ship but his crew pleaded with him and they clung to small boats for survival during a long and harrowing night. The next morning they were rescued by the crew of another Nantucket whaler.
For the past 188 years, the wreckage of Two Brothers has been lost on the ocean floor. The vessel was part of a fleet of several hundred whaling ships that were part of America’s economic and political expansion into the Pacific, transforming the region, including Hawaii, both economically and culturally, and resulting in the near extinction of many whale species. The whaling fleets were also largely responsible for early exploration of the Indian Ocean and the polar regions.
A 2008 NOAA-led expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to study marine life, remove floating marine debris and look for cultural resources resulted in the initial clues about the resting place of the Two Brothers. Maritime archaeologists first spotted a large anchor, followed by three trypots (cast iron pots for melting whale blubber to produce oil), another large anchor, hundreds of bricks and the remains of the ship’s rigging. Those artifacts conclusively indicated the wreckage was from a whaler dating to the early 19th century. Subsequent expeditions in 2009 and 2010 resulted in researchers discovering more artifacts including blubber hooks, five whaling harpoon tips, three whaling lances, four cast-iron cooking pots and ceramics and glass indicating a U.S. origin. This helped confirm the dating of the wreckage. Additional scholarly research provided first-hand accounts from Two Brothers crew members, including an approximate location of where the ship grounded, which matched the location of the wreckage.
“Shipwreck sites like this are important in helping tell the stories of the early days of sailing, including whaling and maritime activities both in the Pacific and around the world,” said Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument maritime archaeologist Kelly Gleason, Ph.D., who led the on-site expeditions using NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai.
“Discoveries like the Two Brothers serve an important role in connecting geographically separated regions and communities (New England and the Pacific), the past to the present, and provide context and better understanding human decisions that have altered the planet,” said James Delgado, director, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program.
Papahānaumokuākea is cooperatively managed to ensure ecological integrity and achieve strong, long-term protection and perpetuation of Northwestern Hawaiian Island ecosystems, Native Hawaiian culture, and heritage resources for current and future generations. Three co-trustees — the Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior and State of Hawai‘i, joined by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs — protect this special place. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was designated as the first mixed (natural and cultural) UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States in July 2010. Downloadable images of shipwreck artifacts, a site map and artist renderings of Whaleship Essex are available at http://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/maritime/twobrothersmedia.html
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