Stove by a Whale

Like Benito Cereno, Moby-Dick was also inspired by real-life events. In this case, it was the story of the whale ship Essex that Melville incorporated into the novel. The Essex was attacked by a sperm whale while hunting in the South Pacific—rammed twice, in fact—and sunk. The crew was able to escape on the three whale boats with some water and hard bread, and also makeshift masts and sails. At the time, they were some 1,000 miles from land, but instead of sailing to Tahiti they chose to make for the coast of South America. They were afraid of cannibals.

Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, published his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (likely ghostwritten) after his return to Nantucket. The account is harrowing; a few men in a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean, slowly running out of food and drink. And they do run out. The men are in despair, of course, but:

I reasoned with them, and told them that we would not die sooner by keeping up our hopes; that the dreadful sacrifices and privations we endured were to preserve us from death, and were not to be put in competition with the price which we set upon our lives, and their value to our families; it was, besides, unmanly to repine at what neither admitted of alleviation nor cure; and withal, that it was our solemn duty to recognise in our calamities an overruling divinity, by whose mercy we might be suddenly snatched from peril, and to rely upon him alone, “Who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.”

Chase speaks thus throughout of his attitude and the hope he tries to instill in his men. Could he really have been so rational and optimistic? He is very cool and collected when it comes to the most intelligent way to ration out food and drink, and even when it comes to eating his fellow sailors seems to keep reason at the top of his mind. But all this can just as easily be the way he wants himself remembered acting during such an adventure.

At the beginning of the Narrative, Chase has a note to the reader that I found very interesting, both in terms of this book and all the others:

I am aware that the public mind has been already nearly sated with the private stories of individuals, many of whom had few, if any, claims to public attention; and the injuries which have resulted from the promulgation of fictitious histories, and in many instances, of journals entirely fabricated for the purpose, has had the effect to lessen the public interest in works of this description, and very much to undervalue the general cause of truth. It is, however, not the less important and necessary, that narratives should continue to be furnished that have their foundations in fact; and the subject of which embraces new and interesting matter in any department of the arts or sciences.

I love that he considers his book to embrace “new and interesting matter” in science. It was unheard of for a whale to attack a ship in this manner. And in any case, you could say he furnished new and interesting matter in the arts as well—Moby-Dick.

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