Was 'Moby Dick' based on real historical events?

Herman Melville

Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851) is not only one of the best known but most important works of fiction in United States history. While Melville's book is undoubtedly fiction, he drew widely from his experiences as a whaler and some incredible stories of remarkably dangerous 19th-century whales. His book is an extraordinarily accurate depiction of life at sea.

Unsurprisingly for work as prominent as Moby Dick, it has been turned into a movie, starring Gregory Peck and a mini-series, starring Ethan Hawke (2011). Recently, even one of the stories that inspired the novel was turned into the movie In the Heart of the Sea (2015) starring Chris Hemsworth and directed by Ron Howard. So what real events and experiences inspired Melville to write Moby Dick?

The author of Moby Dick

Herman Melville, the author of the novel (1819-1892), was born in New York, into an affluent family, his father a merchant died when he was quite young. His father's death left Melville and his family in a precarious financial position and dependent on relatives. The young man signed up to serve on a whaling ship and went to sea in 1840 on-board a whaling ship. Throughout the 19th century, whales were hunted for their valuable oil.

While at sea the young Melville had many adventures.[1] In 1841, he jumped ship in Tahiti and later joined another whaler. He became involved in a mutiny on board this ship and was briefly jailed.

Melville served as an ordinary seaman on a US Navy frigate before he eventually returned home. Soon he became a full-time writer and had great success with his first novel Typee, based on his own adventures.[2] His later works were not commercially successful and the book that he is best known for, Moby Dick was a complete failure.

Melville was obliged to work as a custom’s official and continued to write poetry and prose, but they were largely ignored. He died penniless and forgotten in 1891 in New York. Since then his fame has grown. His novels, short stories, and poems are regarded not only as classics of American literature but of World literature.[3]

The plot of the novel

Ahab and the whale

The novel opens with the narrator Ishmael looking for a ship. He is a man who is seeking a purpose in life. He signs up to serve on a whaling ship the Pequod in Nantucket. The captain of the ship is Ahab, who throughout the novel is shown to be an unstable man possessed with a desire to kill the white whale.

Ishmael meets a host of colorful characters on-board the ship including Queequeg, and Fedallah, both harpooners. Captain Ahab has lost his leg in an encounter with a gigantic white sperm whale, and his desire for revenge consumes him. He nails a gold coin to the mast and states that he will give it to the first man who sees the whale, the legendary Moby Dick. Ishmael soon realizes that this is not a typical whaling mission but a revenge mission.

The Pequod sails around the globe, hunting whales, but Ahab is only interested in finding Moby Dick. The ships have several adventures including being battered by a typhoon in the Pacific. One of the crew members prophesized that the whale will kill Ahab, this does not deter the one-legged captain, and he continues to pursue his vendetta.

During the search, they hear tales of the great white whale, and in one instance, they learn that it has recently sunk a ship. Finally, the Captain himself sees the whale, and there begins a brutal three-day encounter between Ahab, his men, and Moby Dick. On the first day, the captain and his crew attack the whale with harpoons from small boats, but the white whale smashes the ship and nearly kills Ahab. Several sailors are lost that day.

The following day Ahab and his crew again try and slaughter the whale but again it sinks the boats. On the third day, the captain, once again, engages with Moby Dick. During this encounter, both the whale is killed and Ahab are killed. As a result of the fight, Pequod is badly damaged and sinks, and the only survivor is Ishmael as he floats in a wooden coffin until he is rescued.[4]

The adventures of Herman Melville

A magazine cover featuring Mocha Dick

Melville was at sea for several years and had served on two whalers. During the mid-19th century, whaling was a huge industry and it employed tens of thousands of American sailors and was critical to the economy of the North-East of the United States. Melville’s description of life aboard a whaling ship is very accurate as a result.

How the sailors lived and the difficult conditions that they endured are all very realistic. Many of the details of the Pequod are based on Melville’s own time spend on the whaler Acushnet. This ship was owned by a Quaker who may have been the model for the character Bildad. The crew of the ship that Melville served on was very diverse. It included Africans, Europeans, and Americans. Many of his shipmates may have served as models for some of his most memorable creations. Some critics have argued that the diverse crew was a symbol for America and its many different ethnicities and groups.[5]

The literary tradition

Melville was a great creative writer and was a voracious reader, and like every other author, he was part of a literary tradition. His imagination and his literary influences included Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible. Much of the work is based on the imagination of the author and his preoccupations. Moby Dick is a work that is very symbolic and one of its main themes according to many critics is the search for God.[6] Ahab is possibly passed on the Israelite king who led the Hebrews away from the Lord. He was a worshipper of idols and many, readers in the 19th century would have, interpreted Ahab’s obsession with the whale as a form of worship and sinful. It is important to note that Melville was brought up in a strict Calvinist household.[7]

This interpretation is only one of the readings of the book, which is remarkably complex. Another influence on the work is Shakespeare. Many believe that Ahab was based on great tragic heroes such as King Lear and Macbeth.[8] Another possible model for the one-legged captain was the character of Satan, in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Melville was also greatly influenced by non-fiction works; these included the famous Two Years Before the Mast.

Sinking of the Essex

Many historians and Melville scholars believe that the main model for the Pequod and the story of Moby Dick was the tragic fate of the Essex. This was an American whaler from Nantucket, Massachusetts. It was a very successful whaler and it was owned by a number of local citizens, which was the custom of the time. In 1820, the ship was hunting whales in the South Pacific, and it was under the command of a Captain George Pollard.

While hunting, a huge sperm whale attacked the vessel.[9] The Essex was so badly damaged by the mammal that it could not sail. The 20 men on board had little food and even less water. They forced to leave the sinking ship in small boats in the hope of reaching land, but they were thousands of miles for the coast of South America.

The crew had no food and began to starve, and in desperation, they began to eat the bodies of those who died in the boat. When there were no more corpses to eat, the crew drew lots as to who would be killed and cannibalized. In total, the records differ, some seven or eight men were eaten by their crewmates.

They were eventually rescued by a passing British ship. Only eight men, out of the original crew of twenty, survived.[10] Some of the survivors left an account of the sinking of the Essex and their privations. The most famous account was written by Owen Chase, who was the first mate on the doomed ship. It appears that Melville read this work, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex and even met Chase’ son.

There are striking similarities between the fate of the Essex and the Pequod. In both, whalers were attacked by a colossal sperm whales which led to the loss of life. However, there are some differences, the chief one is that there is no cannibalism in the 1851 book. In 2015 a movie ‘In the heart of the Sea’ was made based on the crew of the Essex.

Mocha Dick

In the book, a gigantic white whale attacked the Pequod and sank it, killing all the crew, except Ishmael. In the 19th century, there were several instances of, mainly sperm whales attacking whalers, but they were very rare. However, more ships were damaged or sank after collisions with the mammals. Among one of the well-known examples of this whale, attacks were the Essex. Another possible model for the white whale was Mocha Dick.[11] This was an albino sperm whale who was described as an extraordinarily aggressive giant (over 100 ft.) who was coated with barnacles. He lived in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Chile, and was often seen near the Island of Mocha. This why he was named as Mocha Dick.

The whale had possibly up to 100 encounters with whalers, and he may have survived all of them. [12] Sometimes, if he did not feel threatened he would meekly swim net to a ship. If he was threatened by a harpooner, he would strike boats with his massive fluke (at the end of his tail) or leap from the water and fall on the vessel. The whale became something of a legend, especially among mariners in Massachusetts. It was claimed that he was killed in 1838 and that it took twenty harpoons to kill him.

However, it was also reported that he was seen in the Arctic. There were many reports of huge white sperm whales in the 19th century, and Mocha Dick was not unique. There are certain similarities between this whale and Moby Dick, such as its color, size, and aggression. It seems that Melville was aware of the story, and it inspired him when he was writing his most memorable novel.

Conclusion

Moby Dick is an amazing read, and its plot and language make it a unique piece of art. One of the reasons why the book is so memorable was its detail and both its realistic depictions of life on a whaling ship and the dangers of whaling in the 19th century. Melville’s great work is so powerful because it is in large part based on actual historical events that the author's actual experiences. Moby Dick offered great insight into the whaling industry in the 19th century. Melville appears to have based many of the characters he created on his old shipmates. It also seems that he was greatly influenced by the tragic fate of the Essex and its crew. However, he only used elements of the story.

It is almost certain that he had heard of the remarkable Mocha Dick and other huge white sperm whales. The tales of Mocha Dick, no doubt, inspired the American writer in the creation of perhaps the most famous novel of the sea. However, the story of Moby Dick was also greatly influenced by the literary tradition, especially Shakespeare. The magnum opus of the New York-born author was also inspired by the bible, evident in its symbolism. The reader should see Moby Dick as a composite of real historical events and the imagination of its author.

Further Reading

Bercaw, Mary K., Melville's Sources (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987).

Heimert, Alan. "Moby-Dick and American Political Symbolism." American Quarterly 15, no. 4 (1963): 498-534.

Kelley, Wyn, ed. A Companion to Herman Melville. (Blackwell Publishing, 2006)

References

  1. Delbanco, Andrew, Melville: His World and Work (New York: Knopf, 2005), p 23
  2. Delbanco, p 145
  3. Delbanco, p 112
  4. Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick (London, Penguin Books, 2012)
  5. Talley, Sharon. Student Companion to Herman Melville. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), p 19
  6. Sten, Christopher. Sounding the Whale: Moby-Dick as Epic Novel (Ohio, New Kent State University Press, 1996), p 115
  7. Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Knopf, 2005), p 113
  8. Brodhead, Richard H., ed. New Essays on Moby-Dick (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986), p 118
  9. Severin, Timothy, and Tim Serverin. In search of Moby Dick: Quest for the white whale (London, Little, Brown, 1999), p. 18
  10. Severein, p. 121
  11. Severein, p.99
  12. Severein, p 118