At the age of 32, novelist Herman Melville had just released his new novel: Moby-Dick.
Despite a lack of buyers and positive reviews, the young author had high hopes for the new work. In a promotional spirit, and perhaps a bit of guilt, Melville traveled to Nantucket to visit the fictional home part of Captain Ahab for the first time.
On his last day on the Massachusetts island, after meeting with dignitaries and seeing the sights previously only imagined, Melville met the man who captained the Essex – the ship sunk by a sperm whale that initially inspired the classic novel.
Captain George Pollard Jr. had survived the incident and returned to Nantucket. He went on to captain another whaling ship, though the new venture ended with the shipwrecked on a coral reef and Pollard labeled unlucky. The ill-fated “Jonah” lived out the remaining years safely ashore, as a night watchman.
“To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”
After the Essex tragedy, Pollard would tell the story to a missionary named George Bennet, more as a confession than an interview. The Essex crew, quite grimly, were trapped on a boat for a little over three months. The madness, hunger, and eventual cannibalism that occurred provided ample reason for Melville to limit any conversation to light discussion and niceties.
The surviving three members of the Essex would eventually be saved by the English ship Indian. According to the crew of the Indian, the survivors did not rejoice at their rescue. Rather, even safely aboard the new ship, Pollard refused to be parted with his dead crewmates’ bones. He was seen sucking the marrow out of them for days.
Recovered and back in Nantucket, the Essex survivors were largely excused for the extreme behavior in the aftermath of the tragedy. Nautical history is riddled with similar tales of cannibalism in dire circumstances.
On the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, Captain Pollard was said to lock himself in his room and fast as a tribute to his fallen shipmates.
Though Moby Dick only sold a few thousand copies during Melville’s life, falling short of being the hit the author had hoped for, the novel would eventually be rediscovered by scholars in the 1920s and be thrust into a popularity that continues today.