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“Vengeance in his aspect”: When a Whale Hunted a Ship

This post was written by Julia Blakely, special collections  cataloger. It previously appeared on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

The trailer for the big Hollywood movie of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (G530.E76 2000X NMAH) is out and it is terrifying. The true saga of the Essex inspired aspects of Moby Dick, or the title as it originally was published, The Whale, thirty years after the ship was sunk by a furious sperm whale in the southern Pacific Ocean. Herman Melville himself is part of the movie story, interviewing one of the survivors.


As it happens, I just cataloged for the Cullman Library a chapbook, an inexpensive form of publication usually illustrated with lively if simple woodcuts, which narrates this “most remarkable” tale of the Essex, the ill-fated voyage that began in Nantucket in 1819. Stories About the Whale: with an Account of the Whale Fishery, and the Perils Attending its Prosecution, was published in Concord, New Hampshire in 1850 (PZ10.3 .S881850 SCNHRB) and was rather crudely printed. The title page serves as the cover, with the text (24 pages in all) printed on a single sheet which was then folded and stitched with no binding. Issued a year before Melville’s masterpiece, the chapbook indicates how big and potent the tale was in 19th-century America. This piece of juvenile literature, in a section with caption title “Shipwrecks and Disasters,” warns boys of the dangers of the industry “as the whales often dash to pieces the boats in which the sailors go out to attack them” and a much quicker read of the Essex story in three pages than Moby Dick!


Owen Chase was the first mate on the Essex and lived to pen Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex of Nantucket in 1821. There are reprints in the Smithsonian Libraries (G530.E72 1989X, Kellogg Library), attesting to the staying power of the tragedy. The Captain, George Pollard, was also among the eight survivors; he endured an excruciating three months on one of the small whaleboats. Perhaps it is Chase or Pollard who is heard narrating the disaster in the film clip; most of the others wrote an account, which vary in the details, not surprisingly (for more of the story, click on this article in Smithsonian Magazine).

Captain Pollard, still a young man, returned to the sea but suffered other mishaps and became feared as a “Jonah.” In the second volume of Journal of Voyages and Travels by the Rev. Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet (Boston: Published by Crocker and Brewster, 1832; BV3705.T8 T979 1832 SCNHRB) the missionary Bennet details an encounter in Tahiti in April 1823 with a broken Pollard after the Captain had lost another ship. The author transcribed Pollard’s account, his “singular and lamentable story,” which included – spoiler alert! – cannibalism. Pollard concluded: “But I can tell you no more–my head is on fire at the recollection.”


The Smithsonian’s own expert on whales, Curator Emeritus of Marine Mammals James G. Mead, stands in this photograph before a bookcase once owned by Melville, a whaler himself, that holds an array of copies of Moby Dick, including the very first and rare printing, published in London in October 1851, which was followed one month later by another edition in New York. This collection of Melvilleana is in the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Dr. Mead points to one of its many treasures, the copy of Moby Dick that was owned by its dedicatee, Nathaniel Hawthorne.


Alas, the Smithsonian does not hold any of the earlier issues of Moby Dick, but it does have Sam Ita’s Moby-Dick: a Pop-Up Book (New York: Sterling Publishers, c2007) that tells the tale in abridged and highly inventive form (PZ7.I89617 Mob 2007 CHMRB).


You can view the trailer for In the Heart of the Sea on YouTube now:


  1. Mario Rups

    It can be argued (as I do) that Moby Dick is one of the two greatest American novels written to date (Huckleberry Finn being the other). Every re-reading reveals new insights and new appreciation. Thank you for a wonderful essay, Julia; that trailer looks very promising. (And, yes, I own a copy of the Sam Ita pop-up.)

  2. Ashton Lee

    Truly an astounding epic of storytelling, real life accounts, adventure, and man’s will to survive.

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