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The True-Life Horror that Inspired Moby-Dick

In November of 1820, a seafaring expedition went all wrong when a whale repeatedly attacked and sank the whaling ship the Essex. The young captain, George Pollard Jr. and the crew were stranded on three 20-foot boats for months. A few of them survived.  

Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue and to a missionary named George Bennet, and to Bennet it seemed like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told him. “I hardly know what I say.”

The story of the Essex crew inspired Herman Melville to write a novel about a whale hunter, which was not well received and only sold a few thousand copies in his lifetime. Read the whole story at Smithsonian's Past Imperfect blog. Link


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