The strange true story that inspired one of the world’s most famous books. The man who went down in history after a unique encounter

A once-in-a-lifetime disaster off the coast of South America 200 years ago is said to have inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick.

On November 20, 1820, the Essex, an American whaling ship that had set sail a year earlier from the scenic center of Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, sank. George Pollard Jr. was its captain and, in a harrowing encounter, ran into a monstrous 80-tonne sperm whale some 3,200 km off the west coast of South America. Just over 30 years later, the events of that harrowing day became the story behind one of America’s most beloved stories, Moby Dick.

Written by Herman Melville in 1851, Moby Dick, or The Whale as it is often called, is considered by many to be one of the most influential novels in history.

Acclaimed the world over, iconic English author D. H. Lawrence perhaps best summed up Moby Dick when he described it as “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.”

At the time of its release, the book was considered a commercial failure and was out of print until Melville’s death some 40 years after its publication. But the story of the sailor Ishmael and the search, with the haunting Captain Ahab, for the beast that bit his knee endured through the next century.

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The New York-born author took about 18 months to complete it and drew on Melville’s own experiences as a sailor between 1841 and 1844. Other influences included the true story of an albino whale, Mocha Dick.

But most interestingly, it was inspired by Pollard Jr, the Nantucket-born whaling captain who during his career captained the ships The Essex and Two Brother, both of which sank.

“They escaped in leaky lifeboats”

Essex met his fate in the South Pacific 202 years ago after being struck by a capsize. To survive, Pollard Jr. and surviving crew members used three small boats that were aboard the Essex to stay afloat.

Soon, however, starving and suffering from dehydration, the survivors resorted to cannibalism as they drifted out to sea for a staggering two months before being picked up by another ship.

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This encounter apparently provided Melville with the main plot for his novel, and the author, according to the Nantucket Historical Association, said of Pollard Jr: “To the islanders he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive, though utterly modest, even humble – man I ever met.”

His influence on Melville was also cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which also described Pollard Jr’s legacy.

“Young Melville was famously inspired by the story of George Pollard, former captain of the whaler Essex. While on a two-year whaling expedition across the Pacific, Essex was struck by a sperm whale.

Quickly abandoning ship and thousands of miles from land, Pollard and his crew escaped in leaky lifeboats to begin a horrific ordeal, resulting in disease, starvation and cannibalism.”

“One of the few who survived, Pollard was given a second chance to become captain of another whaler, Two Brothers.

But after 18 months in the Pacific, Pollard ran aground with Two Brothers, sinking the ship in what is now Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.”

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