HONOLULU — A fierce sperm whale sank the first whaling ship under George Pollard’s command and inspired the classic American novel “Moby-Dick”. A mere two years later, a second whaler captained by Pollard struck a coral reef during a night storm and sank in shallow water.
Marine archaeologists scouring remote atolls 600 miles northwest of Honolulu have found the wreck site of Pollard’s second vessel — the Two Brothers — which went down in 1823.
Most of the wooden Nantucket whaling ship disintegrated in Hawaii’s warm waters in the nearly two centuries since. But researchers found several harpoons, a hook used to strip whales of their blubber, and try pots or large cauldrons whalers used to turn whale blubber into oil. Corals have grown around and on top of many of the objects, swallowing them into the reef.
“To find the physical remains of something that seems to have been lost to time is pretty amazing,” said Nathaniel Philbrick, an author and historian who spent more than three years researching the Essex — and its fatal encounter with the whale — the Two Brothers and their captain. “It just makes you realize these stories are more than stories. They’re about real lives.”
Officials from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — one of the world’s largest marine reserves — were due to announce their findings at a news conference Friday, exactly 188 years after the Two Brothers sank.
Kelly Gleason, the maritime archaeologist who led the discovery, first saw the ship’s anchor in 2008 while surveying French Frigate Shoals.
The anchor could have belonged to any one of three 19th century whaling ships that sank at this atoll. But additional artifacts found by Gleason’s team over the next two years — like the cast iron cooking pots scattered around the wreck site — were unmistakably from the 1820s, while the other two vessels sank in 1859 and 1867.
The sinking of the Two Brothers was relatively uneventful compared to the Essex’s epic run-in with the whale. After the Essex capsized, Pollard and fellow crew members drifted at sea without food and water for three months before they were rescued. To survive, Pollard and others resorted to cannibalism, including eating one of the captain’s cousins.
Still, Thomas Nickerson, a crew member who served under Pollard both on the Essex and the Two Brothers, later described his boss as being in a daze as they had to abandon ship for the second time.
“Capt. pollard (sic) reluctantly got into the boat just as they were about Shove off from the Ship,” he wrote.
Fortunately, the Two Brothers was sailing with a fellow whaling ship, the Martha, which had taken shelter near a rock. When the sun rose, the 20 or so crew members of the Two Brothers rowed over to the Martha which picked them up. They all survived.
Pollard gave up whaling, though he was just in his mid-30s, and returned to Nantucket, Mass., where he became a night watchman — a position of considerably lower status in the whaling town than captain.
While the sperm whale attack inspired Melville to write “Moby-Dick,” the author isn’t believed to have used Pollard as the basis for the book’s notorious Capt. Ahab.
Melville actually didn’t meet Pollard until about a year after his novel was published, some three decades after Two Brothers sank. Philbrick said the meeting left a strong impression on the author, whose creation hadn’t been an immediate critical or commercial success.
“He was a man who had the worst cards possible dealt to him but was continuing on with nobility and great dignity,” Philbrick said. “He is the anti-Ahab. Ahab is enlisting the devil and whatever to fulfill his crackpot schemes. Pollard was someone who had seen the worst but was quietly going about his life with the utmost humility.”
The Two Brothers wrecked in water only 10 to 15 feet deep, and would have likely been stripped clean had it wrecked closer to a populated area. But the isolation of French Frigate Shoals means the site has been untouched.
“We had the opportunity to find something that’s probably as close to being a time capsule as we could get,” Gleason said.
The Two Brothers was like other New England whaling ships of the time, in that its crew sailed thousands of miles from home hunting whales to harvest their blubber. They boiled the fat of the massive marine mammals into oil used to light lamps in cities from New York to London and to power early industry.
The appetite for whale blubber oil, however, meant the ships quickly exhausted successive whale grounds. The Essex was far off the coast of South America when the sperm whale rammed into it. The Two Brothers was passing through poorly mapped waters northwest of the main Hawaiian islands on the way to recently discovered whale grounds closer to Japan when it hit the reef.
“It was kind of like this ship trap of atolls,” Gleason said. “It went from about 40 feet to all of the sudden they were in about 10 feet of water.”
For Hawaii, the discovery is a reminder of the great upheaval the whaling industry brought to a kingdom still adjusting to life after the first European travelers arrived.
The hundreds of whaling ships that called on Hawaii’s ports starting in 1819 boosted the kingdom’s economy, but this mostly benefitted a few men who became suppliers to the vessels, said Jonathan Osorio, a professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. The arrival of thousands of outsiders — some of whom claimed Hawaiian law had no jurisdiction over them because they were American or European — challenged the young monarchy.
Gleason said the artifacts are due to go on display at the marine monument’s Discovery Center in Hilo and she hopes the exhibit will travel to Nantucket. The archeologists also have more surveying to do: there’s still no accounting for another five whaling ships that sank in the atolls that now make up the Papahanaumokuakea monument.