NHA University

Exploring the tragedy of the Essex this November for the
200th anniversary of the sinking

Herman Melville and Nantucket
Herman Melville wrote his classic novel Moby-Dick (1851) without having visited the island of Nantucket. The island and its whaling history form the backbone of his novel, and indeed are central symbols in the epic journey of the Pequod in its hunt for Moby-Dick, the white whale. Melville based the essentials of his plot, and the final climactic ramming of the Pequod, upon all that he had read about Nantucket’s whaling industry, and in particular, the gruesome tale of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. After the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville finally visited the island, and met face-to-face with Captain George Pollard Jr., the captain who survived one of the most harrowing ordeals at sea in human history.

In one brief chapter of Moby-Dick (1851), Chapter Fourteen, “Nantucket,” Melville wrote the definitive passage about the island without ever having visited its sandy soil: “Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background.” Nantucket in a nutshell: a pile of sand, a glacial afterthought, but also a “corner of the world,” connected and connecting the small with the vast, an insignificant nothing that is part of the main.
Digital Exhibition
In 2015, the NHA mounted “Stove by a Whale,” an immersive exhibition at the Whaling Museum. It recounted the story of the Essex and its crew and explored where these men came from, what happened to them over 96 days in three tiny boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and how their chilling tale has fascinated storytellers for two centuries. Now this exhibition has been reimagined digitally in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of this horrendous tragedy.
Watch the Making of the Exhibition
This remastered video discusses the making of the 2015 exhibition and how it came to be. It features Michael R. Harrison, NHA Obed Research Chair and curator of the exhibition.
Artifact Highlight
Rigged model of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, 2011
Mark A. Sutherland
34"H x 26"W x 14"D
NHA Acquisition Fund Purchase, 2011.29.1
Aside from the small Nickerson sketches, made decades after the loss of the Essex, there are no other visual images of the ship. At the time the ship was built, in 1799, drawn plans were almost never used, the design of the vessel being determined by a carved half model. So to reconstruct the Essex, the most reliable source of information is period paintings. In designing the model, paintings of the ship Spermo of Nantucket, by J. Fisher, were used as the primary reference. These depict a whaleship of the early 1820s and may be regarded as fairly typical. During this period, whaleships were different from the later and more well-known types, as represented by the Charles W. Morgan, currently preserved at Mystic Seaport. They were smaller, carried only three active whaleboats, had a smaller crew, and had a number of other differing details, such as the windlass barrel located abaft the foremast. The rig and some other details were taken from a design of a small merchant ship by Christian Burg, 1804, as illustrated in Howard I. Chapelle's book, The Search for Speed Under Sail, 1700–1855. These references, plus an intimate knowledge of 19th century hull shapes through the carving of numerous half models, led to my design interpretation of the Essex.
Pop Culture and Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick is emblazoned in the canon of literature, art, opera, theater, film, and daily life. When did you first spot the white whale?

Moby-Dick flopped when it was first published in 1851, and during Melville’s lifetime, the book earned little acclaim and even less money. A new generation of readers rediscovered Moby-Dick in the early twentieth century, inspired by the madcap humor and mystical symbolism that made the novel seem modern before its time. Since then, Moby-Dick swims through popular culture, spawning adaptations in every imaginable medium.

Photo: Pequod and the White Whale, 1980–90. Claus Hoie (1911–2007). Gift of the Helen and Claus Hoie Charitable Foundation, 2011.27.7.
This Friday!
200th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Essex Virtual Event
with Nathaniel Philbrick
Friday, November 20, at 5:30pm
Held via Zoom
$25 for Non-Members / $15 for Members /
FREE for Students and Island Teachers

On November 20, 1820, the ill-fated whaleship Essex was struck by a whale, stranding its crew in three tiny whaleboats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles from the nearest land. In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of this tragedy, the NHA is hosting a virtual event with award-winning, best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick. Moderated by Michael Harrison, NHA Obed Macy Research Chair, the discussion will reflect on the legacy of the Essex tragedy and the fate of its survivors.
Want to learn more?
Explore a NEW Essex portal on NHA.org
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Whaling Museum
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Festival of Wreaths is open through November 21
at the Whaling Museum.

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