The True Story of Moby Dick

Moby Dick, Herman Melville, and Owen Chase

Most speakers of English are at least somewhat familiar with Moby Dick, the great while whale, and the Herman Melville novel of the same name. Most people assume that such a whale existed only in Melville’s imagination, and that a sea mammal would be incapable of sinking a large vessel like a whaling ship – wrong on both counts. Herman Melville didn’t actually create the story of Moby Dick, nor was Moby the only whale to have attacked and to actually have sunk a wooden ship.

Throughout the whaling era, several whales attacked large oceangoing vessels, and at least one of these creatures was white. An albino sperm whale known as “Mocha Dick” prowled the waters off the southern coast of Chile in the early part of the nineteenth century. Much about the white whale was reported by Jeremiah Reynolds, an explorer. One of his accounts was published in an 1839 edition of The Knickerbocker magazine. Mocha is described as being huge, aggressive, and covered with barnacles. The old bull whale survived more than 100 attacks by harpoons, and his skin wore the scars to prove it. He reportedly also carried numerous broken harpoon shafts in his hide.

Mocha Dick was usually peaceful when he or other members of his pod weren’t being attacked. In fact, many sailors have reported his swimming alongside their ships for hours at a time. Once molested, however, the whale would make deep, sudden dives and often leap completely out of the water with violent force. He could completely demolish small harpoon boats with a slap of his tail, and he could do real damage to full size ships, too. Most every whaler in the world at the time knew about Mocha Dick, and they all feared him.

Poor Mocha met a sad fate. In 1838, a calf in the old bull’s pod was killed by whalers, and when the calf’s mother was targeted, Mocha came to her rescue and was killed. Finally, the whale’s actual length could be verified. He was seventy feet long, and his body produced valuable ambergris, along with 100 barrels of whale oil.

There’s little doubt that Melville, who spent part of his youth as a cabin boy, was familiar with the tales of Mocha Dick, but the white whale of the Pacific wasn’t his only inspiration for Moby Dick. His second inspiration came from a man named William Chase.

William Chase was the son of Owen Chase, first mate of the whaling ship, Essex. The Essex departed from Nantucket in August of 1819, in search of whales in the South Pacific. The ship was to be gone for 2 ½ years. In November of 1820, the ship came upon a whale pod off the western coast of South America, and they begin killing members of the pod. While they were busy with the slaughter, a huge sperm whale rammed the ship with its head and sank the vessel.

The 20 sailors survived the attack and divided themselves among the three small harpoon boats. Their ordeal was far from over, however. They were in the middle of the Pacific, 1,500 miles from the Galapagos Islands. They had little food, little fresh water, and no navigational charts. The boats remained together, and a month later, all three reached Henderson Island, a then uninhabited isle that would later become part of the Pitcairns.

By the time they made landfall, the sailors were desperate for food and water. They located a small freshwater spring, and they survived on fish, birds, and fruits. It didn’t take them long, however, to consume all the available foods, so they decided to leave and take their chances at sea. The three boats and the seventeen men left Henderson Island on December 26, 1820. Three of the men remained on Henderson Island, trusting that their companions would send back help.

The other sailors were lost at sea for some three months. Several were sick, and all were severely dehydrated and on the verge of starvation. The three boats tried to stay together, but a storm separated Chase’s boat from the rest. The first man to die on Chase’s boat was Richard Peterson, who expired on January 18, 1821, and he was buried at sea. On February 8, Isaac Cole died, and his companions made the decision to eat his flesh in order to survive. Chase, another sailor, and the Essex’s cabin boy were finally rescued by the Indian, a British merchant ship, on February 18.

The fate of the other two boats was even more horrendous. They were also separated by a storm, and one boat and its inhabitants were never found. On the vessel commanded by Captain George Pollard, they ran out of dead companions to eat. On February 1, Pollard’s crew demanded that they draw straws to see which one would be sacrificed in order to feed the others. The captain resisted, but he finally realized they had no other choice. The short straw was drawn by Pollard’s seventeen-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin. The boy was shot by the man who drew the second-shortest straw, Charles Ramsdell. Pollard and Ramsdell were rescued by the whaler, Dauphin, on February 23, 1821. In all, there were five survivors from the three small boats, and seven men had been eaten.

Okay, all this is very interesting, but what does it have to do with Herman Melville and Moby Dick? As you can imagine, the terrifying experience had a profound effect on the survivors, especially Owen Chase. He suffered severe headaches and constant nightmares, and he secretly hoarded food. Later the same year in which he was rescued, Chase published Narrative of the Most Extra-Ordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex. After writing the account, Chase’s mental conditioned worsened, and he was finally institutionalized. In 1841, young Herman Melville signed onto the whaling ship, the Acushnet. During a gam – a meeting of boats at sea – Melville met William Chase, Owen’s son. William loaned Melville a copy of his father’s narrative, and the rest is history.

Oh, by the way, the three men left behind on Henderson Island were rescued.

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Comments 57 comments

SEOLIX profile image

SEOLIX 6 years ago

Very inspiring story!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author


Docmo profile image

Docmo 6 years ago from UK

Great story of the origins of Moby Dick. It's always nice to know the influences of the old classics and where they originated from.. Thanks for sharing, voted up.

Glemoh101 profile image

Glemoh101 6 years ago

Nice and great story , thank you.

De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

Wow! This adds so much to the book itself. Wonderful stuff, Habee :-)

Scribenet profile image

Scribenet 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Fascinating and horrifying on so many levels.

The true story to the origins of the classic Moby Dick is amazing.The real life experience you describe has given the classic another perspective.

To think the big whales are just defending themselves and their families. The ship Essex's crew paid dearly for that. Thank you on a thought provoking Hub on a classic story!

fucsia profile image

fucsia 6 years ago

Really interesting story! Thanks for sharing..... :)

Rhonda Waits profile image

Rhonda Waits 6 years ago from The Emerald Coast

Wow. What a great story. I never knew this about Moby Dick. You did a great job explaining it though. If I had to eat someone to live. I don't believe I could do it. Truly amazing facts. I remember the story when I was a child. It was a great story. Thanks

drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Thank you for your research, Holle, this was absolutely fascinating. I guess the moral could be, if you must kill a whale, choose one that is a bachelor and lives alone.

Larry Price 6 years ago

Just watched that classic movie this past weekend.

The story of Moby Dick was the third book I read in my Life. Some Shell Scott mystery was the first and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was second. I enjoyed any classic book I ever read.

That is way I checked your article. A good writer is hard to find but you can be found by what he reads. Obviously, you read the best stuff.

I really enjoyed your hubpage. Keep up the great work.

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

This is interesting stuff. I saw a history channel special on this once. It's strange how a good book was born from several unconnnected tales of tragedy.

anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago

Interesting background to the book. Now, we appreciate the book even more. Thanks.

DeBorrah K. Ogans profile image

DeBorrah K. Ogans 6 years ago

Habee, Wonderful presentation! The teacher in you rings through loud and clear! Interesting although barbaric details of survival; Fascinating stories... Great hub!

Thank You for sharing, In His Love, Grace, Peace & Blessings!

bayoulady profile image

bayoulady 6 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

You certainly know how to tell a story! I enjoyed this!So much reasearch must have gone into producing this piece!

framistan 6 years ago

I have a copy of Moby Dick that I re-bound and restored. It is about 90 years old book with many color pictures in it. Anyone wanting to read this story, I suggest getting an OLD copy of it. The new ones have no pictures in them. Your hub information on this is excellent. thanks.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Glad you liked it, Doc!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Glem, thanks a bunch!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thank you, De Greek! How's the weather over there?

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Right, Scribe. You can't blame the whales for protecting themselves and/or members of their pods.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Fucsia, thanks for reading!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Rhonda, I think I could do it if I had to. Ugh.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Lol, drbj! I would hate to kill a whale.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Larry, great literature is what made me want to become a lit teacher!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Rob, Melville was a master storyteller, huh?

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Anglnwu, thanks for stopping by!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Hi, Deb! Yep, I think it brought out the teacher in me!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Jackie, so glad you enjoyed reading about the real Moby Dick!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Fram, I LOVE old books!

mktabor 6 years ago from Northeastern Oklahoma

I always enjoy reading about Melville or Moby Dick. I knew about the Essex disaster, but not Mocha Dick. Thanks, habee, for more information.

ladyfiresong profile image

ladyfiresong 6 years ago from Oregon

It's a well known fact that Melville took nearly all his ideas from real-life events, whether his own or others. I think what makes this story one of the "greats" is the way in which he combined those different elements. (Personally, I don't like Melville's writing, but I do appreciate this story)

I like the addition of the Mocha Dick tale; very interesting. Thanks for putting this together!

Manik Bajaj 6 years ago

Amazing insight in one of the classic stories ever. Thank you so much.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I think most writers pick up ideas from real life and add their own touch.

Slave2No1 profile image

Slave2No1 6 years ago from Oneida, NY

Moby Dick, the 1956 Gregory Peck version, was among the first few movies I saw as a young boy; (I was 10). I've never seen the 1930 John Barrymore version, but I did watch some of the 1998 Patrick Stewart version. (Captain of a Starship, yes; but of a whaling ship? -for me- Not really.) Oddly enough, Ray Bradbury, famous for Star Trek in which Stewart played Captain Pickard, (the second or 'Next Generation' version), wrote the screen play for the '56 version along with producer John Huston.

Another strange fact is that the ship used in filming Moby Dick, 'playing' the part of the Pequod (and also used in the filming of Treasure Island) was, at the time, named Moby Dick! It was built in England in 1887, was originally named the Ryelands and survived until 1972, when it surcomed to fire.

Weirdest of all is the cartoon short about the whale called 'Dicky Moe' with Tom & Jerry. Sadly, (IMHO) this was not one of Warner Brothers better animation efforts.

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Thank you for the great real story. Wonderful to read.

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 6 years ago from Melbourne Australia

Hi habee, a very informative and well written piece. I enjoyed reading Moby Dick as did most of the kids I know.

My children and their children have read it too.

I will give them all a link to your hub so they can enjoy this expansion of the story. Very nice work

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States

Holle, This is a really great hub. I loved the book when I was young and it is great to read the real story.

Jack Salathe profile image

Jack Salathe 6 years ago from Seattle, WA

Wow, fascinating stuff. It gives interesting perspective to an amazing novel. Thanks!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

You're welcome MK. Thanks!

Ladyfire, I really enjoyed writing it!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Manik, thanks for reading!

True, Dahoglund - and Melville was fascinating!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Slave, my fave was also the Gregory Peck version. He made a great Ahab. Also, thanks for the interesting info!

Glad to see you here, HH!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Ernesto, GREAT to see you!! Glad your grands are reading the classics!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Pam, I've always loved Moby Dick, too. Thanks!

Jack, so glad you stopped by for a visit!

Beata Stasak profile image

Beata Stasak 6 years ago from Western Australia

Thank you for your useful update just holidaying in Albany in Western Australia and came back from visiting the closed Whale station turned to museum...I learnt a lot about whaling, 'Moby Dick' dramatization and of course about protection of whales as well:)

june mcewan 6 years ago

I knew strands of this, coming from an old whaling community- Dundee in Scotland - stories still get told, mostly in song now and I found it wonderful to have a concise record of it all. Cheers!

freelanceauthor profile image

freelanceauthor 6 years ago

Thanks for sharing the story behind Moby Dick

DailyResearcher profile image

DailyResearcher 6 years ago

Very nice hub. Enjoyed reading it. Thank you for writing. Hope to see more.

Slave2No1 profile image

Slave2No1 6 years ago from Oneida, NY

habee: I have seen 'The Making of..." regarding other films and I sure wish there was one for the 1956 Moby Dick! I'd love to find out how they managed to film some of the scenes, especially the ones involving the whale. I do know they were very careful about the camera angle when Peck's real leg was sticking out the back of his long coat. Walking with his knee in that 'wooden leg' unit must have been uncomfortable. It's interesting to me that the missing leg of Ahab was so vital in making the entire tale work. The 'clippity-clop' also underscored his mental anguish and 'validated' his need for revenge. At the end, being entangled and drowned on the backside of the whale, his flopping arm (beckoning) was very eerie and yet so poignant. As well as the book was written, such visuals had an impact that no drawing, picture or description could touch. However, I must admit that the weirdest thing of all was the image of a PURPLE whale when I first heard about (a band called) Moby Grape, LOL.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Good to see you, Beata! I'm all for protecting whales, too.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

June, can I visit you in Scotland?? lol

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Daily, thank YOU for reading!

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Freelance, so glad you took time to read about Moby Dick!

Slave, I'd love to see that, too! The Peck Moby Dick was a great classic. The newer movies pale in comparison.

Julie Simmonds profile image

Julie Simmonds 5 years ago from Ontario

thanks for the info! I enjoyed it.

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Julie, so glad you stopped by for a read. Thanks for the comment!

htodd profile image

htodd 4 years ago from United States

Thanks for this nice story habee

endless sea profile image

endless sea 4 years ago from Lucknow(U.P.) India

I have read Moby Dick and I found it very interesting as I am a great fan of sea and life's of seafarers reading things that inspired the work of such great book was awesome, thanks for sharing :)

Macca 4 years ago

It was Captain Pollard that hoarded the food in his attic for rest of his life, He went insane from that ordeal at sea and said he never wanted to ever run out of food again.

GetitScene profile image

GetitScene 3 years ago from The High Seas

Nice hub, well done.

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