In the United States, the whaling industry hit its peak in the middle of the 19th century. Nineteenth-century whaling was a dangerous and brutal profession, with occupational hazards including death by drowning, injury, disease, and even whale attacks on the longboats sent to capture them. Hunting whales involved months of tedium combined with moments of extreme danger and chaos. One of the most famous American novels ever written, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, incorporates the brutality, danger, and adventure that was part of 19th-century whaling. Yet the true stories that inspired Melville are even more astounding.
Melville's Moby Dick Was Based On A Terrifying True Story
Herman Melville wrote the novel Moby Dick in 1852, the epic story of a sea captain's obsession with capturing a giant whale that ultimately wrecks the captain's boat and kills most of his crew. Melville based the story on a real incident that occurred in the South Pacific in 1820 when the whaling ship Essex was sunk by an enraged whale that rammed the ship not once, but twice.
With Captain George Pollard and much of the crew already overboard in longboats, in pursuit of whales, the remaining crew members got into the lifeboats and quickly salvaged whatever they could before the ship sank. What followed was a horrifying ordeal which included starvation, cannibalism, and for Pollard and the only survivor on his boat, 89 days at sea before rescue. Three other crew men were rescued a week before Pollard, 300 miles away.
Pollard went back to sea two years after his ordeal, but after he wrecked that ship on a reef, no one else would bankroll what was considered an unlucky mariner.
Whaleboats Were Waterlogged, Slippery, And Could Be Destroyed By Panicked Whales
The whaling industry was extremely dangerous and many ships were lost at sea entirely due to storms and severe climate conditions. Crew members could slip and fall overboard or break limbs on the decks that were perpetually slick with oil and water. Rough seas or an injured, panicking whale could capsize the faster, smaller longboats used to pursue the whale once it was spotted. When a sailor went overboard it was highly unlikely that he would be rescued.
The Process of Killing and Capturing A Whale Was Dangerous And Bloody
Hunting and killing whales on the open sea in the 19th century was a dangerous process. Most of the time on board was spent in tedium, waiting for the moment when somebody would actually yell, "There she blows!" At that point, longboats would be lowered into the water with the men rowing as quickly as possible in the direction of the whale.
The first aspect of the hunt involved impaling the whale from a distance of about ten yards with a hurled harpoon. Whales usually would either thrash wildly, endangering the whalers, or attempt to dive as deeply as possible. Eventually, the whale, if it remained impaled, would be attacked with lances cutting into the neck arteries with the intent to force the creature to bleed to death as quickly as possible, usually after about an hour. Eventually the whale would expire, rolling over onto its back.
Killing A Whale Involved Going On A Harrowing "Nantucket Sleighride"
Nantucket was the center of the whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the explanation for the term "Nantucket sleighride," the action that occurred when a whaler successfully harpooned a whale. Typically, the whale would attempt to escape its attacker by dragging the longboat for miles, at speeds of upwards of 20 miles an hour, in a frantic attempt to escape. The crew would typically let the whale tire itself out, occasionally slashing at the whale's neck when the animal was in its proximity. This lengthy process that usually resulted in the eventual death of the whale was known as a "Nantucket sleighride."