George Pollard, Jr.

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George Pollard, Jr. (1791–1870) was the captain of the whaleships Essex and Two Brothers, both of which sank. Pollard's life, including his encounter with the sperm whale that sank the Essex, served as inspiration for Captain Ahab, the whale-obsessed character in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.[1][2]


George Pollard was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, the son of a ship's captain, at a time when the principal industry there was hunting sperm whales to harvest the oil contained in their blubber and spermaceti. By the time he was 28 he had served on the Essex for four years in the capacities of second mate and first mate.

In 1819, Pollard was appointed captain of the Essex by the owners, Gideon Folger and Sons, and preparations were made to set sail for the Pacific Ocean in August of that year. Other members of the 21-man crew included Owen Chase as first mate, Matthew Joy as second mate and six other Nantucket men. Those included Pollard's seventeen-year-old cousin Owen Coffin with whose care and protection Pollard had been entrusted by his aunt, Nancy Bunker Coffin. To fill in the crew, others had to be recruited from Cape Cod and Boston; these were inexperienced seamen and were known as "green hands" by the Nantucketers. An account of their epic journey was written by Nathaniel Philbrick in In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

Four days after leaving Nantucket the ship was struck by a sudden storm and suffered a knockdown, having been rolled almost ninety degrees onto her side. Two of the ship’s whaleboats were lost and another was damaged. This mishap was caused in part by miscalculations on the part of Pollard and his officers, and in part by the inexperience of the crew. Pollard declared the damage was so extensive that they should return to Nantucket for repairs, but Chase and Joy persuaded him to go forward to the Azores and hope to replace the whaleboats there.

After a difficult passage around Cape Horn, the Essex arrived in the Pacific Ocean in January 1820. On 20 November 1820, in a remote area of the ocean, some 1,500 nautical miles (2,800 km) west of the Galapagos Islands, the Essex was struck twice by a huge sperm whale, estimated to be 85 feet (26 m) in length. With only three shipkeepers and the crew of Chase's whaleboat on board to repair their damaged vessel, the Essex began taking on water following the second collision with the whale. The crew abandoned the sinking vessel, taking the navigational equipment and Pollard's and Chase's sea chests with them. Meanwhile, Pollard and Joy were hunting smaller whales near the ship, and on their return found the Essex had capsized. The crew chopped off the masts (a necessary move that would enable the ship to stay upright for a longer time) and outfitted the whaleboats with sails and masts using the Essex's spars and sails. They also hastened to retrieve what provisions they could and divided them equally so that each whaleboat had 200 pounds of hardtack, 65 gallons of freshwater, and two Galapagos tortoises. The crew was divided into three whaleboats commanded by Pollard, Chase, and Joy and set sail with provisions estimated to last them 60 days. Pollard, Chase, and Joy set up a council to decide which direction to sail in. The closest islands were the Marquesas Islands, about 1,200 miles (1,900 km) west of their position but in those days the inhabitants there were believed to practice cannibalism. Pollard suggested sailing to the Society Islands, which were further away but presumed to be safer. However, on the grounds that very little was actually known about these islands, Chase and Joy disagreed, proposing instead to sail south far enough to pick up a band of variable breezes that would take them to South America. Once again, Captain Pollard reluctantly yielded to their arguments.

On 20 December, near starvation, the crews of the three whaleboats reached what they believed to be Dulcie island, but was actually Henderson Island. After seven days, they exhausted the island's meager supply of food and decided that the island could not sustain them and they reluctantly set sail again. Three of the men opted to remain on the island and were eventually rescued by the trading vessel Surry.

Sailing east towards South America, Pollard and Chase had seen Matthew Joy's health decline. He was transferred to Pollard's boat and shortly thereafter died. Obed Hendricks was given command of Joy's boat, and the three boats sailed on until during a gale one night Chase's boat became separated from the other two. By 20 January 1821 a crew member, Lawson Thomas died just as the boats of Pollard and Hendricks had come to the end of their provisions. It was at this point that to survive their ordeal the men resorted to cannibalism. As other crew members died their bodies were eaten in turn until only four men were left alive on Pollard's boat. One of them, Charles Ramsdell proposed that lots should be drawn to determine who should be killed so that the rest might survive. Pollard at first resisted this suggestion but then gave in to the majority. The lot fell to his cousin Owen Coffin and he was shot and his remains were eaten. After the death of Barzillai Ray, Pollard and Ramsdell sailed on and were rescued on 23 February by the whaleship Dauphin and taken to Valparaiso. There they were reunited with the survivors of Chase's boat, Chase himself, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson, cabin boy of the Essex, who had been rescued by the British merchant ship Indian.

Plaque on the Capt George Pollard house in Nantucket

Upon his return to Nantucket on 5 August, Pollard had to face Nancy Bunker Coffin who was distraught at the idea that Pollard was alive as a consequence of her son's death. Pollard was given command of the whaleship Two Brothers and this voyage also ended in disaster when the ship ran into rocks off French Frigate Shoals and sank. This ended Pollard's whaling career. He made a single voyage in a merchant vessel and then spent the rest of his life as a night watchman on Nantucket.

Chase and a ghost writer wrote an account of the ordeal entitled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. This was published soon after the return of the survivors, and was an inspiration for the Herman Melville classic, Moby-Dick. Much later, Nickerson wrote his own account of the voyage The Loss of the Ship Essex Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats. His manuscript was lost for nearly a century, but was discovered, authenticated and published in 1984.

Melville is quoted by the Nantucket Historical Association as having said of Pollard, "To the islanders he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming, even humble – that I ever encountered."[3]


  1. ^ McKinley, Jesse (11 February 2011). "No 'Moby-Dick': A Real Captain, Twice Doomed". New York Times. Retrieved 12 February 2011. 
  2. ^ "'Moby Dick' captain's ship found". BBC Online. 12 February 2011. Retrieved 12 February 2011. 
  3. ^ CNN Wire Staff (13 February 2011). "Sunken ship of skipper who inspired 'Moby-Dick' found". CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Retrieved 14 February 2011.