George Pollard, Jr. was the captain of the Essex when an 80-ton whale attacked and sank the whaleship today in 1820 inspiring Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Now WE know em


George Pollard, Jr. Was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts as the son of a ship’s captain in 1791.

George grew up dreaming of hunting sperm whales as the principal industry of his hometown was harvesting the oil contained in their blubber.

At an early age, he became a “green hand;” what Nantucketers called inexperienced seamen.

Around the age of 24, George signed on as second mate of the 238 ton whaleship Essex.

After a couple years he became first mate and then in 1819, George Pollard, Jr. was appointed captain of the Essex by its owners.

Captain Pollard set about making preparations to set sail for the Pacific Ocean along with a crew of 20 sailors.

Essex leaving Nantucket, August 12th, 1819 (painting by Anthony D. Blake)

Essex leaving Nantucket, August 12th, 1819 (painting by Anthony D. Blake)

The Essex set sail on August 12, 1819 and within four days the ship was struck by a sudden storm and suffered a knockdown, having been rolled almost 90 degrees onto her side.

Two of Essex’s five whaleboats were lost and another was damaged.

This mishap was caused in part by miscalculations on the part of Captain Pollard and his officers.

Captain Pollard declared the damage was so extensive that they should return to Nantucket for repairs, but his first mate and second mate persuaded him to go forward to the Azores and replace the whaleboats there.

After a difficult passage around the Cape Horn of Africa, the Essex arrived in the Pacific Ocean in January of 1820.

On November 20, 1820, in a remote area, some 1,500 nautical miles west of the Galapagos Islands, Captain Pollard began hunting small whales out of sight of the Essex.

Then the Essex was attacked and struck by a huge sperm whale, estimated to be 85 feet in length and weighing some 80-tons.

The Essex began taking on water following a second collision with the huge whale.

Pollard’s crew abandoned ship, taking the navigational equipment and the captain’s sea chest with them.

When Captain Pollard returned to his ship, he found her capsized.

He immediately ordered his crew to chop off the masts in order to allow the ship to remain upright for a longer time.

He outfitted the three whaleboats with sails using the Essex’s spars and masts.

Captain Pollard also retrieved what provisions he could and divided them equally with his first mate and second mate in charge of the other two whaleboats.

Pollard estimated they had enough provisions to last around 60 days.

The closest islands were the Marquesas Islands, about 1,200 miles 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, his first mate and second mate disagreed, proposing instead to sail south far enough to pick up a band of variable breezes that would take them to South America.

Captain Pollard reluctantly yielded to their arguments.

On December 20, near starvation, the crews of the three whaleboats reached Henderson Island but after seven days decided that the island did not have the resources to 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.

As it turned out, Pollard and his men had actually landed on Dulcie Island, not Henderson Island as the three crewman left behind were rescued from Dulcie Island.

Sailing east towards South America, Captain Pollard and his first mate had seen the second mate’s health decline. He was transferred to Pollard’s boat and shortly thereafter died.

Another sailor was given command of the third whaleboat, and the three boats sailed on.

Then during a gale one night the first mate’s boat became separated from the other two.

On January 20, 1821, as the two whaleboats were running out of provisions another sailor died.

It was at this point that in order 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 Captain Pollard’s boat.

After while, a sailor named Charles Ramsdell proposed that lots should be drawn to determine who should be killed so that the rest might survive.

Captain Pollard at first resisted this suggestion but then gave in to the majority.

The lot fell to Pollard’s cousin Owen Coffin and he was shot and his remains were eaten.

The next to lose the drawing was Barzillai Ray.

Then on February 23, 1821 Captain Pollard and his remaining men were rescued by the whaleship Dauphin and taken to Valparaiso.

Soon they were reunited with the survivors of his first mate’s boat, who had been rescued by the British merchant ship Indian.

Captain Pollard returned to Nantucket on August 5, 1821.

His aunt became distraught at the idea that Pollard was still alive as a consequence of her son’s murder.

Captain Pollard was then 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 would spend the rest of his life as a night watchman on Nantucket.

A local writer wrote an account of the ordeal entitled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

Another account of their epic journey was written by Nathaniel Philbrick in his novel “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.”

These stories became the inspiration for Herman Melville. Captain Pollard became Captain Ahab, the whale-obsessed character in Melville’s 1851 classic Moby-Dick.

Melville is quoted by the Nantucket Historical Association as having said of Captain Pollard,

“To the islanders he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble — that I ever encountered.”

The Essex Captain George Pollard died in 1870.

Now WE know em


In 1960, a long lost manuscript was discovered. The 14 year old cabin boy of the Essex, Thomas Gibson Nickerson, had writen his own account of the voyage he had titled “The Loss of the Ship Essex Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats.

His manuscript was authenticated and published in 1984.



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