The wreck of the whale ship Two Brothers, which sank 188 years ago on French Frigate Shoals, 600 miles northwest of Honolulu, was recently located by divers. The captain of the whale ship was George Pollard Jr., whose previous ship, the Essex, was sunk by a rogue sperm whale in the Pacific in 1820. The survivors, in open boats, attempted in vain to reach the coast of South America. Before the two remaining boats were picked up by passing ships, the eight survivors suffered starvation, death, madness and finally cannibalism. The Chief Mate on the Essex, Owen Chase, would later write, the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which influenced Herman Melville in writing his masterpiece Moby Dick.
No ‘Moby-Dick’: A Real Captain, Twice Doomed
When Captain George Pollard lost a second ship, his career was over. He was clearly an unlucky captain and no ship owner would entrust a ship to man who had shown himself to be so unlucky as to lose two ships. Now that the wreck of the Two Brothers has been located, Captain’s Pollard’s bad luck is once again a topic of conversation. Jesse McKinley, in the York Times, wrote this morning, “In the annals of the sea, there were few sailors whose luck was worse than George Pollard Jr.’s.” I find myself wondering, now in the fullness of time, if that is a fair representation.
When Pollard returned to Nantucket, at the age of 32, he had fallen from the upper ranks of society as a ship’s captain to the lowest. He became the village night watchman. Somehow, he came to peace with his ordeals. He was never said to be bitter and lived by all appearances happily until he died at aged 79. When Melville visited Nantucket after the publication of Moby Dick, he sought out not Owen Chase but George Pollard. Late in life Melville would write,” To the islanders he was a nobody – to me the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble – that I have ever encountered.”
The Chief Mate Owen Chase, on the other hand, might be thought of as lucky. He had a successful career as a whale ship captain and enjoyed a bit of notoriety from the publication of his account of the Essex. Nevertheless, Chase never succeeded in making peace with the terrible events that followed the sinking of the Essex. He was troubled by headaches and sleeplessness and in old age was said to go mad, hoarding food in the attic of his house, still struggling with the nightmare that apparently never really left him. He died at the age of 70, a year before George Pollard.
Perhaps, George Pollard wasn’t the unlucky captain after all.