The True Story of the Essex, the Inspiration for "Moby Dick"

By | February 13, 2019

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Gregory Peck in a scene from the 1956 movie “Moby Dick'' Source: (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

In 1851, Herman Melville published his novel, Moby Dick, which wasn’t a huge bestseller in Melville’s day but went on to become a classic of American literature. The novel tells the story of a whaling boat captain who is obsessed with hunting down the whale that was responsible for his severed leg and the whale that seemed equally determined to finish off the captain once and for all. Melville’s account of the disastrous whaling venture was not entirely fictional. He based his story on the sinking of the Essex that took place three decades earlier. The story of the Essex shows us that truth is stranger than fiction. 

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The Essex Set Sail in 1819

When the Essex left Nantucket in 1819, it was embarking on a two and a half year whaling venture. They rounded Cape Horn and looked for whales off the western coast of South America, but came up empty-handed. They headed further into the South Pacific, after restocking their supplies in the Galapagos. The whalers were far from land, but successful in their whale hunts, until a fateful encounter with one very large, very angry whale.