A Brief History
On November 14, 1851, author Herman Melville published his greatest book, Moby-Dick (or The Whale). Certainly the best known novel concerning whales or a whale, Moby-Dick has not only stood the test of time as a novel, but has also generated several movies and provided numerous cultural references. The first line of Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael” is one of the best known opening lines of any novel. Today we explore 4 of the Greatest Stories about Whales. What stories would you add to the list? (Either real life or fiction.) See our previous article, “The Real Moby Dick.”
Questions for Students (and others): What whale related story would you add to this list? Have you ever seen a living whale? Should the hunting of whales be allowed at all today?
1. Moby-Dick, Novel.
Herman Melville was born in 1819, into a well to do family that eventually fell onto harder times. Though Herman was educated and had partaken of the family businesses, he turned to the sea in 1839, both on merchant vessels and whalers. Perhaps he found inspiration in The Knickerbocker Magazine article of 1839 called “Mocha Dick,” a story about the hunt for a great Sperm Whale. Sailing on whalers until 1844, Melville returned home in 1845 to pursue a career as a writer of poetry, novels, and short stories. Not particularly well received or famous during his life, his work later became a foundation of American fiction. Moby Dick is perhaps the best known of all novels about whales or whaling, and one of the most famous novels of life at sea. Melville’s first hand experience lends itself to graphic and realistic portrayal of life on a whaling vessel. The obsession of Captain Ahab as he pushes his crew relentlessly in pursuit of the Great White Whale that once took Ahab’s leg creates a tension both the reader and the movie goer feels deep in his or her gut. Moby Dick is a long story that reads like a much shorter novel, probably among the 5 most favorite novels of this author. The character Captain Ahab has become the cultural icon of a man obsessed and the whale Moby Dick has become the cultural icon personifying the ultimate obsession. Moby-Dick is often cited as one of the “Great American Novels.”
2. Jonah, 8th Century BC Hebrew Prophet.
Jonah the prophet is discussed in the Christian Bible and Muslim Quran, but first appears in the Hebrew/Jewish texts. The story of Jonah (found in The Book of Jonah), often referred to by Biblical scholars as fictional or merely an allegory, revolves around a sinful sailing captain sent by God to Nineveh to warn those people there to repent and lead Godly lives. Enroute to Nineveh, Johnah finds his ship and crew in grave peril during a storm. The captain, Jonah, orders his men to throw him overboard to save themselves. Jonah is promptly swallowed whole by “a great fish,” usually interpreted to mean a whale, as no known fish could swallow a person whole, while the Sperm Whale could conceivably pull off such a feat (and in documented fact, has done just that!). Jonah survives his ingestion by the whale (or whatever) and talks the great sea beast into delivering him to Nineveh. After 3 days in the belly of the beast, Jonah is vomited up onto the beach at Nineveh and makes his dire warning to the citizens as ordained by God. Some scholars note similarities between Jonah and other characters from literature and myth (notably Jason and Gilgamesh), though the 3 great Western religions revere him as a profit. At one point Jesus refers to Himself as “Greater than Jonah,” so in the Christian faith that must mean Jesus thought pretty highly of Jonah to make that comparison. Today, we find many boys named Jonah as the name lives on.
3. Whaling Ship, Essex.
The story of the Essex may well have had some influence on the writing of Moby-Dick, as the unhappy American whaler was actually sunk by a large and irate Sperm Whale in the Pacific in 1820. The Essex spanned 87 feet long and 24 feet wide, drawing 12 feet of water. Manned by a crew of 20 she was equipped with 4 whaleboats of between 20 and 30 feet in length. On November 20, 1820, her crew had sighted and prepared to attack a large bull Sperm Whale, an 85 foot long monster just resting at the surface. The whale spotted the Essex and commenced an attack of his own, ramming the wooden sailing ship with a devastating blow. The whale at first appeared stunned, but the whalers hesitated to harpoon the beast while the whale was right next to the rudder of the ship. Thousands of miles at sea West of South America, the crew could not risk damage to the rudder or face possible marooning on an un-steerable ship. The whale dived and surfaced a few hundred yards away, and made for the Essex a second time, this time striking the unlucky ship at the bow, crushing the timbers and allowing the sea to rush into the doomed ship. All 20 of the crew safely abandoned ship and entered into 3 of the whaleboats, faced with the prospect of a 2000 mile voyage to the East to find the nearest known shore. Luckily, the giant Sperm Whale swam off after delivering the fatal blow to the Essex and was not seen again. One month later, after enduring horrible survival conditions on the open and ill-equipped boats, all 3 whaleboats made a landing at uninhabited Henderson Island (in the Pitrcairn Islands). After a week of eating just about everything worth eating on Henderson Island, all 3 whaleboats departed, leaving 3 men behind. Those 3 survivors were later rescued by the Surry, a British ship that had been transporting convicts to Australia. Essex survivors still in 3 boats aimed for safe haven at Easter Island. Within a few weeks the survivors realized they had probably passed too far South to reach Easter Island and attempted to navigate toward an alternate island. Starvation, disease, and exposure began to take its toll and survivors began to die one by one. A storm separated the whaleboats, and none of them ever saw each other again. The starving survivors turned to cannibalism to cling to life. On the whaleboat commanded by Captain Pollard (captain of the Essex), lots were drawn to pick who would be killed in order to be eaten, a deadly lottery that indeed took place to its conclusion. On February 15, 1821, one of the whaleboats was rescued by the Indian, a British whaling ship. Only 3 living men remained on the boat. About a week later, the whaleboat commanded by Captain Pollard was sighted and rescued by the Dauphin, with only Captain Pollard and one other survivor aboard. After 93 days at sea after the sinking of the Essex, the fifth and final survivors of the ill-fated crew had been rescued, leaving a harrowing and terrifying tale of the power of a great whale and a cruel sea. The remarkable experience of the Essex has been remembered on film a few times, including 2015’s In The Heart of the Sea, as well as in literature and even in song.
4. The Whale Rider, novel and film.
The 1987 novel The Whale Rider by Witi Tame Ihimaera-Smiler, a New Zealander of Maori descent provided the inspiration for the excellent 2002 German-New Zealand made film by the same name. Filmed on location at the setting of Whangara, a real life town on New Zealand’s North Island, the plot concerns a 12 year old girl that seeks to compete with the local boys for the position of heir to being Chief of the community. The town elders, including the girl’s own grandfather, adamantly believes that the position of Chief is for boys only and girls should not compete for such an honor. The plucky girl, played by the adorable Keisha Castle-Hughes, refuses to be dissuaded and continues to train for the competition. The girl is reluctantly given a chance to compete with the boys to recover a trinket (whale tooth) thrown into the sea by free diving, which she successfully accomplishes, giving her a claim on becoming the next Chief. When several Right Whales beach themselves, the elders assume the beaching is a bad omen, perhaps brought on by allowing the girl to compete with the boys. Efforts to get the sacred whales back into the water fail. The indomitable young girl, Pai, climbs aboard the largest of the beached whales and manages to coax the mighty beast into freeing itself back into the sea. The big whale is followed by the other beached whales which have freed themselves as well. Astonished townsfolk watch as Pai rides atop the largest whale before disappearing into the sea. Of course, the girl is not really lost, as she makes it to shore and is proclaimed “Whale Rider,” a mythical figure and the next Maori town Chief. With a $3.5 million (US) budget, the sleeper of a hit drew a box office of over $41 million. Though the author of this article has not read the book, the movie is great entertainment for all audiences.
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For more information, please see…
Ihimaera, Witi. The Whale Rider. Harcourt, 2003.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Dover Publications, 2003.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Penguin Books, 2001.
The featured image in this list, an illustration by Augustus Burnham Shute (1851–1906) from an early edition of Moby-Dick published by C. H. Simonds Co, 1892, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.