Whaling and Sailing Stories—Navigating History and Literature

“Call me Ishmael” is the legendary first line of Moby-Dick, but the protagonist’s name is hardly the most famous in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel. He’s probably a distant third to both Captain Ahab and the eponymous whale itself, which was based on a real albino sperm whale named Mocha Dick.

Named for the Chilean island near which its decades-long reign of terror took place, Mocha is said to have destroyed more than 20 whaling ships in addition to escaping 80 or so before finally being felled in 1838. The following year, the whale’s story was told by explorer and newspaper editor J. N. Reynolds, whose articleMocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific” was published by The Knickerbocker literary magazine. As for why Melville changed the name from “Mocha” to “Moby” when he wrote his novel, no one knows. The author never revealed his reasoning, and no one has been able to figure it out.

Reynolds’ original article appears on the website Whalesite.org, an anthology of books, articles, and images about nineteenth-century sperm-whaling in the Pacific and the early history of places the whalers and whaleships visited—the Sandwich Islands, the Galapagos Islands, Pitcairn’s Island, and the Bonin Islands. The Plough Boy Journals of Lewis Monto (1806–1879), a Boston native who grew up on the island of Nantucket and made several voyages to the Pacific Ocean in the 1820s and 1830s, are the inspiration for these pages.

Whalesite.org also includes The Bounty Chronicles, Captain Bligh’s account of the Mutiny on the Bounty, as well as to ten Bounty paintings featured in the History Channel’s documentary of the Bounty mutiny. Additionally visitors to the site will find accounts of the voyages of Captain Cook, including his journeys to the Pacific Ocean to make discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere, such as determining the position and extent of the west side of North America, its distance from Asia, and the practicality of a northern passage to Europe.

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