Was Moby Dick a Real Whale?
A Malicious White Whale Thrilled Readers Before Melville's Classic Novel
When Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick was published in 1851, readers were generally puzzled by the book. Its mixture of whaling lore and metaphysical introspection seemed strange, yet one thing about the book would not have been shocking to the reading public.
A huge albino sperm whale with a violent streak had fascinated whalers and the reading public for decades before Melville published his masterpiece.
The whale, "Mocha Dick", was named for the island of Mocha, in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile. He was often seen in nearby waters, and over the years a number of whalers had tried and failed to kill him.
By some accounts, Mocha Dick had killed more than 30 men, and had attacked and damaged three whaling ships and 14 whaleboats. There were also claims that the white whale had sunk two merchant ships.
There's no doubt that Herman Melville, who sailed on the whaling ship Acushnet in 1841, would have been quite familiar with the legends of Mocha Dick.
In May 1839 the Knickerbocker Magazine, a popular publication in New York City, published a lengthy article about Mocha Dick by Jeremiah N. Reynolds, an American journalist and explorer. The magazine's account was a vivid tale purportedly told to Reynolds by the eccentric first mate of a whaling vessel.
The story by Reynolds was noteworthy, and it's significant that an early review of Moby Dick, in the International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science in December 1851, referred to Mocha Dick in its opening sentence:
It's little wonder that people remembered the tales of Mocha Dick as related by Reynolds. Following are some excerpts from his 1839 article in the Knickerbocker Magazine:
The journalist described the violent nature of Mocha Dick:
Adding to the white whale's ghastly appearance were a number of harpoons stuck in his back by whalers who failed to kill him:
Mocha Dick was a legend among whalers, and every captain wanted to kill him:
Reynolds ended his magazine article with a lengthy description of a battle between man and whale in which Mocha Dick was finally killed and towed alongside a whaling ship to be cut up:
Despite the yarn Reynolds claimed to have heard from the first mate of a whaler, legends about Mocha Dick circulated long after his reported death in the 1830s. Sailors claimed that he wrecked whaleboats and killed whalers into the late 1850s, when he was finally killed by the crew of a Swedish whaling ship.
While the legends of Mocha Dick are often contradictory, it seems inescapable that there was a real white whale known to attack men. The malicious beast in Melville's Moby Dick was no doubt based on a real creature.
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