Most people interested in American literature will have heard about Merman Melville’s book about the white whale, Moby Dick. Many thousands of students have had to suffer through college lit classes studying the book, which is not the kind of thing that interests contemporary students.
Moby Dick is a novel, and the white whale in the novel is fiction. But there was in fact a white whale, a large sperm whale, and his name was Mocha Dick, apparently named after an island off the coast of Chile. Mocha Dick did sink an American whaling ship, the Essex, which he rammed with his head, which stove in the side of the ship and sank it in 1820.
The story of the Essex survivors in their lifeboats is an epic of desperation and cannibalism. Their story was told a number of times.
In 1839, one Jeremiah Reynolds published “Mocha Dick, the White Whale of the Pacific,” which appeared in the New York Knickerbocker Magazine. One of the readers was Herman Melville.
Mocha Dick’s reputation grew, with claims that he sank many whaleboats and whaling ships, and escaped many a whaler’s harpoon. Mocha Dick allegedly was killed while defending a female whale and her calf, a perfect whale Victorian gentleman. There is only one documented Mocha Dick sinking, though, that of the Essex.
Melville actually spent three years aboard American whaling ships, and combined his experiences with the story of Mocha Dick to create his novel.
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