Segment from Thar She Blows

The White Whale of the Pacific

Moby Dick is often placed within the pantheon of classic American novels. But did you know that Herman Melville drew inspiration from a real white whale that terrorized sailors in the beginning of the 19th century? Joanne talks with scholar Hester Blum about the legend of Mocha Dick.


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Joanne Freeman: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, The National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and The Robert and Joseph Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Joanne Freeman: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.

Brian Balogh: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Brian Balogh.

Joanne Freeman: I’m Joanne Freeman.

Nathan C: I’m Nathan Connolly.

Brian Balogh: If you’re new to the podcast, we’re all historians, and each week we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Joanne Freeman: Let’s start this episode off the coast of Chile near the southern tip of South America, where a great white whale was known to ram boats and terrorize sailors in the beginning of the 19th century. As legend has it, that whale sunk anything that crossed its path, collecting over 100 ships at the bottom of the ocean floor.

Brian Balogh: Joanne, I’m breaking into a cold sweat because I think I read this novel in high school.

Joanne Freeman: No, Brian, this is not Moby Dick. We’re actually talking about Mocha Dick, a real white whale that’s regarded as one of the major inspirations behind Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. And although rumors of Mocha Dick struck fear in the hearts of sailors in the whaling industry, it didn’t gain widespread prominence until 1839, when an epic account of slaying the albino beast was published in a New York literary magazine, which was read by none other than Herman Melville.

Hester Blum: When I first heard about Mobile Mocha Dick, I was wondering why a white whale would be named for something that we usually associate with chocolate.

Joanne Freeman: That’s scholar Hester Blum.

Hester Blum: But it’s the island of Mocha off the coast of Chile. Stories had circulated among whalers and other ships in the 1810s, 1820s, about this white whale, that was known to be covered with barnacles, and ferocious and an old bull with a distinctive spout. And then in 1839, Mocha Dick became better known to the American public more generally, in an account of his life and his death at the hands of a whale ship in a story called Mocha Dick, published in a New York literary magazine called the Knickerbocker, and written by a man named Jeremiah Reynolds.

Speaker 6: This renowned monster who had come off the victorious in 100 fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, a singular consequence had resulted. He was white as wool. Viewed from a distance, the practiced eye of the sailor could only decide that the moving mass, which constituted this enormous animal, was not a white cloud sailing along the horizon. In short, regard him as you would, he was a most extraordinary fish. Or in the vernacular of Nantucket, a genuine old sog of the first water.

Brian Balogh: Now, the account that ended up getting published in the Knickerbocker, I gather that’s kind of an adventure story. Is that true?

Hester Blum: It is, and it’s part of a genre of literature that was very popular in the 19th century, and particularly in the 1830s and ’40s when this story was published. And that’s a genre of what is sometimes called the found document genre. So the story is presented as if it were a random leaf from a manuscript of a sailor.

Speaker 6: Lashing the sea with his enormous tail, until he threw about him a cloud of surf and spray. He came down at full speed, jaws on with the determination, apparently of doing battle in earnest. As he drew near with his long, curved back looming occasionally above the surface of the billows, we perceived that it was white as the surf around him. And the men’s stared aghast at each other. as they uttered in a suppressed tone, that terrible name of Mocha Dick.

Hester Blum: And in the course of sailing around the Pacific, ships would encounter each other and say, Have you seen this white whale? Have you encountered Mocha Dick?” It became a kind of calling card, and that’s an aspect of the story that Melville picks up in Moby Dick as well. When the ship say to each other, “Has thou’st seen the white whale?” But much of the story then consists of the active, exciting, full action narration of the mate describing how he and his whale boat are capturing the whale. And it ends with their description of their ultimate triumph over this creature.

Speaker 6: Dick was the longest whale I ever looked upon. He measured more than 70 feet from his noddle to the tips of his flukes, and yielded 100 barrels of clear oil with a proportionate quantity of head matter. It may emphatically be said that the scars of his old wounds were near his new. For not less than 20 harpoons did we draw from his back, the rusted mementos of many a desperate encounter.

Joanne Freeman: So, obviously there must be some kind of relationship of one to the other. Did Mocha Dick Inspire Herman Melville’s Moby Dick?

Hester Blum: Yes. It’s fairly widely acknowledged that Mocha Dick was one of the sources that Melville drew on in writing Moby Dick, which came out 12 years after the Reynolds’ story was published. And the Reynold’s story was published in a New York literary magazine, that Melville would have likely read or would have encountered. He was a New Yorker. He aspired to be part of that New York literary scene. It’s likely that he saw the story, and even if he never got his hands on a copy of Reynolds’s story in the Knickerbocker, Melville might have heard the story of the white whale when he himself was a working sailor, which he was for a total of seven years.