“Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?”
This quotation from Moby-Dick may well have been asked by real captains about a different whale–one that inspired the author of that now-famous book. Although Moby-Dick didn’t get much attention while its author Herman Melville was alive, the book–first published on this day in 1851–has gone down in history as a classic. (If you want to get a sense of it but don’t have the time to check out the entire 700-page tome, check out this Twitter account.) But the situation was reversed for the white whale's namesake: Many people had heard of Mocha Dick, although today he’s largely forgotten.
Mocha Dick, named after the island of Mocha in Chile, near where he was first spotted, was “one of the largest, most powerful sperm whales of 19th-century lore,” according to the Chronicle Books blog. He reportedly destroyed more than 20 whaling ships and escaped another 80, writes Daven Hiskey for Today I Found Out. The huge whale became famous for escaping ships over the next 28 years before he was at last killed by whalers in a dramatic encounter that was publicized by writer Jeremiah N. Reynolds in an 1839 account in The Knickerbocker.
“Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific,” as the story was titled, was a first-person account of the whale’s grisly death as told by the ship’s first mate, complete with a short epilogue in Reynold’s voice celebrating “the romance of a whaler’s life” and the struggle of the whale, who was found to have “not less than twenty harpoons” in his back, “the rusted mementos of many a desperate encounter.”
Among The Knickerbocker’s readers that month was Herman Melville, a writer of (at the time) limited success. Little is known for sure about how exactly Melville transformed Mocha Dick into Moby Dick for his story. In the novel, he writes that other whales received names like "Tom" or "Jack" along with the name of the place where they were sighted–like Timor Jack, or Mocha Dick. But "Moby" isn't a place.
Still, take one exciting "Mocha Dick" story, add in some real-life whaling adventures (Melville went to sea for three years starting in January 1841, according to Encyclopedia Britannica), and it starts to make sense where the name—and the book—came from.
Melville went on to write several novels that brought him great fame, but by the time he got to Moby-Dick, his writing style had changed and he’d lost public interest.
It’s ironic, because whaling itself was so important: For almost three centuries between the 1700s and the early twentieth century, whaling was huge–and risky–business. British, Dutch and later American whalers ventured far out to sea after the mammals, killing and harvesting them for whale oil and other products. The technologies used to hunt whales became ever more sophisticated, write Meghan E. Marrero and Stuart Thornton for National Geographic.
“The American whaling fleet, based on the East Coast, operated hundreds of ships in the South Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans,” the pair write. “Whaling was a multi-million dollar industry, and some scientists estimate that more whales were hunted in the early 1900s than in the previous four centuries combined.”
With this much business, the practice of whaling was bound to have a cultural impact. People were interested in whales just like, not long after, they became interested in oil and the people who searched for it. Despite this interest, Melville’s masterpiece on whaling, inspired by real events, didn’t receive recognition until long after it was written.