Rupert Cornwell: Of shipwrecks, survival – and cannibalism

Out of America: Historic find has links to a grisly saga that inspired 'Moby-Dick'

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You might suppose that oil of the petroleum variety was the world's first global energy industry. Not so. That distinction belongs to whale oil, which, for roughly a century after 1750, lit lamps and provided wax and lubricants for what passed then as the developed Western world. And now comes a fascinating new reminder.

Today Nantucket is a holiday playground for the gilded rich of Wall Street. Back then, though, the small island off the southern coast of Massachusetts was the equivalent of modern Houston and Saudi Arabia, home to a whaling fleet of wooden ships that ranged the seven seas, on epic voyages that might last three years or more, and end with no return at all. But no wrecks were ever found – until now.

For the first time, American marine archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Nantucket whaler, the Two Brothers, that sank 188 years ago in this very same February week of 1823. She was on her way to newly opened whaling grounds off Japan when she foundered on a hidden sandbank beyond the far western end of the Hawaiian archipelago, some 12,000 miles from her home port. On Friday researchers from the government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented their findings, and a fascinating tale it is.

The NOAA team was exploring a treacherous stretch of atoll called the French Frigate Shoals, 600 miles north-west of Honolulu, looking for other, more recent wrecks. But just before they were due to leave, they noticed an old anchor resting on the seabed 15ft below the surface, clearly visible through the crystalline water. Naturally the wooden structure of the Two Brothers had long vanished, but what remained was sufficient to identify the vessel: the anchor from the early 19th century, lances and harpoons to catch the whales, plus ceramic fragments and three metal trypots – cauldrons in which whale blubber was rendered into the precious oil.

All this would have been remarkable enough, proof that these maritime odysseys were not just seafarers' yarns. But the tale of the captain of the Two Brothers makes the story even better. He was a man named George Pollard Jr, only 32 years old at the time of the shipwreck. But the Two Brothers was not his first whaling command. Three years earlier he had been captain of the Essex, the Nantucket whaler whose terrible end was one of the most celebrated maritime sagas of the age, and inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

The Essex had set sail from Nantucket in 1819, rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean the following January. Then on 20 November, about 1,800 miles west of the Galapagos Islands, the vessel was rammed twice by a enraged sperm whale – some 85ft long, almost the length of the Essex itself. That attack finds fictional form at the climax of Melville's great novel. The subsequent reality for the crew of the Essex was more harrowing still.

The crew abandoned ship, divided up their meagre provisions and set off in the three small whaleboats, hoping to make landfall in Chile or Peru. But their supplies ran out, and as one crew member after another died of starvation or thirst, the others resorted to cannibalism to survive. Eventually there were only four men left on Pollard's boat, and they decided that one should be killed to provide food. They drew lots, and the unlucky individual was Pollard's cousin, 19-year-old Owen Coffin, who bravely accepted his fate and was shot dead.

Finally on 23 February 1821, Pollard and his one fellow survivor were rescued by another whaler and taken to the Chilean port of Valparaiso, from where they made their way back to Nantucket.

For most sailors, so dreadful an experience would keep them from going back to sea for ever. Not Pollard, however. A year later he agreed to captain the Two Brothers in the belief, as he reportedly put it, that "lightning never strikes in the same place twice." But it did. Back in Nantucket after being rescued for a second time, he was regarded as a "Jonah" – a sailor who brought ill fortune with him. Pollard never went whaling again, and spent the rest of his life as a nightwatchman until his death in 1870. But Melville did meet him during a visit to Nantucket in 1852, a year after the publication of Moby-Dick, and described the captain of the Essex as "the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming even humble, that I ever encountered".

By the time Pollard died, whaling was changing. Coal and oil were the new fuels of the industrial age, and men hunted whales for food with an industrial ruthlessless that brought whole species close to extinction.

But whaling's monuments survive, relics of a vanished age – from the cobbled streets of old Nantucket, with its wonderful whaling museum and handsome captain's houses with their rooftop balconies, from which women scanned the sea for their menfolk's return, to the long-abandoned whaling stations of South Georgia at the other end of the world. To these must now be added another monument: a dazzling coral reef off Hawaii that is the last resting place of the Two Brothers.

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