Thomas Nickerson’s Account of the Wreck of the Two Brothers

After surviving the harrowing ordeal of the whaleship Essex, Captain George Pollard Jr. returned to Nantucket aboard the whaleship Two Brothers, arriving on August 5, 1821, to a huge crowd of some 1,500 gathered to witness the tragic captain’s homecoming. According to one eyewitness, “the cliffs and wharves were lined with spectators . . . .  [Captain Pollard] walked home through an awe-struck, silent crowd.” Remarkably, he was immediately entrusted with command of the whaleship that had brought him home, Two Brothers. Even more amazing, he was accompanied on the voyage by fellow survivor and former Essex cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, now promoted to boatsteerer. The date of sail of the Two Brothers was November 26, 1821—one year and six days from the date of the Essex attack.

Pollard’s and Nickerson’s fate had been cruel, but with the amazing sang froid of the Nantucket whalemen, they returned to the bosom of their profession. Pollard’s famous response to the scene of the Essex attack had been: “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” Owen Chase said of his fellow crew at the time, “We looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech. ”But the seasoned whale men had taken immediate action on the Essex— gathering supplies and navigational equipment, preparing the whaleboats—all examples of good decision-making under pressure that led to measures that would affect their ultimate survival.

Now, picture the scene aboard the Two Brothers in February 1823. Cruising in consort with the whaleship Martha to the west of the Sandwich(Hawaiian) Islands, she was separated from her sister ship, and, caught by a severe gale, navigation became difficult. Thomas Nickerson, the great chronicler of the Essex disaster, penned a brief but poignant account of events as they transpired on February 11, 1823:

It was raining and blowing hard at Seven Bells with a high rolling Sea, one of the men remarked that the water alongside looked whiter than usual. I had stepped into the Cabin to get my water Coat when I observed the Captain standing upon the railing and looking over the davit into the Sea. I had just put my hand upon my Coat when the Ship Struck with a fearful Crash which whirled me head foremost to the other side of the Cabin. I gathered myself up as quick as I was able, Supposing that we had run into some passing Ship. I sprang up on deck and you may judge of my astonishment to find ourselves Surrounded with Breakers apparently Mountains high, and our Ship Carreenning [sic] over upon her broadside and thumping so heavily that one Could Scarcely Stand upon his feet.

It is interesting that Nickerson thinks immediately of having struck another ship, not realizing that they had grounded on a coral reef in shallow water—he apparently makes no association back to the calamity that he had recently endured. His description of Captain Pollard, however, points to a more haunted vision:

Capt. Pollard Seemed to Stand amazed at the Scene before him. . . .  

Once again, the mates and other whalemen respond quickly and efficiently:

Under the Swift management of the two mates Mr. Eben Gardner and Charles W. Riddell two boats were got clear of the wreck and all hands Crowded into them Saveing nothing but what they Stood in. Capt. pollard reluctantly got into the boat just as they were about to Shove off from the Ship.

A thousand unspoken thoughts, and indeed Pollard’s whole character, can be found hidden in that lowercase “p”: “Capt. pollard.” Nickerson also turned the episode of the Two Brothers wreck into a lengthy, rolling poem, the highlight of which is precisely the moment of Pollard’s nearly suicidal paralysis:

Deep lost in thought, his reasoning power shad flown,
  He Cared for Others Safety, not his own,
And when the boats prepared, he lingered yet,
And Seemed his own Salvation, to forget.

In a note, Nickerson writes, “The Captain when Called upon, could scarcely be prevailed upon to embark.” Finally, Pollard joins the crew in the boats. Nickerson tells that after passing a “dismal night among the reefs and breakers, at day break we discovered a Ship within the reefs and to our joy as we approached her we could discover that she Rode To her anchor Easy and Clear of the Bottom.  ”Their salvation came in the form of their consort whaleship Martha. In sharp contrast to the aftermath of the Essex attack, no tragedy ensued, apart from the material loss of the ship, which lay on the sea floor in the vicinity of French Frigate Shoals, protected by the ocean until modern discovery could unearth her scattered remains. Nickerson wrote: “We had not seen a vestage of Our ill fated Ship nor have I heared that a vestage of her has ever been Seen Since.”

Twice was too many for Captain George Pollard Jr. He considered himself, and not his vessels, to be “ill-fated.” In a superstitious industry, he chose to hang up his hat and retire (he would captain a merchant vessel, and then return to Nantucket to become the town’s nightwatchman). A scarred man, in Nickerson’s terse words, “Captain Pollard Returned [from Oahu to Nantucket] in the Brig Pearl of Boston and relinquished the Whaling business for ever.”

Ben Simons is Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator of the Nantucket Historical Association and editor of Historic Nantucket.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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