Moby-Dick and Nantucket

Discover the story of Moby-Dick here at the Whaling Museum. From stories of Melville’s visit to Nantucket in 1852 to the Pop Culture of Moby-Dick today.

Melville on Nantucket
In July 1852, the year after he published Moby-Dick, Herman Melville sailed into Nantucket harbor for the first time, and on a similar packet steamer to that of Ishmael and Queequeg, for a three-day visit.  Read more.

The Monster Myth
Before Melville, stories of demonic whales circled the globe. The whales that emerge from myths and fables often were not whales at all—at least not what we now know as whales. In medieval and renaissance maps, mapmakers populated the seas with many strange and fantastic beasts, often assuming every land animal had a sea-dwelling counterpart. For the colossal creatures larger than ships, they ascribed terrifying and threatening traits, as if they naturally posed a threat to sea travel. In later maps, whales began to signify good fishing areas, but they never lost their monstrosity.  Read more. 

A Diverse Crew
Melville gave his Pequod a diverse crew, mentioning 44 men from the U.S., northern and southern Europe, South America, Iceland, the Azores, China, and India. He epitomized this diversity in his four “har-pooneers”: Queequeg the Pacific Islander, Dagoo the African, Fedallah the Indian “Parsee,” and Tashtego the Gay Head Native American. American whaling crews before the Civil War were in fact diverse, but never this diverse within a single voyage nor among the ranks of the boatsteerers (harpooners). Read more.

Shipwrecks sometimes ruined whaling careers. For George Pollard, Nantucket whaler and captain of the Essex, the proverbial lightning struck twice. After safely returning home in the summer of 1821, Pollard set out again that fall in command of the Two Brothers, another whaler bound back for the Pacific. The ship struck a reef in Febraury 1823 in shoals to the northwest of the Hawaiian Islands, and, although he was reluctant to abandon ship, his crew safely evacuated to the nearby whaler Martha. Pollard never received another command. Read more. 

Cannibalism and “Custom of the Sea”
Life at sea occasionally ended in tragedy. When vessels foundered in the age of sail, and crews found themselves in remote waters far from aid, sailors relied on their considerable professional skills to try to save themselves. But circumstances often outmatched them. If food and water ran short, cannibalism sometimes ensured survival, and a sympathetic public was likely to forgive such extreme necessities upon return to land. The common expression for these acts of survival was “the custom of the sea.”

Melville’s Moby-Dick drew from the story of the Essex, albeit with dramatized effect. In Moby-Dick, it seems as if the whole crew of the Pequod craved a cannibal diet—if Melville never fed his characters flesh, he still described their whale prey with an anatomy and behavior parallel to a hunted man.Read more.

At What Cost?
Only Ishmael survived the voyage of the Pequod, his shipmates perishing from Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of the white whale. To be sure, many real Nantucketers also died from the actions of angered sperm whales, and some certainly perished due to the poor judgement of their captains. But disease and shipboard accidents were also leading causes of death among Nantucket whalers, as well as among Nantucket fishermen and merchant sailors more generally. Research carried out at the NHA has identified a minimum of 1,131 seafarers lost aboard Nantucket vessels between 1724 and 1896. Their sacrifices stand as a testament to the human cost of whaling, fishing, and trading from a small island community. Read more.

Pop Culture and Moby-Dick 

Moby Dick is emblazoned in the canon of literature, art, opera, theater, film, and daily life. When did you first spot the white whale?

Moby-Dick flopped when it was first published in 1851, and during Melville’s lifetime, the book earned little acclaim and even less money. A new generation of readers rediscovered Moby-Dick in the early twentieth century, inspired by the madcap humor and mystical symbolism that made the novel seem mod-ern before its time. Since then, Moby Dick swims through popular culture, spawning adaptations in every imaginable medium.

We count 18 different versions of Moby-Dick filmed since 1930 the book is referenced in 68 other films. Here are a few of our favorites. 




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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