At Large : Survivor of two shipwrecks, Essex skipper now in history's grip
If ever someone qualified for consideration as a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, it was certainly Capt. George Pollard Jr., master of the Essex, a whaleship out of Nantucket. His command stove by a whale and sunk in November 1820, he and his diminishing crew drifted in small boats for three months, starved, sickened, and cannibalized,
Pollard eventually made his way back home in August 1821. But, he spent just three months ashore, almost certainly without the benefit of psychological counseling, then it was back to sea in command of the Two Brothers, the Nantucket whaler that had rescued the remains of his Essex complement and brought them safely back to the fog-bound, windswept sandhill that was the center of the world's whaling industry.
But an ungenerous fate had not finished with Pollard. Sailing north and west of Hawaii in storm conditions, Pollard put Two Brothers ashore on French Frigate Shoals in 1823, where she rests in pieces today. There was no appetite for Pollard among Nantucket whaleship owners after that, and indeed, there was no appetite in Pollard for a new command. He found a new delight in life ashore and eventually became a town watchman at Nantucket.
As Ben Simons, the Robyn and John Davis Chief Curator of the Nantucket Historical Association and editor of Historic Nantucket, explains it, "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 night watchman)." Mr. Simons calls Pollard "a scarred man."
Still, there may be some reason to regard Pollard as an exemplar, not of bad luck but of good fortune. After all, while he did lose two valuable ships for their owners, he survived both catastrophes and helped to bring along bits and pieces of those for whom he was responsible. How he went about making the implied calculation, one can't know, but the utter absence of whaleship owners and the embarrassing shortage of owners of merchant vessels knocking at his door, combined with the accumulated night terrors that must have bedeviled him would certainly have contributed to a view that found life ashore — although absolutely not as stimulating as command at sea — promised less in the way of life-threatening mayhem.
And, he may even have figured that living out his years walking Nantucket's streets at night, checking to see that the doors to the counting houses and sperm-oil warehouses were snugly locked, would give the world a chance to forget the ghastly tale of the Essex's sinking and subsequent events, in which he'd played such a central role. There is no reason to think that Pollard, whose ego had certainly taken a terrible beating, did not nevertheless worry over how history might remember him.
Pollard's concern for his legacy — if indeed he was concerned — has been thwarted by the discovery of what appear to be the remains of the Two Brothers on French Frigate Shoals. Two Brothers is not alone. The record of whaleships believed to have met their fates in the reefs of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM), of which French Frigate Shoals is a part, numbers at least 11.
The Hawaiian maritime archaeological team that has been investigating the ships' graveyard that is the PMNM, needs to find something with a marking or legend that would link it to the Two Brothers. The investigators believe they will be successful, and in anticipation of success, they are discussing with officials of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Nantucket Historical Society, and Mystic Seaport the possibilities for exhibiting these antique relics of an industry that had a home in Southeastern Massachusetts and a global reach for raw materials and markets.
Although the business of such as Capt. George Pollard Jr. was conducted in multi-year, globe-girdling voyages during which communications with headquarters occurred via the medium of mid-ocean gams, the discussions of how the artifacts will be curated and displayed are conducted via email and in conference calls.
For instance, recently Matthew Stackpole of West Tisbury, a leader of the effort by Mystic Seaport to reconstruct the whaleship Charles W. Morgan, joined a recent call, on his cell phone, in his car, outside the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Matthew, a Nantucketer — his father Edouard was a writer and curator of the Nantucket museum and the Mystic museum also — is now devoted to the preservation and reconstruction of the only remaining wooden whaleship and the country's oldest commercial sailing vessel.
The Morgan, launched in 1841, hunted whales in the trackless oceans where Essex and Two Brothers roamed. The Morgan and the Seaport's collections of whaling implements, log books, and journals, along with those of the Nantucket Historical Society and the New Bedford Whaling Museum, will combine to tell the story of the industry George Pollard served, and of Pollard himself.
Whatever dreams of obscurity Captain Pollard may have nurtured have now certainly foundered too.