Sunday, April 28, 2019

Melville, Whaling, and Hudson

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth, in New York City, of Herman Melville, and to mark the occasion, the Proprietors Ball, Hudson Hall's principal annual fundraising event, will celebrate the birth of the author of Moby Dick and Hudson's beginnings as a whaling town.

According to Margaret Schram, in her book Hudson's Merchants and Whalers: The Rise and Fall of a River Port 1783-1850, the last whaling ship, the Harriot, sailed from Hudson in 1818-1819, probably before Melville was born on August 1, 1819. The Harriot was lost on the coast of Brazil with 900 barrels of whale oil on board. That being the case, I decided to do a little investigating to see if there were any connections between Melville and Hudson.

Although whaling in Hudson was pretty much over at the time of Melville's birth, it did have a brief period of revival from 1830 to about 1844 which coincides with Melville's own days of working on a whaling ships, an experience about which Melville comments, in the voice of Ishmael, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." In 1829, a newly formed organization called the Hudson Whaling Company issued the following statement: "Why may there be no hope to rival those eastern cities which the whale fishery has built up? We possess equal advantages, equal enterprise. Under the present circumstances the hope is entertained that Hudson will again flourish as in its infant days." In September 1833, the Gazette reported that there were eleven whaling ships that sailed from Hudson. (During the same period, Nantucket had a fleet of sixty vessels, and New Bedford had forty-nine.) The chart below, reproduced from Schram's book, shows Hudson's whaling ships during the revival of whaling and the years of service for each.

At the same time that whaling was being revived in Hudson, the Melville family moved from New York City to Albany. Melville's father moved the family upstate in 1830 in a failed attempt to branch into the fur trade. Two years later, in 1832, his father died suddenly, leaving the family in dire financial straits.

In The Hudson from Troy to the Battery, published in 2011, local historians Stanley Wilcox and H. W. VanLoan posit that Melville was familiar with Hudson: "During this decade [the 1830s] Herman Melville, Knickerbocker Dutch on his mother's side and author of Moby Dick, lived near the river and studied at Albany Academy. He frequently visited Hudson, which fascinated him and probably induced him to ship out, when he was a bit older, on a New Bedford whaler." Wilcox and VanLoan offer no contemporary evidence that Melville was a frequent visitor to Hudson, but whether or not they are correct in their claim, when Melville went to sea it was not on a ship sailing from Hudson. In 1839, he signed on as a cabin boy for a merchant ship called the St. Lawrence, which sailed from New York City, and in 1841, he went to work on a whaling ship, the Acushnet, which sailed from New Bedford.

There is an interesting and documented connection between Melville and Hudson, and that is the wreck of the Essex.

On November 20, 1820, the Essex was rammed by a sperm whale and sank. The story of the disaster inspired Moby Dick, and Melville used it to form the climax of the book, in which the Pequod is destroyed by the white whale. There is also a connection of the Essex to Hudson, and Schram tells it in her book:
Though the Essex was a Nantucket whale ship, a mention of her story is necessary because two of those involved in the tragedy have ties to Hudson's history. Matthew Joy of Hudson was second mate on the Essex. The Joy family was of Nantucket Quaker stock and had moved to Hudson in 1800 when Matthew was six years old. He was a Hudson Quaker until 1817, when he returned to Nantucket to marry Nancy Slade. She was a Congregationalist, so Matthew was disowned by the Quakers for "marrying out." (Quakers are not to marry non-Quakers.) After two years of marriage, he signed aboard the Essex, which sailed from Nantucket on August 12, 1819. When he came aboard, it was noticed that he was of a "weakly and sickly constitution," which probably meant tuberculosis. There were twenty men aboard, but only eight survived the ensuing ordeal, and Matthew Joy was not one of them.
The Essex was rammed by a sperm whale and sank on November 20, 1820. The men took to the three whaleboats, the captain, first mate, and second mate each in charge of a boat. In the three months that followed, the boats traveled 4,500 miles. The men were starving, thirsty, and exposed to sun and storms. Joy's health rapidly deteriorated, and on January 10, 1821, he died. They "sewed him up in his clothes, tied a large stone to his feet, and, having brought all the boats to, consigned him in a solemn manner to the ocean."
Three of the crew were rescued from a desolate Pacific island in April of 1821. First Mate Owen Chase, boatsteerer Benjamin Lawrence, and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson were picked up by the London brig Indian on February 18, 1821. Captain Pollard and sailor Charles Ramsdell were rescued by the Nantucket whale ship Dauphin on February 23, 1821. From the stories told by the survivors, the men in the boats endured unbelievable misery, starvation, and finally cannibalism. . . . 
First Mate Owen Chase soon married Matthew Joy's widow, Nancy Slade Joy. Boatsteerer Benjamin Lawrence, another survivor, will enter Hudson's history in 1832 as the captain of the Hudson whale ship Huron.
In "Ten Fascinating Facts about Herman Melville" on Mental Floss, Kat Long recounts that, after Moby Dick had been published, Melville visited Nantucket for the first time and "personally interviewed the Essex's captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town's night watchman." If, indeed, as Wilcox and VanLoan suggest, Melville visited Hudson often during his teenage years, he might have encountered Benjamin Lawrence, the boatsteerer on the Essex, who from 1832 to 1836 was captain of the Huron. 

To return to the event that inspired this post, the 2019 Proprietors Ball, "Hudson Merchants and Whalers," takes place this coming Saturday, May 4. Click here for more information.


  1. Thanks for the well told story, and no fish story either: it's simply not known whether or not Melville visited Hudson. But because he surely did, it's flat out disappointing that we can't say for sure.

    As for the Joys' whereabouts in Hudson, it's equally frustrating not to know where they lived when you consider that their house may still be standing.

    Between 1800 and 1850 - the year Matthew Joy's father Levi died, apparently in a group home - the federal censuses didn't record street addresses.

    In each census the Joys were recorded as living in the "1st Ward," while at the same time each generation of census-taker would dutifully record the order in which households and families were visited. Looking back at these pointless statistics, we're reminded that all governments are typically hampered by repeated exercises in short-sightedness.

    Then along comes some pissed-off whale ...

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderfully researched and reported account of Melville, Hudson and The Essex!! Very exciting indeed!
    George Pollard as the town nightwatchman is a Netflix original I'd see...

  3. In a small city where rents and land ownership are a constant source of controversy, one wishes that the Opera House would rename this event. “Proprietors” is of course a historical reference which cannot be erased. But it is an 18th Century concept with far more negative connotations here in the 21st Century. The spectacle of people paying half a month’s rent to half a year’s rent for the privilege of a candlelight dinner and being considered a “new” Proprietor has kind of an ugly ring to it.