Chapter 45 The Affidavit

        In which Melville / Ishmael prepares the reader to accept the possibility that a sperm whale can sink a wooden ship by ramming it with his head. [Note that the term "stove" as in "stove boat" is the past tense of the verb "to stave", which means to smash a hole into something]. While the smashing of small, flimsy whaleboats by a whale is easy to believe, the sinking of a large ship is not. However, several examples of this are cited, with the author vouching for their veracity -- hence the title of this chapter. [Note the dictionary definition of affidavit is "a written declaration under oath before an official"]

        The first "citation" presented has to do with the same man harpooning the same whale twice, with an interval of two or three years intervening, proven by a special mark on both harpoons -- this coincidence being observed more than once by the author in his prior experience as a whaleman. The second citation involves famous whales: Timor Tom, New Zealand Jack, Morquan, and Don Miguel. The fact that these whales have names known in the fishery, and that the same whale can be struck again by the same man after the two are long separated in time and space -- all this is offered to make the story of Moby Dick believable as reality and not as "a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory". Yet the simple truth is that this tale of Melville's has been and is considered a fable and an allegory by many commentators.

        Be that as it may, the fate of the Pequod and its crew has a true basis in fact. Melville correctly asserts: "The Sperm Whale is in some cases sufficiently powerful, knowing, and judiciously malicious, as with direct aforethought to stave in, utterly destroy, and sink a large ship; and what is more, THE SPERM WHALE HAS DONE IT!" In this way Melville lets us in on the motivating anecdote that he has expanded and embroidered into this tale of a white whale: It is the true story of the Nantucket Whaleship ESSEX that was sunk by a sperm whale (though not a white one) in the Pacific Ocean in 1820:

        The ESSEX was under the command of Captain George Pollard, Jr., at the time one of the youngest captains ever to sail a Nantucket whaleship. He has been called a "Jonah Man" by a direct descendant of prominent Nantucket whaleship owners. The reason for this epithet will become clear. Pollard's crew was attacking sperm whales in the South Pacific when a smashed (stove) boat had to be returned to the mother ship. The first mate, Owen Chace, made the fatal mistake of ordering the boat repaired immediately. The sound of hammering from the ship attracted an already enraged bull whale who attacked the ship, ramming it twice. The ship began to take on water immediately, eliciting the famous question from Pollard, "My God, Mr. Chace, what is the matter?". The famous answer: "We have been stove by a whale." Pollard, Chace, and a few crewmen rowed whaleboats some two thousand miles to rescue, resorting to cannibalism on the way to survive. (A neat touch of irony here, Quaker cannibals of necessity looking down on pagan cannibals by birth like Queequeg, but employing them as whalemen.) Back on Nantucket, Pollard was given command of a second whaleship, which he managed to lose by striking "unknown rocks". He ended his days on Nantucket as a nightwatchman. Melville states: "I have seen Owen Chace, who was chief mate of the Essex at the time of the tragedy. I have read his plain and faithful narrative. I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense."