Wednesday, March 23, 2011

History: A Sad Tale And A Happy Find

On February 11th of 1823, six days after legendary pirate Jean Laffite was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras, the Nantucket whaler Two Brothers foundered and sank in the infamous French Frigate Shoals off Honolulu, Hawai’i. The story of the whaler, like that of so many other American whalers that set out for the Pacific and were never seen again, is a familiar one. In fact the Shoals are a veritable graveyard of ships which, even to this day, are difficult to navigate. Until recently, however, the exact location of the ship, who’s Captain makes the story of particular interest, was unknown.

George Pollard Jr. was originally given command of a whaling ship at the decidedly young age of 28. The ship, named Essex, set out from Nantucket and reached the South Pacific without incident. Pollard and his crew were relatively successful at the mind-numbingly arduous and dangerous work of whaling until 1820. That summer Essex was literally attacked by a whale, resulting in her loss. The horrific details of the incident – which include cannibalism by the survivors who spent weeks in an open boat – are best saved for Horror On the High Seas week. It is enough to say that Captain Pollard was among those who survived to be rescued by another American whaler, Two Brothers.

Pollard returned to Nantucket where, after what seems like only a short time to recuperate from such a harrowing experience, he took command of the ship that saved him in the great South Sea. Pollard was joined in this cruise by some of his former men and they set out for the Japan ground which lay roughly between the Hawaiian Islands and Japan. Though Pollard was known as a stout commander with a keen sense of where to find the “fish”, his luck seems to have been atrocious. He lost his second ship not three years after losing his first. The circumstances so shocked Pollard that one of his mates later recalled his captain standing stock still on deck when Two Brothers began to sink. He was dragged off to a boat before he could go down with his ship.

Almost serendipitously, an unplanned dive brought a group of marine archeologists from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to a sandbar in the Shoals known as Shark Island. There, about 15 feet deep, they found a large anchor. A little more investigating revealed that the find was from the 1820s and probably from an American whaling ship. On February 11th of this year the team announced that they had what was left of Pollard’s ill-fated command.

Artifacts including the anchor, iron trypots used for boiling whale blubber into precious oil, ceramic fragments, and blubber hooks. Because the Shoals are part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the larger items cannot be removed from the water. According to this
article from the NYT, Monument officials are already working with the Nantucket Historical Association to see to it that smaller artifacts will become part of a permanent whaling exhibit in Hawai’i.

Even without the dramatic back story, Two Brothers is a remarkable find. As the article notes, this may be the first Nantucket whaler discovered in situ. The vessels frequently foundered far from shore and in deep seas where whales were plentiful. The artifacts found at French Frigate Shoals will doubtless shed a lot of light on a chapter in seafaring history that was brutal for all involved: the sailors, their families, their ships, and the whales.

Header: A modern view of French Frigate Shoals via their website


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is a pretty sad story. I thought the NYT article was actually very good too.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! The article was great until they got snarky about cannibalism. Then, they lost me.