The Wreck Of The Two Brothers -April/May 2011
by: Ben Simons
photography by: Greg Mcfall
On Feb. 11, 1823, cruising to the west of the Sandwich Islands – now Hawaii – in consort with the whaleship Martha, the Two Brothers was separated from her sister ship and caught in a severe gale.
Thousands of miles from his Nantucket home, Captain George Pollard Jr. watched in horror as the violent storm pummeled his vessel with mountainous breakers, and thrust the Two Brothers onto the coral of French Frigate shoals.
He must have felt cursed.
The whaling master had already survived the recent tragedy of the Essex, struck by a whale on Nov. 20, 1820, whose sinking became the inspiration for Herman Melville’s literary classic “Moby-Dick.”
Pollard and his surviving crew’s remarkable ordeal after the Essex disaster was marked by months in a small boat drifting in the Pacific Ocean, near-starvation and cannibalism. After returning to Nantucket in 1821 aboard the Two Brothers, he was given a chance at redemption, immediately entrusted with command of the very whaleship that had brought him home.
Two Brothers set sail again on Nov. 26, 1821, one year and six days from the date of the Essex attack. Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy on the Essex, had been promoted to boat-steerer, and joined Pollard on the voyage.
His firsthand account of what happened, now on display in the Nantucket Whaling Museum together with a poem he wrote about the incident, described the events:
“It was raining and blowing hard at Seven Bells with a high rolling Sea, one of the men remarked that the water alongside looked whiter than usual ... I had stopped into the Cabin to get my water Coat when I observed the Captain Standing upon the railing and looking over the davit into the Sea ... I had just put my hand upon my Coat when the Ship Struck with a fearful Crash which whirled me head foremost to the other side of the Cabin. I gathered myself up as quick as I was able, Supposing that we had run into some passing Ship. I sprang upon deck and you may judge of my astonishment to find ourselves Surrounded with Breakers apparently Mountains high, and our Ship Carreenning over upon her broadside and thumping so heavily that one Could Scarcely Stand upon his feet.”
As in the Essex attack, Captain Pollard froze at the critical moment: “Capt. Pollard Seemed to Stand amazed at the Scene before him...,” Nickerson wrote.
The crew of the Two Brothers, led by first mate Eben Gardner, sprang into action and managed to release the whaleboats, which had been lashed down to secure them during the storm.
“Under the Swift management of the two mates Mr. Eben Gardner and Charles W. Riddell two boats were got clear of the wreck and all hands Crowded into them Saveing nothing but what they Stood in. Capt. Pollard reluctantly got into the boat just as they were about to Shove off from the Ship.”
In a note, Nickerson wrote, “The Capt when Calld upon, could scarcely be prevailed upon to embark.” Finally, Pollard joined the crew in the boats.
After passing a “dismal night among the reefs and breakers, at day break we discovered a Ship within the reefs and to our joy as we approached her we could discover that she Rode To her anchor Easy and Clear of the Bottom,” Nickerson wrote. The ordeal was haunting, especially to one who had only recently passed through the Essex ordeal. In a verse that seems to allude to the memory of hunger, Nickerson wrote about the night at sea:
“But here again, new terrors on us seize We have no food, our hunger to appease And thirst steals o’er our parched lips in vain Pale death’s stern visage threatens now again.”
Their salvation was their consort whaleship Martha. As first mate Eben Gardner wrote in his first-person account, also in the NHA col- lections, “We got our boat down, took in one turtle, and rowed towards the ship hard. At 1 P.M. we got on board of the Martha and found Capt. Pollard safe with all his crew. We had 11 men in each boat.”
In sharp contrast to the aftermath of the Essex attack, no tragedy ensued, apart from the material loss of the ship.
Nickerson wrote, “We had not seen a vestage of Our ill fated Ship nor have I heared that a vestage of her has ever been Seen Since.”
Twice wrecked was too many for Captain George Pollard Jr. In a superstitious industry, he considered himself unlucky, and 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. A scarred man, in Nickerson’s terse words, “Captain Pollard Returned ... and relinquished the Whaling business for ever.”
Pollard, who met Melville in the summer of 1852, following the publication of “Moby-Dick,” was held in low regard by his Nantucket neighbors, but to the author, who knew Pollard’s story of survival, the former whaling captain was a remarkable man. Every Nov. 20, in honor of those who died on the Essex, he would lock himself in his room and fast in honor of those who had been lost.
For the past 188 years, the wreck of the Two Brothers has been buried in the shallow waters of French Frigate Shoals in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It was discovered by a team of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers Aug. 23, 2008, and on Feb. 11, 2011, on the 188th anniversary of the wreck, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries formally announced that it had located the nationally-significant wreckage in the waters of Papahãnaumokuãkea Marine National Monument, nearly 600 miles north-west of Honolulu.
NOAA’s Kelly Gleason, the maritime archeologist who led the expeditions to the shoals, found the first whaleship artifacts at the site in the final hours of a trip to the remote area in 2008, including a large anchor, three try pots and hundreds of bricks. Since their first dis- covery, the NOAA team has found further artifacts at the wreck site, including harpoon heads, a grinding wheel, a blubber hook and fragments of china that make the case that the wreck site relates to an early-19th-century wreck, most likely the Two Brothers.
Last March, Gleason traveled to Nantucket and explored the archives of the Nantucket Historical Association’s research library, look- ing for sea accounts of whaling voyages and learning about the material culture of a Nantucket whaler from that era. She returned to the shoals later that year, and discovered even more harpoon tips, lances and ceramics.
According to NOAA, many of the archeological artifacts are receiving treatment in a conservation laboratory. Others will remain in the marine sanctuary, where they are protected by federal law. Gleason hopes that a small selection will eventually be placed on display in Hilo, Hawaii, and possibly form the basis of a traveling exhibition.
In the meantime, the Nantucket Historical Association and the Egan Maritime Institute have teamed up to invite Gleason to speak at the Whaling Museum Aug. 16.