American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

PEQUOD. Ishmael,* the narrator of Herman Melville’s* Moby-Dick* (1851), chooses to go to sea for a three-year voyage on the fictional Nantucket* whaleship Pequod, choosing that vessel over the Devil-Dam and the Tit-bit. Ishmael tells us the Pequod “was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes” (ch. 16). The Pequod is based, in part, on the historical whaleship Acushnet, on whose maiden voyage Melville sailed, leaving New Bedford on 3 January 1841. The Pequod, in contrast, leaves Nantucket on Christmas Day (ch. 22).

The Pequod is, in many ways, a fantastical ship, with its belaying pins made of sperm-whale teeth and its tiller made from the lower jaw of a sperm whale. It has become, like its captain, a “cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies” (ch. 16). There are discrepancies within Melville’s text concerning the Pequod: the whaleship first has a tiller (chs. 16, 96, 123) but later a wheel (chs. 61, 118). The whalemen sleep mostly in hammocks (ch. 29 and frequently elsewhere) but occasionally in bunks (chs. 27, 64). Melville several times mentions that there are thirty men on board (chs. 123, 126, 134), but there are actually roughly forty-five individually designated. The source for the sinking of the Pequod by a sperm whale at the end of Moby-Dick was Melville’s reading of Owen Chase’s* Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck* of the Whale-Ship Essex,* of Nantucket (1821). In the Pequod, Melville created a grim, trophy-studded vessel, which haunts the reader’s mind.

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards