This story originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Prologue magazine.
Herman Melville’s classic American novel, Moby-Dick, was first published in the United States on November 14, 1851. In Moby-Dick and his earlier books, Melville called upon his own experience aboard whaling ships, most notably his 18 months spent aboard the Acushnet, sailing out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
The 21-year-old Melville signed on in December 1840 but never completed the journey with the ship. After rounding Cape Horn and sailing across the Pacific, Melville and another crew member deserted in July 1842 while the ship was stopped at Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Their departure was not an isolated incident; 11 of the original complement of 26 officers and men deserted at various times during the voyage.
The crew list was signed by Capt. Valentine Pease on December 31, 1840. Two days later, Pease had to amend the list to note the first two deserters from the crew and the late signing of a replacement. The collector of customs for New Bedford, Massachusetts, retained a copy of the crew list as required by an 1803 act of Congress governing merchant ships bound for foreign ports.
The Acushnet’s list is now housed in the National Archives at Boston, along with other crew lists from ships departing New England ports. The sixth name from the bottom is that of the young Melville, setting out on a voyage that would launch him into America’s pantheon of writers.