Hawai‘i’s whaling era began in 1819 when two New England ships became the first whaling ships to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands.
At that time, whale products were in high demand; whale oil was used for heating, lamps and in industrial machinery; whale bone was used in corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips.
In the early 19th century, whaling voyages often took two years or more.
George Pollard was captain of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling vessel that sank in 1821 after being rammed by a sperm whale in the South Pacific.
The Essex’s epic tale inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby-Dick;” however, the author isn’t believed to have used Pollard as the basis for the book’s notorious Captain Ahab.
After the tragedy of the Essex, Captain George Pollard and other survivors endured a 95-day journey in small boats that resulted in sickness, starvation, and, ultimately, cannibalism. However, this dramatic experience was not the final chapter in Pollard’s career as a whaling captain.
Despite the Essex tragedy, Pollard was offered another captaincy soon after, this time of the Two Brothers; before departing, Pollard had said he believed “lightning never strikes in the same place twice.”
Such was not the case.
The Two Brothers set sail for the Pacific, leaving Nantucket on November 26, 1821. By winter 1822, the ship had rounded the tip of South America. The crew was on its way to newly discovered whaling grounds near Japan; she made her way around Cape Horn, then up the west coast of South America.
On the night of February 11, 1823, the Two Brothers hit a shallow reef at French Frigate Shoals (nearly six hundred miles northwest of Honolulu in what is now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.)
The ship broke apart in the heavy surf. Stunned by the disaster and by his horrible misfortune, Captain Pollard was reluctant to abandon the ship. The crew pleaded with their captain to get into the small boats, to which they clung for survival throughout the night.
The entire crew of Two Brothers was rescued by an accompanying ship, the Martha, and they headed back to Oʻahu.
In 2008, a team of NOAA maritime archaeologists made an exciting discovery at French Frigate Shoals. Following over three weeks of successful survey in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the team began to explore for new shipwreck sites at French Frigate Shoals using tow board surveys in an area near a historic anchorage.
Within minutes of the first tow, the divers spotted a large anchor in approximately 15-feet of water. The age and size of this anchor gave the impression that it was not simply left as a mooring in an anchorage.
After snorkeling around in the area, the team came across the first clue that this site was more than a lone anchor: a blubber pot set into a hole in the reef top. This discovery initiated a larger survey of the area, and soon two more was found.
At the time, researchers did not know the identity of the find. Three whaling ships, all American vessels, have been reported lost at French Frigate Shoals: the South Seaman, wrecked in 1859; the Daniel Wood, wrecked in 1867; and the Two Brothers.
It wasn’t until May of 2010 when a small team was able to return to the site that maritime archaeologists began to believe they were indeed looking at the scattered remains of the Two Brothers.
During the 2010 inspection, the team uncovered more tools of whaling on the seafloor, including four more whaling harpoon tips (for a total of five), four whaling lances, ceramics, glass, and a sounding lead (among dozens of other artifacts) all dating to an 1820s time period.
The preponderance of evidence suggested to the team that they were looking at the Two Brothers, the only American whaler lost at French Frigate Shoals in the 1820s.
Pollard gave up whaling, though he was just in his mid-30s, and returned to Nantucket, Mass., where he became a night watchman – a position of considerably lower status in the whaling town than captain.
This and other American whaling ships lost in Papahānaumokuākea are the material remains of a time when America possessed over 700 whaling vessels and over one fifth of the United States whaling fleet may have been composed of Pacific Islanders.
The whaling shipwreck sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands help tell this part of Hawaiian and Pacific history, and remind us about the way that this remote part of the United States is connected with small communities in New England half way around the world.