Frequently Asked Question:
The Wreck of the Nantucket Whaleship Two Brothers
on French Frigate Shoals
Captain George Pollard Jr.
February 11, 1832
The Nantucket whaleship Two Brothers ran aground in the Pacific Ocean on a coral reef in the French Frigate Shoals on February 11, 1823. Two Brothers was under command of Captain George Pollard Jr., the Nantucket whaling master who had survived the recent tragedy of the whaleship Essex. After returning to Nantucket in 1821 aboard the Two Brothers, Pollard was immediately entrusted with command of the very whaleship that had brought him home. Two Brothers set sail again on November 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 boatsteerer, and joined Pollard on the voyage.
In February 1823, cruising to the west of the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, in consort with the whaleship Martha, Two Brothers was separated from her sister ship, and caught by a severe gale. Thomas Nickerson’s firsthand account of what happened next, on display at the Whaling Museum along with a poem he wrote about the incident, describes 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 just put my hand upon my Coat when the Ship Struck with a fearful Crash.
As in the Essex attack, Captain Pollard freezes at the critical juncture, as the Two Brothers strikes the coral reef in shallow water:
Capt. Pollard Seemed to Stand amazed at the Scene before him. . . .
In Nickerson’s poetic account, he describes Captain Pollard’s reactions:
Deep lost in thought, his reasoning powers had flown,
He Cared for Others Safety, not his own,
And when the boats prepared, he lingered yet,
And Seemed his own Salvation, to forget.
The entire crew managed to leave the sinking vessel in two whaleboats. Although the Two Brothers was wrecked, all hands were saved and the following morning were taken aboard the consort whaleship Martha. In sharp contrast to the aftermath of the Essex attack, no tragedy ensued, apart from the material loss of the ship, which lay on the sea floor in the vicinity of French Frigate Shoals.
Twice 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.”
For the past 188 years, the wreck of the Two Brothers has been buried beneath the ocean in the shallow waters of French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, only to be discovered by a team of NOAA researchers on August 23, 2008. On February 11, 2011, on the 188th anniversary of the wreck, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries formally announced that they had located the nationally significant wreckage in the waters of Papahnaumokuakea Marine National Monument, nearly six hundred miles northwest of Honolulu. Additional material about this discovery and NOAA's efforts to identify the wreck can be found on the Papahnaumokuakea Marine National Monument website.
NOAA’s Kelly Gleason, Ph. D., and colleagues have found mounting evidence that the wreck site is indeed the remains of the Nantucket whaleship Two Brothers. Since their first discovery, the NOAA team has found further evidence at the wreck site, including try-pots, harpoon heads, a grinding wheel, a blubber hook, and fragments of china that make the case that the wreck site relates to an early-nineteenth century wreck, most likely the Two Brothers.
The NOAA team has also looked into Nickerson’s original accounts of the uncanny events and studied the documentary record in the NHA collections. According to NOAA, the precious archeological artifacts will remain in the marine sanctuary, as they are protected by federal law. Gleason hopes that a small selection will potentially be placed on display in Hilo, Hawaii. The NHA will continue to work with NOAA to discuss their plans for the future of the wreck material. In the meantime, Thomas Nickerson’s first- hand account and poem describing the wreck will be on display in the Whaling Museum.
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