Melville and Liverpool

What do Moby-Dick and its author Herman Melville have to do with Liverpool?

For miles you may walk along that river-side, passing dock after dock,
like a chain of immense fortresses: – Prince’s, George’s Salt-House,
Clarence, Brunswick, Trafalgar, King’s, Queen’s, and many more.

Herman Melville was twenty years old in 1839 when he visited Liverpool. What he saw there, on the thronging docksides and filthy streets, was memorable enough for him to write a novel, Redburn, where he describes the city and its docks. For more information on this and an interactive map of the locations Melville visited. see Mapping Melville’s Liverpool.

For Moby Dick, Melville drew on several sources apart from his own experiences as a whaler. One of these was a book by William Scoresby Jr. a whaler and Arctic explorer from Whitby whose book An Account of the Arctic Regions and Northern Whale Fishery came out in 1820. At that time Scoresby lived in Liverpool. He even built a ship there, called the Baffin, which was one of only a few purpose-built whalers in the British fleet. The Baffin was built by Mottershead and Hayes, in a yard that stood where the water of the Albert Dock now ripples.

And here the connection between Liverpool and Melville draws closer. Scoresby gave up the sea in 1823, but in 1827 he returned to Liverpool to become chaplain of the mariners’ church, a floating chapel made from the hulk of a frigate, HMS Tees, that was moored in George’s Dock, Scoresby was chaplain until 1832, after which he moved on to become vicar of Bradford, but the chapel was still there in 1839 when Melville visited, and he mentions it in Redburn:

This was the hull of an old sloop-of-war, which had been converted into a mariner’s church. A house had been built upon it, and a steeple took the place of a mast. There was a little balcony near the base of the steeple, some twenty feet from the water; where, on week-days, I used to see an old pensioner of a tar, sitting on a camp-stool, reading his Bible. On Sundays he hoisted the Bethel flag, and like the muezzin or cryer of prayers on the top of a Turkish mosque, would call the strolling sailors to their devotions …

Liverpool, Melville, Scoresby, and Moby Dick, are as close bedfellows as Ishmael the Yankee and Queequeg the cannibal. What better place than here for a Moby Dick marathon?


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