A whale of a tale from old Albany

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A white whale has been breaching into my head lately – or rather two whales, one historical and one fictional.

The fictional one, of course, is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. The historical one might be described as Moby-Dick's spiritual ancestor.

On March 29, 1647, 355 years ago tomorrow, this historical whale swam up the Hudson near what's now Albany, N.Y. The sighting was remarkable enough that Antony de Hooges, a Dutch colonial official, recorded it in detail. "It was snow-white, such as no one among us has ever seen," he wrote. "Only God knows what it means."

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Composer David Dramm has just set some of de Hooges's account to music: "The Beverwijck Overture." Beverwijck – "beaver town" – was the Dutch name for Albany. Melville's Moby-Dick was a white whale, and Melville was a son of Albany. Never mind that his great novel is set in the Pacific: Did he know about the Albany whale?

"That's speculative," says local artist L.F. Tantillo, who works with the New Netherland Project (www.nnp.org), an initiative to reclaim New York's Dutch colonial history. Mr. Tantillo says Melville drew primarily on contemporary accounts of whaling, but adds, "The coincidence is pretty unique. A white whale is such a rare thing."

The NNP website says, "As you read these accounts keep in mind that Herman Melville could trace his ancestry back to New Netherland through the Gansevoort family." It is not too much to imagine the story passed down through the years, as the Dutch colony became English. Melville could have combined his contemporary accounts with a memory submerged so deep he didn't know it was there.

And thus might the white whale have surfaced again.

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