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The Essex whaling ship: the inspiration for Moby Dick, involved killing & eating their shipmates

Ian Harvey

This was a truly tragic event, one that involved the killing and eating of their seven shipmates to be able to survive 95 days out in the sea. In the year of 1820, a sperm whale that was estimated to weigh 80 tons attacked and destroyed a whaling ship, known as the Essex. This event was later to inspire the novel Moby Dick.

Owen Chase in later life.
Owen Chase in later life.

The Essex had been an American whaler from Nantucket, Massachusetts, that was launched in the year of 1799. This ship was under the command of the Captain George Pollard, Jr. In 1820, a sperm whale attacked and ended up sinking her.

At its peak, from the year of the 1820s to the 1840s, Nantucket had been home to countless whaling ships. The whaling crews would hunt the whale species for their blubber. They would boil this down into oils that were used for everything from perfume to lamps all the way to machine lubricants.

Nineteenth-century whalers pursued sperm whales for their oil. But sometimes, the whales fought back. Photo Credit
Nineteenth-century whalers pursued sperm whales for their oil. But sometimes, the whales fought back. Photo Credit

During that time, whale oil was equivalent to our current day trade of oil. This resource had been so valuable that it would drive men to hunt these species to their extinction.

Essex set sail from Nantucket on the date of August 12th, 1819. At that time, they were expecting to take roughly a two and a half year voyage to the whaling grounds off the west coast of South America.

When they arrived at their destination, the crew had encountered other whalers.

They told them of a new hunting ground that was known as the offshore ground that was located in the South Pacific. This was roughly 2,500 nautical miles to the west and the south. This was an extreme distance from the shores known to the whalers. The crew at the time had heard rumors that cannibals were populating many of the islands.

The sperm whale is no mean opponent in conflict. It is the biggest predator that has ever lived. Even though modern sperm whales can only grow to 65 ft, Melville and his crew documented whales at 80 and even 100ft long.

Scientists think the intensive hunting during the 19th century reduced the number of the massive bull sperm whales. This had an effect on the overall size of the species, genetically. Hunting also has reduced the world population that reduced from 1.6 million to less than 360,000.

They were armed with a lower jaw that was studded with 42 teeth. It was an opponent that inspired fear, and it could defend itself if it was driven to. Its tail was as broad as a house, and could decimate a flimsy whaleboat.

The sperm whale is the only marine mammal that is able to swallow a human being, and has done so before, although this was by accident, during the melee of a hunt. Apparently, it is not a nice way to go. The gastric juices are so acidic that when a sailor needed to be cut out of the whale, the person inside was bleached white during the process.

When the Essex finally found the promised fishing grounds that were thousands of miles west of South America, the whaleboats were not able to locate any whales for days. The tension started among the officers of the Essex. This was particularly between Chase and Pollard. They were finally able to find a whale on the date of November 16th. It surfaced directly underneath Chase’s boat; the result smashed the boat into countless pieces.

At eight in the morning on November 20th, 1820, the lookout had sighted spouts, and as well the three remaining whaleboats that were set out the pursue the sperm whales.

On the side of the Essex, Chase’s whaleboat was harpooning a whale. Yet its tail struck the boat which opened up a seam. This forced the crew to cut the harpoon line and return to the Essex for repairs.

Two miles away from the windward side, Captain Pollard and the second mate’s boats had each harpooned a whale and were dragged in the direction of the horizon far away from the Essex. This is what whalers call a Nantucket sleigh ride.

Chase had been repairing the whaleboat that was damaged while on board the Essex. The crew sighted an abnormally big whale (that was reported to be about 85 ft) which was acting strangely. It was laying motionless on the surface and facing the ship.

It then started to swim towards the ship, picking up speed by diving in the shallow. The whale crashed violently into the Essex, she started rocking from side to side, and then dived under the ship.

The whale came close to the starboard side of the Essex. Its head lay along the side of the bow and the tail was by the stern. It was motionless and seemed to be stunned. Chase was about to harpoon the whale from the deck when he realized that the tail was just inches from the rudder.

If it was provoked it could easily destroy it. He feared leaving the ship stuck thousands of miles from any land with no way to steer it, so he decided to stop. The whale had recovered, than swam hundreds of yards forward of the ship, and turned to face the front of the ship.

″I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods [500 m or 550 yards] directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots, and it appeared to have tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.

The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.” —Owen Chase.

The whale crushed the front of the ship; this drove it backwards. The whale finally escaped from the shattered timbers around its head, and swam off, after that never being seen again. The Essex quickly started to sink from the front down.

Chase and his remaining crew nervously tried to add rigging to the one remaining whaleboat. This was while the person who takes care of the crew was gathering up any kind of navigational aids that he could find.

“The captain’s boat was the first that reached us. He stopped about a boat’s length off, but had no power to utter a single syllable; he was so completely overwhelmed with the spectacle before him. He was in a short time, however, enabled to address the inquiry to me, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” I answered, “We have been stove by a whale.” —Owen Chase.

A whale striking Essex on 20 November 1820 (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)
A whale striking Essex on 20 November 1820 (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)

The Essex sank 2,000 nautical miles west of South America. They spent two days salvaging any supplies that they could. The 20 sailors sailed out in their three small whale boats lacking supplies of fresh water and food. The island that was the closest known as the Marquesas, was around 1,200 miles to the west of them. Captain Pollard intended to try and make it to the island.

Yet the crew, that was led by Owen Chase, had feared that the island was inhabited by cannibals. They voted to sail towards South America. Not being able to sail against the winds, the boats would be required to sail south for 1,000 miles. This was before they were able to use the Westerlies to turn towards the direction to South America. This still was another 3,000 miles to the east.

Water and food had been rationed from the start, yet most of the food was soaked in sea water. The survivors had chosen to eat this food first regardless of it increasing their thirst. It took about three weeks for them to finish the contaminated food. At this time the survivors were ringing their own mouths with sea water and drinking their urine.

When the crew started to die of thirst, within hours the boats landed on Henderson Island. This island was uninhabited. If they had actually landed on Pitcairn that was 104 miles away to the south-west, they could have received help; the survivors of the HMS Bounty were still living there.

While they were on Henderson Island, the Essex crew discovered a small fresh water spring. They men devoured pepper grass, crabs, eggs, and birds. After being on the island for one week, they had used up most of the island’s food resources. December 26th, they decided they would starve if they had to stay there much longer.

The Essex crew men started their journey again on December 27th. They were hoping to arrive at Easter Island. After only three days they used most of their birds and crabs they gathered for the voyage. This left merely a small reserve of bread that had been salvaged from the Essex.

By January 4th they estimated that they were drifting too far south of the Easter Island to be able to reach it. They chose to go for Mas a Tierra island, this was 1,818 miles to the east and 419 miles to the west of South America. One after another, the men started dying.

They had run out of food by January 21st. Thomas passed away on January 20th. The other had decided that they had no choice but to keep the body so they could have food. Also, Shorter died on of January 23rd. Sheppard passed away January 27th, and then Reed the following day.

At a later time during that day, the two boats were separated. Hendrick’s boat was never seen again. All of three men are assumed to have passed away at sea. Later in time, a whaleboat was discovered washed up on Ducie Island.

This was just east of Henderson Island. Inside there was skeletons of three people, these were thought to have been the three men. Even though it had been suspected to be Obed Hendrick’s boat that was missing, the remnants were actually never positively identified.

By the 1st of February, the food on Pollard’s boat was gone. After that, the survivor’s situation became extremely serious. The men deliberated for quite some time who they would sacrifice for the survival of the remainder of the crew. They drew lots, and a young man named Owen Coffin, who was Captain Pollard’s younger cousin, drew the marked lot. Owen Coffin was satisfied with his lot.

After that decision, Charles Ramsdell, who was Coffins friend, shot him. So Pollard, Ramsdell, and Barzillai Ray devoured the body. On February 11th, Ray also passed away.

Throughout the remainder of their journey, Ramsdell and Pollard survived by gnawing on Ray’s and Coffin’s bones. They had been rescued when they were almost in sight of the South American coast that was by the Nantucket whale ship Dauphin. This was February 23rd, 93 days after the Essex sank. Both of the men were so disoriented that they did not notice the Dauphin that was alongside them. They were terrified when they had sighted their rescuers.

After a couple of days in Valparaiso, Nickerson, Lawrence, and Chase had been transferred to the USS Constellation and were placed under the care of the ship’s doctor, who was the person who supervised their recovery.

After the officials were told that three Essex survivors had been stranded on Henderson Island, the authorities had asked the merchant ship Surrey, which already was intending to sail across the Pacific, to look for the men who were lost. The rescue was successful.

On March 17th, Ramsdell and Pollard had come together with Nickerson, Lawrence and Chase. At the time when the last of the eight survivors were found on April 5th, 1821,  and the corpses of seven other sailors were consumed. After a few months, all eight sailors went back out to sea to return to Nantucket. Herman Melville later theorised that all could have survived if they followed Captain Pollard’s suggestion and sailed to Tahiti.

Danger whaling. Picture of 1820
Danger whaling. Picture of 1820

Once they came to Nantucket, the last of the crewmen of the Essex ship were welcomed without judgment. With the most extremely serious circumstances, cannibalism was to be reasoned, this was a custom to the sea.

In other similar events, survivors had declined to consume the flesh of the dead, yet they would use it as bait for fish. Although, Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex ship were located in waters that were largely lacking marine life at the surface.

Map showing the location of Essex sinking marked by an X and the area traveled Photo Credit
Map showing the location of Essex sinking marked by an X and the area traveled  Photo Credit

However, Captain Pollard was not easily forgiven because he had eaten his cousin. One scholar at a later time was referred to as the act of gastronomic incest. The mother of Owen Coffin’s was not able to be in the presence of the captain.

When Pollard was done with his day at sea, he chose to spend the rest of this life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the day of the anniversary of the wreck for the Essex, it was said that he would lock himself up in his room and would fast in the honor of his crewmen that were lost.

Here is another interesting story from our literature files: Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” was rejected by one magazine, it was eventually sold for $9

By 1852, Melville and Moby Dick started their own version into the unclear event. Regardless of the author’s hopes, his book would sell out a few thousand copies during his lifetime. For Melville, after other failed attempts at novels, decided to settle a reclusive life.

He spent 19 years with the job of a customs inspector located in New York City. He would drink and suffer from the passing of his two sons. While he was depressed, he stopped writing novels and chose to write poetry. Yet George Pollard’s fate was always close to his mind.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News