by Eugene Toth
October 2, 2016
On February 18, 1820, a British whaler, the Indian, spotted a whale boat drifting in the Pacific. In that boat First Mate Owen Chase of the Essex, Benjamin Lawrence, a harpooner, and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson had survived at sea for 89 days. Five days later, another whale ship, the Dauphin spotted and rescued Captain George Pollard and Charles Ramsdell.
Gradually reports traveled worldwide. A whale had sunk the whale ship Essex. Sailors had seen incidents of whales accidentally bumping cargo ships. No one had heard before of a whale intentionally attacking a ship.
In 1821, First Mate Chase published Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. In 1960, someone discovered in a New York attic the account of cabin boy Thomas Nickerson. In 1980 someone identified Nickerson’s writing as an account of the Essex. Nickerson’s record supplied new evidence for Author Nathaniel Philbrick to weave his story. In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathan Philbrick, tells the grim tale of the survivors of the Essex.
In the 19th century, the boiling of whale blubber provided oil for lamps. A global whaling industry centered on the island of Nantucket. Only 7000 people, mainly Quakers, lived in Nantucket. The Nantucketers termed outsiders “off –Islanders.” From Nantucket, in 1819, the owners of the Essex sent out an old ship on what they planned as a final two year voyage.
15 months later, a huge white sperm whale hit the Essex at a speed of 24 knots, twice a sperm whale’s normal speed. If the whale hit the hull from the front head on, the whale might have broken its skull. Somehow this whale knew how to hit the Essex in the right place, sinking the ship without killing the whale.
The buoyancy of whale boats kept them on top of the waves. When the whale sank the Essex, two boats had been hunting whales. After the Essex sank, a third whaleboat resurfaced. For 21 survivors, bobbing in the swells of the Pacific Ocean, the sinking of the Essex began a struggle for survival. Captain Pollard, First Mate Chase, and Second Mate Matthew Joy each commanded a boat. Only the boats of Pollard and Chase reached safety. The third boat, vanished in the sea.
The Essex sank about 1000 miles from the Marquesas and Society Islands. The crew of the Essex feared “savages” or cannibals more than they feared the open ocean. Instead of the closest land, the captain, first and second mates chose instead to sail towards South America, 2000 miles to the east.
Halfway into their voyage, the three whaleboats landed on Henderson Island, one of the Pitcairn Islands. The survivors of the Essex found a spring, some crabs and birds. The 20 survivors quickly exhausted most of the island’s resources. Three sailors not from Nantucket, “off –Islanders,” opted to stay on Henderson Island. The three were later rescued. The rest of the crew continued sailing towards South America.
Most people feel hungry if we don’t eat one or two meals a day. The crew of the Essex ate less than the calories in one Big Mac Hamburger per day. They ate hardtack and Galapagos tortoises. Hardtack, a mixture of flour and water, provided carbohydrates. The food they ate provided little nutrition. When it rained, salty water would make the bread salty. The salt made the sailors thirstier than before. They drank what little water they had, and their own urine. Eventually they ate each other. The sailors’ bodies lacked digestive fluids. In their weakened state, human meat provided almost no nutritional value.
The “off islanders” died first. Eventually only Nantucketers remained. On Captain Pollard’s boat, following a tradition of the sea, Charles Ramsdell suggested the sailors draw lots. 19 year old Owen Coffin drew the black spot. He was Captain Pollard’s nephew and Charles Ramsdell’s best friend. Ramsdell drew the lot to shoot Coffin. Ready to die, the boy placed his head on the side of the ship for Ramsdell to shoot him. Ramsdell ate his best friend. Pollard ate his own nephew.
When the Dauphin found Pollard and Ramsdell, the rescuers saw a horrifying scene:
“First they saw bones – human bones – littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates.
Instead of greeting their rescuers with smiles of relief, the survivors –too delirious with thirst and hunger to speak – were disturbed, even frightened. They jealously clutched the splintered and gnawed-over bones with a desperate, almost feral intensity, refusing to give them up, like two starving dogs found trapped in a pit.” 1
As a member of the crew of the whale ship Acushnet, Melville met the son of Owen Chase. Chase’s son loaned to Melville a copy of Chase’s account of the Essex and its survivors. The facts of the Essex, including cannibalism, overshadowed Moby Dick.
In Moby Dick, Melville’s narrator Ishmael is an outsider. With a distant and scornful eye, he observed the Pequod’s crew drawn from every corner of the Earth. In the Bible, King Ahab worshipped false gods. The prophet Elijah foretold that dogs would lick Ahab’s blood. On the Pequod, Ahab was mad. Ahab’s crew followed his madness.
Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, begins with reports of a sea monster sinking ships. Verne knew the tale of the Essex. Captain Nemo of the Nautilus abandoned land. He lived in and under the sea. There he found unlimited treasure. He defied earthly governments. Nemo resembled a whale.
In tiny whale boats, with harpoons and ropes, the crew of the Essex hunted nature’s largest beasts. That a whale sank their ship seems mythical and symbolic. The situation of these forlorn, helpless men, lost in the Pacific, forced them to make hard and fateful choices. Extreme conditions lay bare human nature.
The men of the Essex were not heroes, like Odysseus. Their catastrophe concerned common men. The tale of the Essex transcends its survivors. For writers, the events of the Essex have raised questions about the relations of men with each other and the relationship between men and the sea.
- Philbrick, Nathaniel, In the Heart of the Sea (New York, Penguin Books 2001) p. xii
Beattie, Graham, “From Paradise Lost to Blood Meridian, the Canadian Writer Michael Crummey picks his favourite tales of bickering and brawl.” http://beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/top-10-literary-feuds.html (Beatty’s Book Blog April 5, 2012) (Accessed 10/2/2016).
Philbrick, Nathaniel, In the Heart of the Sea (New York, Penguin Books 2001) p. xii
Lecture Series: Whales In the Heart of the Sea, http://uk.whales.org/wdc-in-action/lecture-series-whales-in-heart-of-sea (Accessed 10/2/2016).