“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” – Captain Ahab
Many have heard the story about the great white whale Moby Dick, who sunk the ship Pequod, but did you know it was actually based on a real ordeal?
The American whaling ship Essex was from Nantucket, Massachusetts and was captained by George Pollard, Jr. He was accompanied on ship with his first mate, Owen Chase, they had served together on her previous, equally successful trips, and it led to their promotions. Only 29, Pollard was one of the youngest men ever to command a whaling ship. Owen Chase was 23, and the youngest member of the crew was the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, who was 14.
Their fateful voyage began on August 12, 1819 as they left Nantucket on what at the time was expected to be a roughly two-and-a-half-year voyage to the whaling grounds off the west coast of South America. Two days after leaving port, the ship was hit by a squall that knocked her on her side, nearly sinking her. Deciding to continue without repairing the damage, Essex rounded Cape Horn in January 1820. This passage took about five weeks, many on the ship started to believe this was a bad omen.
Essex began the long spring and summer hunt in the warm waters of the South Pacific Ocean, going up the western coast of South America. The area was nearly fished out, the crew encountered other whalers, who told them of a newly discovered hunting ground, known as the “offshore ground”, this was an immense distance to travel out from land, and they weren’t familiar with the area. To restock their food supplies for the long journey, the Essex sailed for Charles Island in the Galápagos Islands group. Due to the need to fix a serious leak, the vessel first anchored at Hood Island on October 8. Over seven days they captured 300 Galápagos giant tortoises to supplement the ship’s stocks.
Thousands of miles from the coast of South America, tension was mounting among the officers of Essex, in particular between Pollard and Chase. The launched whaleboats had come up empty for days, and on November 16, Chase’s boat had been “dashed…literally in pieces” by a whale surfacing directly beneath it. But at eight in the morning of November 20, 1820, the lookout sighted spouts, and the three remaining whaleboats set out to pursue a sperm whale pod.
On the leeward side of Essex, Chase’s boat harpooned a whale, but its tail struck the boat and opened up a seam, resulting in the crew’s having to cut his line from the whale and put back to the ship for repairs. Two miles away off the windward side, Captain Pollard and the second mate’s boats had each harpooned a whale and were being dragged towards the horizon in what was known as a Nantucket sleighride. Chase was repairing the damaged boat on board when the crew observed a whale that was much larger than normal (alleged to be around 85 feet), acting strangely. It lay motionless on the surface with its head facing the ship, then began to move towards the vessel, picking up speed by shallow diving. The whale rammed the ship and then went under, battering it and causing it to tip from side to side. Finally surfacing close on the starboard side of Essex, with its head by the bow and tail by the stern, the whale appeared to be stunned and motionless. Chase prepared to harpoon it from the deck when he realized that its tail was only inches from the rudder, which the whale could easily destroy if provoked by an attempt to kill it. Fearing to leave the ship stuck thousands of miles from land with no way to steer it, he relented. The whale recovered, swam several hundred yards ahead of the ship, and turned to face the bow.
The whale crushed the bow, driving the vessel backwards. The whale finally disengaged its head from the shattered timbers and swam off, never to be seen again, leaving the Essex quickly going down by the bow. Chase and the remaining sailors frantically tried to add rigging to the only remaining whaleboat, while the steward ran below to gather up whatever navigational aids he could find.
The ship sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of South America. After spending two days salvaging what supplies they could, the 20 sailors set out in the three small whaleboats with wholly inadequate supplies of food and fresh water. The closest known islands, the Marquesas, were more than 1,200 mi (1,900 km) to the west, and Captain Pollard intended to make for them, but the crew, led by Owen Chase, feared the islands might be inhabited by cannibals and voted to make for South America. Unable to sail against the trade winds, the boats would need to sail south for 1,000 mi (1,600 km) before they could use the Westerlies to turn towards South America, which would still lie another 3,000 mi (4,800 km) to the east.
Food and water was rationed from the beginning, but most of the food had been soaked in seawater. This food was eaten first despite its increasing their thirst. It took around two weeks to consume the contaminated food, and by this time the survivors were rinsing their mouths with seawater and drinking their own urine. Never designed for long voyages, all the whaleboats had been roughly repaired, and leaks were a constant and serious problem. After losing a timber, the crew of one boat had to lean to one side to raise the other side out of the water until another boat was able to draw close, and a sailor nailed a piece of wood over the hole. The boats landed on uninhabited Henderson Island, within the modern-day British territory of the Pitcairn Islands. On the island they found a small freshwater spring and the men found many different things to eat. After one week, they had largely exhausted the island’s food resources and on December 26 concluded they would starve if they remained much longer. Three men, William Wright, Seth Weeks, and Thomas Chappel, opted to stay behind on Henderson and the remaining Essex crewmen resumed the journey on 27 December, hoping to reach Easter Island. Within three days they had exhausted all their food sources. On January 4, they estimated that they had drifted too far south of Easter Island to reach it and eventually one by one, the men began to die.
On January 10, Matthew Joy died first. The following day, the boat carrying Owen Chase, Richard Peterson, Isaac Cole, Benjamin Lawrence, and Thomas Nickerson became separated from the others during a squall. Peterson died on January 18 and, like Joy, was sewn into his clothes and buried at sea, as was the custom. On February 8, Cole died, but with food running out they kept his body and, after a discussion, the men resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. By February 15 the three remaining men had again run out of food. On February 18, they were spotted and rescued by the British whaleship Indian, 90 days after the sinking of the Essex.
Obed Hendricks’ boat exhausted their food supplies on January 14; Pollard’s men exhausting theirs on January 21. Lawson Thomas had died on January 20, and it was now decided they had no choice but to keep the body for food. Charles Shorter died on January 23, Isaiah Shepard on January 27, and Samuel Reed on January 28. Later that day, the two boats separated; the one carrying Obed Hendricks, Joseph West, and William Bond was never seen again.
By February 1 the food had run out, and the situation in Captain Pollard’s boat became critical. The men drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed for the survival of the crew. A young man named Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard’s 17-year-old cousin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot. Pollard allegedly offered to protect his cousin, but Coffin is said to have replied: “No, I like my lot as well as any other”. Lots were drawn again to determine who would be Coffin’s executioner. His young friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot. Ramsdell shot Coffin, and Coffin’s remains were consumed by Pollard, Ramsdell, and Barzillai Ray. On February 11, Ray also died. For the remainder of their journey, Pollard and Ramsdell survived by gnawing on Coffin and Ray’s bones. They were rescued when almost within sight of the South American coast by the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin, on February 23, 95 days after Essex sank. Both men by that time were so completely dissociative they did not even notice the Dauphin alongside them and became terrified by seeing their rescuers.
After a few days in Valparaíso, Chase, Lawrence, and Nickerson were transferred to the U.S. frigate USS Constellation and placed under the care of the ship’s doctor, who oversaw their recovery. After officials were informed that three Essex survivors were stranded on Henderson Island, an Australian trader destined on a trans-Pacific passage was ordered to look for the men. Although close to death, the three men were eventually rescued. Several years later, a whaleboat containing four skeletons was found beached on a Pacific island. Although it was suspected to be Obed Hendricks’ missing boat, the remains were never positively identified.
Eerily, word of the sinking ship reached a young Herman Melville who was serving on the whaleship Acushnet, he met the son of Owen Chase, who was serving on another whaleship. Coincidentally, the two ships encountered each other less than 100 mi from where Essex sank. Chase lent his father’s account of the ordeal to Melville, who read it at sea and was inspired by the idea that a whale was capable of such violence. Melville later met Captain Pollard, and wrote inside his copy of Chase’s narrative: “Met Captain Pollard on Nantucket. To most islanders a nobody. To me, one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met.” Melville would go on to write Moby Dick.