Saturday, November 20, 2010

Whaleship Essex Attacked and Sunk by Whale 1820

The Essex was an American whaleship from Nantucket, Massachusetts. She was 87 feet (27 m) long, measured 238 tons,[1] and was captained by the 28-year-old George Pollard, Jr. She is best known for being attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in 1820. The incident was an inspiration for Herman Melville's 1851 classic novel Moby-Dick.

Whale attack and survivors

The Essex left Nantucket in 1819 on a two-and-a-half-year voyage to the whaling grounds of the South Pacific. On November 20, 1820, the Essex encountered a sperm whale that was much larger than normal, which rammed the ship twice and sank it while the men were pursuing and killing other members of the whale's pod. The ship sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of the western coast of South America. The twenty-one sailors set out in three smaller whaleboats (in this case, used as rescue boats which were carried aboard the Essex) with wholly inadequate supplies of food and fresh water, and landed on uninhabited Henderson Island, within the modern-day British territory of the Pitcairn Islands.

On Henderson Island, the men gorged on birds, fish, and vegetation. They found a small freshwater spring. However, after one week, they had exhausted the island's natural resources, and concluded the island would not sustain them any longer. Most of the Essex crewmen got back into their whaleboats, but three men (William Wright, Seth Weeks, and Thomas Chapple) opted to stay behind on Henderson.

Excessive sodium in the sailors' diets and malnutrition led to diarrhea, blackouts, enfeeblement, boils, edema, and magnesium deficiency which caused bizarre and violent behavior. As conditions worsened, the sailors resorted to drinking their own urine and stealing and mismanaging their food. All were smokers and suffered severe tobacco withdrawal once their supply ran out.

One by one, the men of the Essex died. The first were sewn in their clothes and buried at sea, as was the custom. However, with food running out, the men resorted to cannibalism in order to survive, consuming the corpses of their dead shipmates. Towards the end of the ordeal, the situation in Captain Pollard's boat became quite 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 young cousin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot. 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 his remains were consumed by Pollard, Barzillai Ray, and Charles Ramsdell. Some time later, Ray also died. For the remainder of their journey, Pollard and Ramsdell survived by gnawing on the bones of Coffin and Ray. They were rescued by the Nantucket whaling ship Dauphin, 95 days after the Essex sank. Both men by that time were so completely dissociative that they did not even notice the Dauphin alongside them.

Benjamin Lawrence, Owen Chase, and Thomas Nickerson survived through similarly desperate measures, and were rescued by the British merchant brig Indian, 93 days after the Essex sank. Pollard, Chase, Ramsdell, Lawrence, and Nickerson were reunited in the port of Valparaíso, where they informed officials there of their three shipmates stranded on Henderson Island. A ship destined on a trans-Pacific passage was ordered to look for the men on Henderson. The three men were eventually rescued, although they were nearly dead.

By the time the last of the eight survivors were rescued on April 5, 1821, the corpses of seven fellow sailors had been consumed.


First Mate Owen Chase wrote an account of the disaster, the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex; this was used by Herman Melville as one of the inspirations for his novel Moby-Dick.

Memories of the harrowing ordeal haunted Chase. He suffered terrible headaches and nightmares. Later in his life, Chase began hiding food in the attic of his Nantucket house on Orange Street (Philbrick, p. 244).

The cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, wrote another account titled The Loss of the Ship "Essex" Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats which was not published until 1984 by the Nantucket Historical Association. Nickerson wrote his account late in his life and it was lost until 1960. It was not until 1980, when it came into the hands of Nantucket whaling expert Edouard Stackpole, that its significance was realized.


As noted above, word of the sinking reached a young Herman Melville when, while serving on the whaler Acushnet, he met the son of Owen Chase who was serving on another whaler. 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. In time, he wrote Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, in which a sperm whale is said to be capable of similar acts. Melville's book draws its inspiration from the first part of the Essex story, ending with the sinking.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is a National Book Award winning work of maritime history by Nathaniel Philbrick. It tells the story of the Essex, including the point of view of Nickerson in addition to that of Chase.

The tale of the Essex is retold by staff members almost daily at the Nantucket Whaling Museum in a presentation called "the Essex Gam."

The story was also the inspiration for a notable popular song, the title track to the band Mountain's 1971 album Nantucket Sleighride.



1.^ Philbrick (2001), p. 241, citing original 1799 specifications.


Philbrick, Nathaniel (2001). In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-100182-8. OCLC 46949818.

Chase, Owen (1821). Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. New York: W. B. Gilley. OCLC 12217894.

Also in Heffernan, Thomas Farel, Stove by a whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, Middletown, Conn. : Wesleyan University Press ; [New York] : distributed by Columbia University Press, 1981.

Nickerson, Thomas (1984) [1876]. The Loss of the Ship Essex Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats. Nantucket: Nantucket Historical Society. OCLC 11613950.

Discovery Channel's - Moby Dick, the True StoryThe Whaleship Essex: The True Story of Moby Dick (High Interest Books)History's Mysteries: The Essex: The True Story Of Moby DickEating Owen: The imagined true story of four Coffins from Nantucket: Abigail, Nancy, Zimri, and OwenIn the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship EssexIn the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship EssexMoby DickMoby DickHerman Melville : Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick (Library of America)2010: Moby DickMoby Dick [UNABRIDGED Audiobook] (Recorded Books Unabridged Classics)Herman Melville : Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Tales, Billy Budd (Library of America)Herman Melville : Typee, Omoo, Mardi (Library of America)

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