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The Harrowing Ordeal of the Essex, the Ship That Was Sunk by a Whale

This terrifying wreck, and its cannibalistic aftermath, inspired Moby Dick.

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  • 'Sinking of the Nantucket Whaleship Essex by a Whale on 20 November 1820' by Cyprien Gaulon, c. 1821.Photo Credit: Nantucket Historical Association

​​"The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung."

This passage from Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby Dick encapsulates the fixation and fear whalers felt towards their quarry in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Melville’s sea yarn, a massive white whale rams the ship Pequod, killing all but one member of the crew. What some readers might not know is that the terrifying events at the center of the novel were inspired by the real-life nautical horror of the Essex.

The Final Voyage

On August 12, 1819 the whaling ship Essex sailed from Nantucket. Although relatively small at a length of 88 feet, the Essex had gained a reputation as a lucky ship after enjoying successful voyages for her first 20 years in operation. She was commanded on this sailing by Captain George Pollard Jr. and first mate Owen Chase, both of whom had also sailed on the Essex’s most recent (and highly profitable) voyage. 

This voyage was intended to last for two and a half years, during which the Essex would hunt sperm whales off the west coast of South America. But the crew of 21 men faced a difficult voyage from the start.

Bad Omens

Only two days out of Nantucket, a storm caused considerable damage to the Essex, and decimated two of the whaleboats—20-foot open boats that were crewed by six men when actively pursuing a whale. 

Captain Pollard elected to continue around Cape Horn despite the damage, even as unsettled sailors questioned whether the storm had been an ill portent. Morale declined further in September of 1820, when sailor Henry DeWitt deserted the Essex while the ship was on the northern coast of what is now Ecuador. This left the crew dangerously undermanned. Since six men were needed to crew the whaleboats, and the three boats were launched simultaneously, DeWitt’s absence meant that only two sailors remained aboard the Essex during hunts. 

Related: The Daring Voyage of the James Caird

When the population of whales along this stretch of the South American coast had been killed, Captain Pollard decided to follow the recommendation of another whaling crew, and sail to a little-known area far from shore and 2,500 nautical miles away. Although some members of the crew were nervous about cannibals alleged to live on islands surrounding their intended hunting grounds, Pollard nonetheless prepared the ship for its new destination. The Essex sailed to Charles Island (now called Floreana) in the Galapagos, where the crew captured tortoises they intended to live off while away from land.

During this stay at Charles Island, another ominous event further unsettled the crew. Helmsman Thomas Chapple set a fire on shore, and dry conditions quickly created an inferno that engulfed the island. Researchers now believe that this disaster led to the extinction of two species in the delicate ecosystem of the Galapagos.

“It Appeared With Tenfold Fury”

The Essex’s arrival at her intended hunting ground didn’t assuage the crew’s unease. Disagreements arose between Pollard and first mate Chase when the Essex didn’t see a whale for days. On November 16th, 1820, the first whale was spotted, but it surfaced directly beneath Chase’s whaleboat, damaging  it. 

Chase was repairing this whaleboat on the Essex’s deck when he saw a male whale, or bull, just beneath the waves and facing the ship. The bull rammed the Essex, then swam beneath her and resurfaced starboard. The whale then swam in front of the ship before turning to face her again. 

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Chase later said of the Essex’s final moments,

“I turned around and saw [the whale] about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots, and it appeared with 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.”

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  • A sketch of the whale attack on the Essex, drawn by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This second blow was the death knell for the Essex, which began to sink bow-first. 

After two days spent scavenging, the 20 sailors left the sinking wreck behind them. The group was divided into the three intact whaleboats, which were captained by Pollard, Chase, and second mate Matthew Joy, respectively. The crew had managed to retrieve navigation instruments and rigging from the Essex, but very little food or potable water.

Days of Desperation

After consulting maritime charts saved from the Essex, Pollard recommended they sail towards the Marquesas islands. But Chase, speaking for the crew, raised concerns about cannibals believed to live in that area. Pollard acquiesced, and the ragged flotilla began to sail to South America.

Over the next month, the men in the three boats resorted to eating food soaked in seawater, which dehydrated them further, and drinking their own urine. One of the whaleboats was also said to have been attacked by an orca whale. But the sailors found a brief reprieve when the whaleboats arrived on Henderson Island, an uninhabited islet, on December 20th. 

Related: Lost at Sea: What Happened to the Mary Celeste?

For six days, the crew drank from a freshwater source, and ate birds and other wildlife on the island. But by December 26th, the 20 men had eaten all the resources available, and the majority of the crew decided to leave Henderson Island in search of a more permanent solution. Three men—William Wright, Seth Weeks, and Thomas Chapple—elected to stay on the atoll. Approximately 11 months later they were rescued by a passing ship, and taken to Australia.

The 17 men who had decided to try their chances at sea again set sail from Henderson Island on December 27th, with Easter Island as their intended destination. But by January 4th, the men realized they had sailed too far south and missed the island. And after a month and a half of dehydration, starvation, and exposure to the elements, the crew began to die.

Cannibalism and Customs of the Sea

Second mate Matthew Joy was the first to die, and crewmember Obed Hendricks assumed control of their boat in Joy’s stead. On January 11th, Chase’s boat was separated from the others during a storm. Richard Peterson, a member of Chase’s whaleboat crew, died on January 18th, and was buried at sea. 

But on February 8th, when Isaac Cole died, the sailors on Chase’s boat kept their friend’s body aboard. After deliberation, they decided they had no choice but to eat him. 

This decision wasn’t without precedent. Cannibalism in which sailors drew lots to decide who would be eaten had been an unfortunate but sometimes necessary ‘custom of the sea’ since the 17th century. 

Chase later wrote of their agonizing decision that the men “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.”

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Meanwhile, the men in the two other whaleboats faced the same unthinkable choice as their food stores disappeared. When sailor Lawson Thomas died on Hendricks’ whaleboat, his body was kept aboard for food. Thomas was quickly followed in death by sailors Charles Shorter, Isaiah Sheppard, and Samuel Reed. 

On January 28th, Hendricks’ whaleboat was separated from Pollard’s, and the three men on Hendricks’ boat weren’t seen alive again. A whaleboat with three skeletons was later discovered washed ashore on an island, but the bones were never conclusively identified as the Essex sailors’. 

On February 1st, the situation on Pollard’s whaleboat had grown so desperate the men could no longer wait for each other to die of natural causes. The sailors drew lots to determine who would be killed for their meat.

Owen Coffin, the captain’s 18-year-old cousin, drew a paper marked with the black spot, indicating he would be the one to die. Captain Pollard argued that he should be killed instead of his cousin, but Coffin is reported to have said, “no, I like my lot as well as any other." 

Coffin was shot, and then only Pollard and sailors Charles Ramsdell and Barzillai Ray remained alive. Ray died 10 days after Coffin was killed. 

Related: 7 Stunning Underwater Shipwrecks That Turn Back the Tides of Time

On February 18th, Chase’s whaleboat was spotted off Chile’s coast by a British ship, Indian. The three survivors on Chase’s boat had run out of food several days before. 

93 days after the sinking, on February 18th, Pollard and Ramsdell were rescued off the coast of South America by the whaling ship Dauphin. It was said that the two men were found “sucking the bones of their dead mess-mates, which they were loath to part with.”

Life on Land and Sea

Ultimately, eight sailors survived the decimation of the Essex, including the three men who had remained behind on Henderson Island. Many of them endured psychological scars, but each eventually returned to sea.

Captain Pollard departed on a new voyage only eight months after his return to Nantucket. The two ships he captained following the Essex also sank, and Pollard developed a reputation for bad luck. Although public opinion of the Essex survivors was generally positive, Pollard did face resentment at home for cannibalizing his own cousin. Sullied by his misfortune at sea, and the bad blood on land, Pollard retired from whaling and became a night watchman in Nantucket.

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  • Herman Melville, left, and an illustration that appeared in a 1902 edition of 'Moby Dick'.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

First mate Owen Chase wrote the account Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which went on to be one of Melville’s primary inspirations for Moby Dick

Chase eventually owned a whaling ship, and spent the next decades of his life at sea. In his older adulthood, Chase was hospitalized after hoarding food in his attic, a habit that could have been attributed to his months of starvation at sea. Both Pollard and Chase are said to have fasted annually on November 20th, in honor of their deceased crewmates. 

A Haunting Legacy

The Essex was not the first or last ship to be sunk by a whale; in fact, encounters of this kind have occurred as recently as 1999. But it was the most deadly sinking-by-whale, and had the most significant cultural impact.

While on a whaling expedition in 1941 and 1942, Herman Melville became acquainted with William Chase, son of Essex first mate Owen Chase. The younger Chase gave Melville a copy of Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, and Melville became fascinated by the account. 

Related: 7 Books About Disastrous Shipwrecks in History

In 1852, Herman Melville made his first visit to Nantucket. On the last day of his visit, he spoke with the former captain whose tragic history Melville knew well. Melville wrote that, 31 years after the Essex sank, Pollard “was a nobody” to Nantucket natives, but “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”

The story of the Essex continues to fascinate seafarers and landlubbers alike. Most recently, it was depicted in the 2015 Ron Howard movie In the Heart of the Sea, which was adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name

Philbrick told The New York Times of his research, “The more I got into the Essex disaster, the more it seemed that in Moby-Dick there is a deep secret, a darkness lurking. I really feel that's informed by the survival and the suffering of the men of the Essex.”