Today I have the story of the real event that inspired author Herman Melville to write his novel ‘Moby Dick’. It isn’t a happy story. People die, some people get eaten, some people go mad. If you’re not up for that, maybe give this one a miss. But it’s so spectacularly awful in every way, that I really can’t ignore it.
The whaling ship Essex was an old ship when she set out from Nantucket, in August 1819, on a whaling voyage that would take its crew down the east coast of the Americas, around Cape Horn and on into the Pacific. They expected to be away for two and a half years. She had already completed many successful missions and was considered to be something of a lucky ship. But this was about to change.
Two days out of harbour, they were hit by a squall. They lost one of their sails and, of the five smaller whaleboats that were kept on the ship, one was damaged and another completely destroyed. Whaleboats are pretty important if you want to go whaling, but rather than stopping for repairs they decided to press on. They reached Cape Horn in January 1820 and it took them five weeks to get through to the Pacific. When they arrived at the whaling ground off the coast of South America, they found there were no whales there. But they met other crews who told them about a new hunting ground way out in the middle of the Pacific. The middle of the Pacific was a worrying place to be. It was dotted with islands reputed to be populated by cannibals. Also it was around 2,300 miles from the mainland, a phenomenally long way to go and they would need more supplies. The ship set sail for the Galápagos Islands. They reached Hood Island on October 8th and there, they hunted down 300 Galápagos Giant Tortoises to supplement their stores. On October 22nd, they moved on to Charles Island where they captured a further 60 tortoises. Then the helmsman thought it would be really funny if he started a fire. It was the dry season and the fire quickly got out of control. The crew were forced to run through the flames to escape. By the time they reached the ship, the whole island was on fire. They sailed away for the hunting ground, leaving the burning island behind them, but even after a day at sea, the smoke was still visible on the horizon. It was an environmental disaster of huge proportions, thousands of animals must have died and it probably contributed to the extinction of some species.
By November 16th they had got to the new hunting ground but weren’t having much luck and another of their boats, captained by First Mate, Owen Chase, had been destroyed by a whale surfacing directly beneath it Then, on the morning of November 20th 1820, they sighted a pod of whales and the three remaining whaleboats were launched and set out in pursuit. The two boats led by Ship’s Captain George Pollard and Second Mate, Matthew Joy, both speared whales and were being dragged off towards the horizon. But the whale harpooned by Chase’s crew thrashed out with it’s tail, damaging his boat. So Chase was back aboard the Essex repairing his boat when the crew noticed a whale behaving strangely. It was an enormous whale, around 85ft (26m) long and it was lying motionless on the surface facing towards the ship. Then it began to swim towards them, faster and faster. It rammed right into the side of the ship, battering it and causing it to tip from side to side. Then it dived underneath them and came up on the other side. It appeared to be stunned and they considered harpooning it, but its tail was inches from the rudder. If they lost that, they’d be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way of steering the ship. The whale recovered and swum a few hundred yards, then turned and faced the ship again. This time it was facing the bow. Here is Chase’s description of what happened next:
“I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (500m or 550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44km/h), 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.”
The whale crushed the bow, hitting it so hard that the ship was driven backwards. It then swam away, never to be seen again. But the Essex was sinking fast. The crew barely had time to launch their remaining whaleboat, add some rigging to it and collect a bit of navigational equipment. When the captain returned to the scene of devastation he was completely speechless. When he was eventually able to ask what had happened, Chase replied “We were stove by a whale.”
The whaleboats were only around 28ft (8.5m) long and completely open. They were not at all suitable for a long voyage, but the men had no choice. They gathered together what supplies they could from the wreckage but had neither enough food or fresh water for the journey they faced. The nearest land was the Marquesas Islands 1200 miles (1900km) west. Captain Pollard wanted to head that way, but Chase was concerned. He thought they might find cannibals there, he wanted to head back to South America. Because the winds were unfavourable this meant they would have to sail south for 1000 miles before turning east and sailing another 3000 miles to reach land. Recklessly, they went for the second option. Within two weeks, all their food was contaminated with sea water and they were forced to drink their own urine. In mid December, just as they were all about to die of thirst, they reached the Pitcairn Islands where they found fresh water, crabs and birds eggs. There was not enough food to sustain them for long. After a week they decided to leave, though three of the crew insisted on remaining on the island.
The Second Mate died on January 10th and the next day Chase’s boat became separated from the others. As they drifted south, a man in Chases boat died and was buried at sea. When a second man died on February 8th, they realised they would have to resort to cannibalism if they were to survive. They kept his body. They were rescued on February 18th by another whaling ship called ‘Indian’. The other two boats similarly ran out of food and were forced to eat the bodies of their dead crew members. On January 28th the two boats separated. We know what became of Captain Pollard and his crew, but the three men in the other boat were never seen alive again. Pollards crew ran out of food on February 1st . Faced with starvation, they decided to draw lots to decide which of them would sacrifice himself to save the rest. The black spot was drawn by the captain’s seventeen-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin. They drew lots again to decide who would be his executioner. It fell to his friend, Charles Ramsdell, to pull the trigger. Pollard, Ramsdell and another man called Barzillai Ray lived on the remains of Coffin until Ray died on February 11th. Then they ate him too. When the two men were finally rescued by another whaling ship, ‘Dauphin’, on February 23rd, they had survived only by gnawing on the bones of their shipmates. They had become to detached from reality that they did not notice the ship pulling along side them, and they were terrified by their rescuers.
The three survivors on the Pitcairn Islands were also eventually rescued, although they were close to death. Several years later a whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island that had four skeletons in it. They were believed to be the remains of the crew from the missing boat. All of the survivors returned to sea within months of the incident. The ship’s captain, Pollard, sailed on two other ships that were wrecked. People started to think he brought them bad luck and he was forced to retire. Owen, the first mate, spent another nineteen years at sea. But after his retirement he took to hiding food in his attic and was eventually institutionalised.