On Nov. 20, 1820 the whale ship Essex was wrecked in the Pacific Ocean. The voyage began from Nantucket, Massachusetts on August 12, 1819, the Essex, a 238 ton whale ship set out for the Pacific. Under the command of Capt. George Pollard, Jr., Essex had a crew of 20. Including six free blacks. The voyage was unlucky from the start, only two days out of port they were hit by a squall, two of the whaling boats were destroyed and the Essex received some minor damage. The damage was quickly repaired and the voyage continued.
On Aug. 30 Essex arrived at the Isle of Floros in the Azores. There the crew took on some vegetables and a few hogs. Sixteen days later they arrived at May island, on of the Cape de Verds, there they found a ship abandoned on the rocks. It was hoped that they could salvage from her some supplies and maybe replace the lost boats. Soon three men approached the Essex in a boat. They told them that the grounded boat was the Archimedes out of New York. She had been wrecked some two weeks before and her captain, George B. Coffin and his crew had been picked up and were taken home. The crew of the Essex bought the boat the men were in and some more hogs and set sail again.
They arrived at Cape Horn around the 18th of December. Navigating around the Cape took some time, rough seas, storms and unfavorable winds delayed them, but on Jan 18 they arrived at St. Mary's island then sailed to Massafuera off the Chilean coast. They began cruising off the coast of Chili and reportedly took eight whales, netting them some 250 barrels of oil.
The season, now over in this area, they sailed for the waters off Peru. There the take was even better, as they reported a further 550 barrels of oil were collected. On Oct. 2nd they sailed for the Galapagos Islands, there they could resupply with fresh water and turtles. As it happens, turtles were a very good and plentiful source of food for seafarers in those days. They lived for up to a year and required little food or water. They departed Charles Island on Oct. 23. On Nov. 16, on a boat in which Owen Chase was commanding, a whale that had been harpooned used its tail to wreck the boat. The crew were all safely returned to the Essex.
On November 20, 1820, another shoal of whales were spotted, the boats were lowered and the chase was on. Capt. Pollard in one boat and Owen Chase in the other. Chase struck the first blow, but the whale stove a hole in his little boat and Chase was forced to return to the Essex for repairs. It was then that the unthinkable happened.
While accessing the damage to his boat Chase noticed a large white whale some distance off the port bow. He thought it strange how the whale was just sitting there and spouting. Suddenly the whale (that Chase estimated to be about 85 feet in length) went under. The whale surfaced, and to Chases' astonishment he was headed straight for the Essex. Chase estimated the whale to be moving at about 3 knots, the Essex was also moving at about that speed. Chase yelled out to the helmsman to put the ship hard up, but it was too late. Chase wrote in his narrative "he gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces". The crew must have been stunned at what had just happened, nothing like this had ever been reported before, but it was not over.
The whale lay off the ship a short distance also stunned, but not for long. Soon, Chase writes, "he was enveloped in the foam of the sea, that his continued and violent thrashing about in the water had created around him, and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury". Chase was now preparing the boats in case they should lose the Essex since he noticed she was settling by the bow. Suddenly, he heard someone cry "here he is again-he is making for us again", Chase turned around and saw the whale heading directly for the Essex, this time with a renewed fury. Chase wrote the whale was bearing down on them at twice the normal speed. The great white whale once again crashed into the ship, this time the Essex was doomed. Chase wrote: "He struck her to windward, directly under the cat-head, and completely stove in her bows". The whale then passed under the ship never to be seen again. All 20 men were now adrift, over 1,000 miles from the nearest land, in the biggest ocean in the world.
The Essex was still afloat so the men went back to salvage what they could. They took on as much water as was safe to carry along with bread and turtles. They also managed to make some sails for their tiny little boats. The captain calculated it would take several weeks to get back to South America, they had minimal provisions for about 60 days. There is no way I can describe the despair they must have felt as the three boats left the wreck of the Essex. It took a month to reach Henderson Island by the time they arrived they were almost dead.
Starved and dehydrated the men were elated to finally find land. The island was disappointing in the natural resources it had to offer. They did, after two days manage to locate a source of fresh water, but they knew the island could not sustain 20 men for any length of time. It was decided to take to the boats again, however three of the men could not face the prospect of returning to the boats and chose stayed on the island. The boats left Henderson on Dec. 27.
On Jan. 11th Matthew Joy became the first man to die, his body was given to the sea. On the evening of the 12th Owen Chase's boat was separated from the other two in a storm. They drifted for several more weeks, getting weaker and weaker. February 8th Isaac Cole died in Chase's boat and by now the food was almost gone and it was decided that they would use his body to sustain them. Chase wrote "we separated the limbs from the 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".
Similar circumstances occurred in Pollard's boats, four men had died and were consumed by the others. On January 29th the second mate's boat became separated from Pollard's and was never seen again. Four men remained in Pollard's boat, Pollard, Owen Coffin (Pollard's cousin) Charles Ramsdale and Brazilla Ray, and on February 1st they made an extraordinary decision. They decided that one of them would be killed and used by the others for food. In a macabre scene the four men drew lots to determine who would die. It was Owen Coffin who drew the fatal stick. Pollard at once said "my lad, my lad, if you don't like your lot, I'll shoot the first man that touches you", but Coffin was resigned to his fate, he said "I like it as well as any other", again lots were drawn, this time to choose the executioner. It fell upon Ramsdale, Coffin's friend since childhood. Ramsdale fired a fatal shot, and soon nothing remained of Coffin. On February 11th , Brazilla Ray died, and he too was eaten.
February 15, 1821, the boat with Owen Chase, Thomas Nicholson and Benjamin Lawrence was finally found by the British ship Indian. The three were pulled out of the boat, more dead than alive and taken to Valparaiso, Chili. Pollard's boat was found on February 23rd by the American whaling ship Dauphin. Pollard and Ramsdale, barley alive after their ordeal were also landed in Valparaiso. The men were reunited in March on the USS Constellation, there the captain was told about the three men left on Henderson Island. He arranged for the Australian ship Surry to sail for Henderson and recover the men. On April 9th, Surry arrived on Henderson to find the men still alive, after 111 days on the island, Seth Weeks, William Wright and Thomas Chapple were rescued, their stay on the island was not much easier for them then those who had survived in the boats.
They all returned to Nantucket and soon their story was known by all. None of the men were ever censured for any of their actions, which had included cannibalism and murder. Surprisingly all of the survivors returned to the sea, Pollard became captain of another whaling ship, the Two Brothers. Ramsdale and Nicholson joined him on the voyage. However, this ship was lost on the rocks near the Sandwich Islands. Can you imagine the horror of the three Essex survivors when they had to take to the whale boats once again! Fortunately they were picked up the next day. Pollard never went to sea again. He ended his life as a night watchman. It is said that on every Nov.20 he would lock himself in his room and fast in memory of those lost from Essex.
Owen Chase became a successful whaling captain, but later in life his mental health declined. He became obsessed with food, buying everything in quantity, and having nightmares of starving to death. Chases' two sons also became whalers, and it was William Henry Chase who gave a copy of his father's narrative to one Herman Melville. Melville was so moved by this manuscript that he used the story of the Essex as an inspiration for his book, Moby Dick.
© 2005 Michael W. Pocock