This Day in History – November 20th, 1820

The Essex was an old ship, but because so many of her voyages were profitable she gained the reputation as a “lucky” vessel. Captain George Pollard and his first mate, Owen Chase, had served together on her previous, equally successful, trip, 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.

Whaling 2The ship had recently been totally refitted, but she was small for a whaleship. Essex was equipped with four separate whaleboats, each about 28 ft in length, which were launched from the ship. In addition, a spare was kept below decks. These boats were built for speed rather than durability, being clinker built, with planks that overlapped each other rather than fitting flush together.

A couple thousands of miles off 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 16th, Chase’s boat had been “dashed…literally in pieces” by a whale surfacing directly beneath it. But at eight in the morning of November 20th, 1820, the lookout sighted spouts and the three remaining whaleboats set out to pursue a sperm whale pod.

WhalingOn the leeward side of Essex, Chase’s boat harpooned a whale, but its tail struck the boat and opened up a seam, resulting in their 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 sleigh ride.

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 and swam several hundred yards ahead of the ship and turned to face the bow.

Essex being struck by a whale (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)

Essex being struck by a whale (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)

The whale crushed the bow like an eggshell, driving the 238-ton 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 before the Essex sank below the waves to her watery grave.

After spending two days salvaging what supplies they could, the twenty 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 miles 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.

Food and water was rationed from the beginning, but most of the food had been soaked in seawater and this was eaten first despite it 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.

The survivors located land, Henderson Island, where they found a small freshwater spring and the men gorged on birds, eggs, crabs, and peppergrass. After one week, they had largely exhausted the island’s food resources and on December 26th concluded that they would starve if they remained much longer. Three men opted to stay behind on Henderson, and the remaining Essex crewmen resumed the journey on December 27th, hoping to reach Easter Island. Within three days they had exhausted the crabs and birds they had collected for the voyage, leaving only a small reserve of bread, salvaged from Essex. On January 4th, they estimated that they had drifted too far south of Easter Island to reach it and decided to make for Más a Tierra island. About a week later the hardships facing the three boats became even more extreme.

Owen Chase in later life

Owen Chase in later life

Chase’s boat carried Matthew Joy, Richard Peterson, Isaac Cole, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson, and on January 10th Joy died. The following day they became separated from the other boats during a squall. Peterson died on January 18th and like Joy, was sewn into his clothes and buried at sea, as was the custom. On February 8th, Isaac 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 15th the three remaining men had again run out of food and on February 18th, were spotted and rescued by the British whaleship Indian, 90 days after the sinking of the Essex.

Obed Hendricks’s boat exhausted their food supplies on January 14th with Pollard’s men exhausting theirs on January 21st. 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 23rd, Isaiah Shepard on January 27th and Samuel Reed on January 28the. Later that day the two boats separated with the one carrying Obed Hendricks, Joseph West and William Bond never to be seen again.

By February 1st the food had run out and 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 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 his remains were consumed by Pollard, Barzillai Ray, and Charles Ramsdell. On February 11th, 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 when almost within sight of the South American coast by the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin, on February 23rd, 95 days after Essex sank. Both men by that time were so completely dissociative that they did not even notice the Dauphin alongside them and became terrified by seeing their rescuers.

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Word of the sinking reached a young Herman Melville when, while 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 (160 km) 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, writing 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.” 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.

Flourish 3

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