Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20, 1820: The Sinking of the Whaling Ship ESSEX, by a Whale

On November 20th, 1820, the Nantucket whaler Essex sank in the Pacific Ocean. The strange story of how it sank, and the horrors that followed for its surviving crew, has some importance in American literature; an account by one of the survivors from the ill-fated ship partly inspired Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale (1851), arguably the greatest novel ever written by an American.

Essex set out from her home port of Nantucket in August of 1819, planning to be away for two years or more, only returning home with a full cargo hold of precious oil from the sperm whale, which was used at the time for, among other things, lighting fuel and as a base for perfume. On November 20, 1820, while hunting some two thousand nautical miles off the western coast of South America, Essex was rammed twice and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale, which stove in her entire front end in two separate attacks, pushing the two hundred thirty eight ton vessel backwards and eventually capsizing her.

Inspired by an account written in 1821 by Essex's first mate, Owen Chase, Melville would have his fictional Pequod stove and sunk by the great white whale, Moby Dick, as the climax of Captain Ahab’s mad pursuit of the creature who left him a cripple, with only the novel’s narrator, Ishmael, surviving the attack.

In real life, there were eight survivors of the Essex disaster. There’s always more to the story, and theirs is horrific.

The crew of Essex was able to salvage some supplies from the ship before she sank: sixty-five gallons of water, two hundred pounds of bread, a gun, and some navigational equipment, and kept together in three of the smaller boats used to pursue and kill whales. They made landfall, eventually, on remote Henderson Island, not far from Pitcairn Island of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. While there, they were able to shoot turtles and eat their meat, but they exhausted the island’s entire food resources within four days. Three of the whalers opted to stay on Henderson Island rather than take to the open sea seeking civilization. These three were rescued, alive but starving, by an Australian ship the following April.

Of the three boats that put back out to sea, one was lost in a great storm at the end of January, 1821. The others, commanded respectively by Captain George Pollard Jr. and first mate Owen Chase, were picked up in February, Chase’s boat by the British ship Indian and Pollard’s by another Nantucket boat called Dauphin.

Only then did the five survivors reveal that they had stayed alive by cannibalizing several of the bodies of crew members who succumbed to starvation and dehydration. In one case, Pollard’s young cousin, Owen Coffin, volunteered to let himself be killed so the others might live.

All the survivors of the ordeal on the boats—Captain Pollard, Chase, cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, and able seamen Charles Ramsdale (who killed Owen Coffin after drawing lots) and B. Lawrence—were home by June of 1821. Their reception was chilly to say the least. Pollard, once he had regained his strength, went to tell the story of Owen Coffin’s sacrifice to Coffin’s mother; she threw Pollard, her nephew, out of the house and never spoke to him again.

Remarkably, all five returned to sea again. Pollard, Chase and Nickerson all shipped aboard a whaler called Two Brothers that sank in a storm in 1823; the survivors of that loss were rescued the following day. Pollard, apparently feeling that, having lost two ships in three years, he had become a Jonah, returned to Nantucket and took a job as a night watchman. Until his death in 1882, he spent every November 20th in fasting and prayer for the men of Essex who did not survive.

Owen Chase became a wealthy man from his endeavors, but in his later years his sanity failed; he took to hiding quantities of food in his Nantucket home, haunted to his grave by the privations he had suffered after the loss of Essex.

Thomas Nickerson, only fourteen at the time of the disaster, would also leave a written account of the loss. Penned in the 1870s, it was lost for more than a century, and only found and published in 1984.

Melville’s story is an all-but-gothic classic, with its mad captain and the sinister force of nature that is the White Whale. But the story of the men of Essex is, for my money, more chilling by far.


  1. Well, okay, Fair. I get ALL of that, but I still have a question: If the three boats left Henderson Island sometime before that great storm at the end of January, and the three crew members who remained on the island were rescued in April ... what did they eat between January and April, given that they had already exhausted their food resources before the others departed?

    Or is it possible that there were also more of THEM than officially reported?

    It IS a mystery, but I DO know that I'm glad I ate lunch BEFORE I dropped in here. Great story. ;)

  2. p.s. I'm presuming that a person can't go more than about six weeks without food. And what on earth would they have had to drink?

  3. REALLY interesting tale, this, Fair.

    Happy Friday,


  4. Hey Moon--I figure that what happened--it being summer in the South Pacific in January--that at a guess some stuff grew back and possibly the turtles came back to lay eggs and they had those--and possibly could fish a bit. But even at that, there would have been difficulties hunting and or gathering enough food for three grown men on a small island.

    And no, all the sources I checked say only three stayed on the island.

  5. Most likely there was a freshwater spring on the island somewhere. As long as they didn't foul that, they would have been set for water.

  6. Thanks, S! Must say, the story kinda gives me the creeps. I'd never heard it, though, until I saw something on the History Channel a couple of years ago.