...in 1820, an enormous sperm whale rammed and sank the Nantucket whaleship Essex in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. The first mate described the 85-foot whale's unprovoked attack as enraged and vengeful. The 20-man crew of the Essex rigged improvised sails on three whale boats and attempted to sail over 3,000 miles in the open ocean to reach land. During their excruciating voyage, storms, sun, hunger, and scorching thirst made life nearly unbearable. The men began to die, and eventually the living chose to survive by eating the dead. After four months, five survivors were finally picked up off the coast of Chile. The story of the Essex served as the inspiration for Herman Melville's great American novel, Moby-Dick.
In August of 1819, the whaleship Essex and its crew of 21 set sail from Nantucket on their way to whaling grounds in the South Pacific. It was a routine whaling voyage; the men expected to spend two to three years hunting whales and filling the ship's hold with sperm oil, then return to Nantucket to receive their share of the profits. The crew of the Essex was following a well-established tradition on Nantucket; the island's men had been going whaling for close to 100 years by the time the Essex sailed. The economy and the culture of the island was built on whaling.
Even as the Essex prepared to sail, however, the success of Nantucket's whaling fleet was gradually changing the nature of whaling. Nantucket men preferred to sail with men born and bred on the island, but the "whaling capital of the world" could no longer supply all the manpower needed. Captains were beginning to recruit "coofs," men from the Cape or mainland. These men were usually inexperienced, hoping to learn the trade on their first voyage. Many of them were black men, seeking the relative equality they enjoyed aboard whaling ships. But even at sea, white men in general, and Nantucketers in particular, received preferred treatment.
The other change that success brought to Nantucket's whalers was the slow depletion of the whaling grounds. As early whalers cleared the Atlantic of sperm whales, captains began to venture further and further from home in search of their prey. By the turn of the 19th century, whale boats were accustomed to traveling down the coast of South America and rounding the Horn to get to the whaling grounds in the Pacific. When the Essex left Nantucket in 1819, returning ships were reporting that the whaling grounds off Chile and Peru were exhausted. But there was a new possibility. The year before the Essex sailed, one adventuresome captain took his whaling ship further into the Pacific than Nantucketers had ventured before. He discovered what came to known as the "Offshore Grounds," which promised to yield a rich harvest of sperm oil.
This was where the Essex was headed when she left Nantucket. Just a few days into the voyage, the ship was nearly blown over when it was caught unprepared in a gale. Two of the five whaling boats were lost. The men, superstitious seafarers all, took it as a bad omen. They encountered several more serious storms and precious few whales during the next 15 months.
By the fall of 1820, the men had finally reached the fertile Offshore Grounds. They were one of the earliest whaling vessels to leave the safety of the coast nearly 2,000 miles behind and brave the unknown to reach the whales. They were sailing in what first-mate Owen Chase called "almost untraversed ocean." Untraversed by men but not by whales.
On November 20, as most of the ship's crew was out in whaleboats pursuing whales, the unimaginable happened. A huge sperm whale, a male over 85 feet long and weighing about 80 tons, deliberately charged the Essex and rammed her port side. Never before in the history of whaling had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked. The whale, momentarily dazed by the impact, surfaced and floated by the ship's side. According to the First Mate Owen Chase, the bull then swam several hundred yards away, turned, and raced toward the boat at an amazing speed of six knots. He struck the ship on the port bow, cracking and splintering the oak planking. Then the huge creature, continuing to work his tail up and down, pushed the ship backwards until water surged up over the transom. The boat began its descent; the whale disappeared.
The captain, returning to his ship, cried out in amazement to his first mate, "My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?" Chase replied, "We have been stove by a whale."
Captain Pollard gathered the 20 remaining crew members into three surviving whaleboats. Pollard took all Nantucketers in his boat; First Mate Chase had some Nantucketers, some "coofs," and one black man. The second mate's boat had a "coof" and the rest of the blacks. All three boats were in a desperate situation. They were about as far from land as it was possible to be. They had minimal supplies of water and food, perhaps enough to last 60 days if severely rationed. Believing that cannibals inhabited the closest islands 1,200 miles to the west, they chose to head south, parallel to the coast of South America, where they hoped to catch breezes they thought would carry them 1,800 miles eastward to Chile. With good winds, they estimated they might reach their destination in 56 days. The dangerous voyage began.
The bad luck continued. Frequent storms threatened to send the whaleboats to the bottom. As weeks wore on, the men began to suffer from hunger. Constantly exposed to the wind and sun, their thirst drove them to distraction. When their hard tack bread became soaked with salty seawater, they had to choose between feeding their starving bodies or increasing their thirst. A month into the voyage, they happened upon an unpopulated island where they were able to restock their food and water. Three men chose to remain on the island rather than face the open sea again.
The boats sailed on. Hunger and thirst returned. After three months at sea, men began to die. First was a sailor who probably was ill before the voyage began. His body was buried at sea. But the next men to die were the black men. Facing starvation, the survivors came to an almost unthinkable decision. They ate the dead men's bodies. Eventually, they resorted to drawing lots to determine who would die to provide food for the others.
After four torturous months at sea, five surviving crewman, all Nantucketers, were rescued by whaling ships off the coast of Chile. These five, and the three who stayed on the island, were the only survivors of the ordeal. Their tale of misery soon spread throughout the whaling world. A year later, Owen Chase's published narrative of the Essex appeared in bookshops. The story inspired another whaling man. Herman Melville later modeled the vengeful Moby Dick on the huge sperm whale that sank the Essex.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Penguin, 2000).
The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, by Owen Chase, First Mate (1821; reprinted Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1999).