Owen Coffin (August 24, 1802 – February 2, 1821) was a teen-aged sailor aboard the Nantucket whaleship Essex when it set sail for the Pacific Ocean on a sperm whale-hunting expedition in August 1819, under the command of his cousin, George Pollard, Jr. In November the next year, a whale rammed and breached the hull of the Essex in mid-Pacific, and the ship sank steadily.
The crew of the Essex escaped in small whaleboats, with sufficient supplies for two months, but were not rescued in that time. During January 1821, the near-starved survivors began to eat the bodies of those who died. When even this resource ran out, the four men remaining in Pollard's boat agreed to draw straws to decide which of them should be slaughtered, lest all four die of starvation. Coffin 'lost' the lottery, and was shot and eaten. The captain volunteered to take his place but Coffin refused, saying it was his 'right' to do so that the others might live.
In popular culture
The title song of the 1971 album Nantucket Sleighride by American rock band Mountain is titled in full "Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)". While there is no evidence that the song is specifically about the Essex (and the lyrics are in parts obscure in meaning), it is written from the point of view of a sailor on a ship undertaking a "three-year tour... on a search for the mighty sperm whale", and co-writer Felix Pappalardi confirmed that the Owen Coffin in the dedication was the one from the Essex tragedy, for example in an interview for the British music weekly Sounds (issue dated November 20, 1971).
The story of the Essex is known to have greatly interested the writer Herman Melville, who made annotations on a copy of an account of the shipwreck and its aftermath, written by the ship's surviving first mate, Owen Chase. The story of the Essex inspired part of Melville's novel, Moby-Dick.
- Owen Chase (1821). Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. New York: W. B. Gilley. OCLC 12217894.
- Also in Heffernan, Thomas Farel, Stove by a whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, Middletown, Conn. : Wesleyan University Press ; [New York] : distributed by Columbia University Press, 1981.
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