Ann Alexander (ship)

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The Ann Alexander was a whaling ship from New Bedford, Massachusetts, notable for being rammed and sunk by a wounded sperm whale in the South Pacific on August 20, 1851, some 30 years after the famous incident in which the Essex was stove in and sunk by a whale in the same area.

Early history[edit]

The Ann Alexander was a ship-rigged wood-hulled trading vessel, built in 1805 by Joel Packard and Deliverance Smith at Russells Mills Village in Dartmouth, Massachusetts and registered at New Bedford on 29 January 1806.[1] Her first documented voyages were with American export goods from New York to Leghorn, Italy and to Liverpool, England after her registratrion.[1][2]

It is claimed that the Ann Alexander, with Capt. Loammi (Loum) Snow of Rochester, Massachusetts in command, encountered the British fleet a few days after its victory at the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805.[3] This first appears in print 87 years later, in a history of New Bedford, based on an interview with a 96-year-old former crew member of the ship.[1][4] According to a later account of 1912, the ship was on a voyage from New York to Leghorn with a cargo of general merchandise, and a deck cargo of lumber that was Snow's personal property, when they met the warships off Spain. Informed that Lord Nelson had died aboard HMS Victory and that the new commander, Admiral Collingwood, was attempting to repair the damage done to numerous ships during the naval action, Snow sold lumber, flour and apples on the spot to the British Navy.[3] Ruth Ekstrom of New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library considers that there was no 1805 voyage, which would have taken place before the Ann Alexander was registered and without the knowledge of the principal owner, but that the ship may have come across remnants of the British fleet repairing at Gibraltar on the voyage to Leghorn in early 1806 and sold goods and timber on that occasion.[1]

According to the same 1912 account, in February 1807, with Snow still in command, the Ann Alexander was captured off Rock of Lisbon on a voyage from St. Ives, England to Leghorn by a Spanish privateer, who replaced all but Snow and a mate with a prize crew, and set a course for Spain.[3][5] She was immediately captured the next day by a British man-of-war, who replaced the Spanish prize crew with one of their own, and turned their prize toward Gibraltar. Just short of landfall, they were captured again by another Spanish privateer and taken to Algiers. Upon landing, Snow immediately reported the previous British prize captain for piracy, preventing the authorities from knowing the ship's latest seizure was by Spain. The Algerian authorities allowed him to take possession of his ship and proceed to Leghorn.[3] It was later reported in June 1807 that the Ann Alexander, coming from Leghorn, was detained by the British at Portsmouth.[6]

Sunk by a sperm whale[edit]

Under the command of Captain John Deblois, the Ann Alexander left New Bedford on June 1, 1850 for the whaling grounds in the Pacific. After taking on about 500 barrels of oil, she rounded Cape Horn in January, 1851. After provisioning in Chile and dropping a sailor at Paita, Peru, she headed west to the "Offshore Ground" in August, about 2,000–3,000 miles off the South American coast where more whales are likely to be located. In the Ann Alexander's case, she resumed the hunt at the latitude of 5° 50′ south, and longitude 102° west.[3]

On August 20, the ship dropped two whaleboats; the one commanded by the first mate harpooned a whale. After hauling the tethered boat on a Nantucket sleighride, the whale turned, opened its jaws, and attacked and destroyed it. The second boat, captained by Deblois, rowed to the site and saved all six crewmen.

At this point, as there were now 12 men in a single boat, the waist boat was launched from the ship, now some six miles off. The crewmen were divided between the two boats, and it was decided to attack the whale again with the waist boat, under the first mate's command, in the advance. When the whale saw the boats returning, he attacked again, this time destroying the waist boat. Deblois rescued the crew for a second time and attempted to return to the Ann Alexander in the last remaining boat. The wounded whale again rushed the boat and passed within a few cables of it, but did not directly attack it.

Once the whalers were aboard the Ann Alexander, a smaller boat was launched to retrieve the whaleboat oars, and Deblois decided to hunt the whale from the safety of the ship. Another harpoon was sunk into its head, and after a feint towards the ship, the whale seemed to disappear under the surface. At this point it was nearly sundown, so Deblois decided to abandon the pursuit. Moments later, the whale reappeared, moving at a speed of about 15 knots (a little over 17 mph), toward the ship, which was making only five knots. The whale rammed the slower-moving ship, which was unable to outrun or avoid it, and put a hole completely through the hull of the ship, below the waterline some two feet from the keel. Like most ships of that time, the Ann Alexander carried a large amount of pig iron as ballast, so in an attempt to keep her from sinking immediately, Deblois ordered the crew to cut away the anchors and throw all heavy metal cables overboard. The crew only succeeded in cutting away one anchor and cable, and the ship began to sink rapidly. Deblois made his way to the cabin, where he seized a sextant, chronometer and chart. A second attempt to obtain anything beyond the provisions and water that were being loaded into the remaining boats was fruitless, as the ship was almost completely heeled over and flooded. The 22 crewmen had no choice but to abandon ship, with Deblois, the last to leave, being forced to swim to the closest boat.[7]

Retrieval and rescue[edit]

It was soon discovered that they possessed only twelve gallons of water and no food at all, and the boats, containing eleven men each, leaked and needed to be bailed out throughout the night. The next day, seeing that the Ann Alexander had not yet sunk but was on her beam ends, Deblois went on board to cut away the masts with a hatchet, in the hope this would lessen the drag. The ship partially righted itself, and the crew, using spades, were able to cut the foremast anchor chain, which helped bring her on a more even keel. Using ropes tied around their waists, the whalers then lowered themselves over the side and cut holes through the decks to get to the food stores, but obtained only five gallons of vinegar and twenty pounds of waterlogged bread. The ship became unstable, so they returned to their boats and rowed away.

With water rations for only a few days, Deblois reckoned that if they headed for a northern latitude with more rainfall they might survive. Almost miraculously, two days later on August 22, at around 5 p.m. they sighted a ship and were rescued by the Nantucket whaler Nantucket under the command of Captain Gibbs. A last attempt to retrieve anything from the Ann Alexander was abandoned due to rough seas, and the crew was eventually landed in Paita on September 15, 1851. They all returned to New York via the schooner Providence on October 12.[7]

Melville and Moby-Dick[edit]

Just a few months later, October 18, 1851, and November 14, 1851, the first editions of Hermann Melville's great whaling novel Moby-Dick, inspired by the Essex attack, were published in London and New York City, respectively.

Melville commented, "Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster."[8]


Weak with infection from the two harpoons and pieces of timber from the attack embedded in its head, the whale was caught and killed five months later by the crew of the Rebecca Simms,[9] and yielded 70 or 80 barrels of oil.[10]

While an accidental collision with a sperm whale at night accounted for sinking of the Union in 1807,[11] the Essex incident some 30 years prior was the only other documented case of a whale deliberately attacking, holing, and sinking a ship. However, these two incidents are probably not as much of a freak occurrence as they appear to be. Observations of aggression in males of the cetacean species suggest that head-butting during male–male aggression is a basal behavior, and that the enlarged melon or spermaceti organ is a direct product of sexual dimorphism, evolving as a battering ram to injure an opponent in these attacks. [12]

The ability of the sperm whale to aggressively attack and destroy ships some 3–5 times its body mass in this manner is therefore hardly surprising. The 5-month period that elapsed between the sinking of the Ann Alexander and the killing of the whale involved demonstrates that long-term survival was possible after combat with a much larger ship and so, presumably, with another whale as well.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Ekstrom, Ruth (2016). "The ANN ALEXANDER and the Battle of Trafalgar: The Stories and Some Conflicting Evidence". Coriolis, Interdisciplinary Journal of Maritime Studies. 6, No.2: 26–33. Retrieved 31 December 2016. 
  2. ^ "Ship News, Liverpool". The Lancaster Gazette (283). Lancaster, England. 15 November 1806. p. [4]. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Representative men and old families of southeastern Massachusetts, Containing historical sketches of prominent and representative citizens and genealogical records of many of the old families ... v. 3. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co. 1912. pp. 1438–9. 
  4. ^ Ellis, Leonard Bolles (1892). History of New Bedford and Its Vicinity 1602–1892. Syracuse, NY, USA: D. Mason & Co. pp. 153–154. 
  5. ^ "Lloyd's Marine List - Feb. 20". Caledonian Mercury (13283). Edinburgh, Scotland. 23 February 1807. p. [3]. 
  6. ^ "Lloyd's Marine List - June 2". Caledonian Mercury (13327). Edinburgh, Scotland. 6 June 1807. p. [2]. 
  7. ^ a b [1], Thrilling Account of the Destruction of a Whale Ship by a Sperm Whale - Sinking of the Ship - Loss of the Boats and Miraculous Escape of the Crew, The New York Times, November 5, 1851 .
  8. ^ Melville's Reflections, a page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville
  9. ^ Starbuck, A. (1878). History of the American Whale Fishery, from its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876. New York: Argosy-Antiquarian Ltd.
  10. ^ Jenkins, Thomas H (1902). Bark Kathleen sunk by a whale, to which is added an account of two like occurrences, the loss of ships Ann Alexander and Essex. New Bedford, MA: Hutchinson. pp. 31–34. 
  11. ^ Report of the Commissioner By United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, p11
  12. ^ a b David R. Carrier; Stephen M. Deban & Jason Otterstrom (2002). The face that sank the Essex: potential function of the spermaceti organ in aggression. The Journal of Experimental Biology No. 205. Great Britain: The Company of Biologists Limited. pp. 1755–1763. 
  13. ^ In the Heart of the Sea on IMDb.

Further reading[edit]

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