Essex (whaleship)

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Essex photo 03 b.jpg
A whale striking Essex on 20 November 1820 (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)
United States of America
Name: Essex
Laid down: Amesbury, Massachusetts,[1] United States
Launched: 1799[1]
Fate: Struck by a sperm whale and sunk, 20 November 1820
General characteristics [2]
Type: Whaler
Tons burthen: 238 7295 (bm)
Length: 87 ft 7 in (26.7 m)
Beam: 24 ft 0 in (7.3 m)
Depth: 12 ft 6 in (3.8 m)
Notes: Four whaleboats, 20–30 feet (6.1–9.1 m): plus one spare

Essex was an American whaler from Nantucket, Massachusetts, launched in 1799. In 1820, while under the command of Captain George Pollard, Jr., a sperm whale attacked and sank her. The sinking stranded the 20-man crew in the southern Pacific Ocean with little food and water. During the 95 days the survivors were at sea, they ate the bodies of five crewmen who had died. When that was insufficient, members of the crew drew lots to determine whom they would sacrifice so that the others could live. A total of seven crew members were cannibalized before the eight survivors were rescued. First mate Owen Chase and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson wrote accounts of their ordeal; these accounts inspired Herman Melville to write his famous novel Moby-Dick (1851).

Ship and crew[edit]

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, Jr. and his first mate, Owen Chase, had served together on a previous, successful trip, which 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.[3]

Essex had recently been totally refitted, but at almost 88 feet (27 m) long, and measuring about 239 tons burthen,[2][4] she was small for a whaleship. Essex was equipped with four whaleboats, each about 28 ft (8.5 m) in length. In addition, she had a spare whaleboat below decks.[5] These boats were clinker built, with planks that overlapped each other rather than fitting flush together.[6]

Final voyage[edit]

Essex left Nantucket on 12 August 1819, on what at the time was expected to be a roughly two-and-a-half-year voyage to the whaling grounds off the west coast of South America.

Damaged by squall[edit]

Two days after Essex left port, a squall hit her and knocked her on her side, nearly sinking her. She lost her topgallant sail, and had one whaleboat damaged and two destroyed. Captain Pollard was forced to continue without replacing the two boats or repairing the damage.

Essex rounded Cape Horn in January 1820 after a five-week transit, which was extremely slow. Combined with the unsettling earlier incident, the crew began to talk of ill-omens. Their concerns were dispelled when Essex began the long spring and summer hunt in the warm waters of the South Pacific Ocean, going north along the western coast of South America off Atacames, Ecuador.

Whaling grounds depleted[edit]

After finding the area's population of whales exhausted, the crew encountered other whalers, who told them of a newly discovered hunting ground, known as the "offshore ground", located at 510 degrees south latitude and 105125 degrees west longitude, in the South Pacific, roughly 2500 nautical miles (4,600 km) to the south and west. This was an immense distance from known shores for the whalers, and the crew had heard rumors that cannibals populated the many islands.

Repairs and resupply at Galápagos[edit]

To restock their food supplies for the long journey, Essex sailed for Charles Island (later renamed Floreana Island) in the Galápagos Islands group. The crew needed to fix a serious leak and initially anchored off Hood Island (now known as Española Island) on 8 October. Over seven days they captured 300 Galápagos giant tortoises to supplement the ship's food stores. They then sailed for Charles Island, where on 22 October they took another 60 tortoises. The tortoises weighed from 100 pounds (45 kg) to 800 pounds (360 kg) each. The sailors captured them alive and allowed some of them to roam the ship at will; the rest they kept in the hold. The sailors believed the tortoises were capable of living for a year without eating or drinking water (though in fact the tortoises slowly starved). The sailors considered the tortoises delicious and extremely nutritious and would butcher them at sea as needed.[7]

Crewman burns entire island[edit]

While hunting on Charles Island, helmsman Thomas Chappel decided to set a fire as a prank. It was the height of the dry season, and the fire burned out of control. It quickly surrounded the hunters, who were forced to run through the flames to escape. By the time the men returned to Essex, almost the entire island was burning. The crew was upset about the fire, and Captain Pollard swore vengeance on whoever had set it. The next day, the island was still burning as the ship sailed for the offshore grounds. After a full day of sailing, the fire was still visible on the horizon. Fearing a certain whipping, Chappel admitted only many days later that he had set the fire.

Many years later, Nickerson returned to Charles Island and found a black wasteland; he observed: "neither trees, shrubbery, nor grass have since appeared." It is believed the fire contributed to the extinction of the Floreana Island tortoise and the near extinction of the Floreana mockingbird, which no longer inhabit the island.[8]

Whale smashes whaleboat[edit]

When Essex finally reached the promised fishing grounds thousands of miles west of South America, the whaleboats were unable to find any whales for days. Tension mounted among the officers of Essex, especially between Pollard and Chase. When they finally found a whale on 16 November, it surfaced directly beneath Chase's boat, with the result that the boat was "dashed...literally in pieces".

At eight in the morning of 20 November 1820, the lookout sighted spouts, and the three remaining whaleboats set out to pursue a pod of sperm whales.[9] On the leeward side of Essex, Chase's whaleboat harpooned a whale, but its tail struck the boat and opened up a seam, forcing the crew to cut the harpoon line and put back to Essex for repairs. Two miles (3.2 km) away off the windward side, Captain Pollard and the second mate's boats each harpooned a whale and were dragged towards the horizon away from the Essex in what whalers called a Nantucket sleighride.

A whale attacks Essex[edit]

Chase was repairing the damaged whaleboat on board the Essex when the crew saw an abnormally large whale (reportedly around 85 feet (26 m)) acting strangely. It lay motionless on the surface facing the ship and then began to swim towards the vessel, picking up speed by shallow diving. The whale rammed Essex, rocking her from side to side, and then dived under her. The whale surfaced close on the starboard side of Essex. Its head lay alongside the bow and the tail by the stern. It was motionless and appeared to be stunned. 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 stopped. The whale recovered, swam several hundred yards forward of the ship, and turned to face the ship's bow.

″I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods [500 m or 550 yards] directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44 km/h), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship." —Owen Chase.[10]

The whale crushed the bow, driving the vessel backwards. The whale finally disengaged its head from the shattered timbers and swam off, never to be seen again, leaving 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.

The captain's boat was the first that reached us. He stopped about a boat's length off, but had no power to utter a single syllable; he was so completely overpowered with the spectacle before him. He was in a short time, however, enabled to address the inquiry to me, "My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?" I answered, "We have been stove by a whale." —Owen Chase.


Map showing the location of Essex sinking marked by an X and the area traveled

Essex sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of South America. After spending two days salvaging what supplies they could, the 20 sailors set out in their three small whaleboats, with wholly inadequate supplies of food and fresh water. The closest known islands, the Marquesas, were more than 1,200 mi (1,900 km) 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. Unable to sail against the trade winds, the boats would need to sail south for 1,000 mi (1,600 km) before they could use the Westerlies to turn towards South America, which would still lie another 3,000 mi (4,800 km) to the east.

Food and water were rationed from the beginning, but most of the food had been soaked in seawater. The survivors ate this food first despite its increasing their thirst. It took them 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.

Never designed for long voyages, all the whaleboats had been roughly repaired, and leaks were a constant and serious problem. After losing a timber, the crew of one boat had to lean to one side to raise the other side out of the water until another boat was able to draw close, and a sailor nailed a piece of wood over the hole.

Within hours of the crew's beginning to die of thirst, the boats landed on uninhabited Henderson Island, within the modern-day British territory of the Pitcairn Islands. Had they landed on Pitcairn, 104 miles (167 km) to the southwest, they would have received help; the survivors of HMS Bounty still lived there.

On Henderson Island, Essex's crew found a small freshwater spring, and the men gorged on birds, crabs, eggs, and peppergrass. After one week, they had largely exhausted the island's food resources and on 26 December, they concluded they would starve if they remained much longer. Three men - William Wright, Seth Weeks, and Thomas Chappel - the only white members of the crew who were not natives of Nantucket, opted to stay behind on Henderson. Almost a year after Essex sank, Lloyd's List reported that Surry had rescued the three men and taken them to Port Jackson.[11]

The remaining Essex crewmen resumed the journey on 27 December, 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 4 January they estimated that they had drifted too far south of Easter Island to reach it and decided to make for Más a Tierra island, 1,818 miles (2,926 km) to the east and 419 miles (674 km) west of South America. One by one, the men began to die.[12]

Chase's boat[edit]

Chase's whaleboat also carried Richard Peterson, Isaac Cole, Benjamin Lawrence, and Thomas Nickerson. Matthew Joy, the second mate, was dying and asked if he could rest on Pollard's boat until his death. Joy died on 10 January. Nantucketer Obed Hendricks took over Joy's boat.

The following day, Chase's boat became separated from the others during a squall. Peterson died on 18 January and, like Joy, was sewn into his clothes and buried at sea, as was the custom. On 8 February Cole died, but with food running out the survivors kept his body and, after a discussion, the men resorted to cannibalism.

By 15 February the three survivors had again run out of food. On 18 February, 89 days after Essex sank, the British whaler Indian spotted and rescued the survivors. Several days after the rescue, Chase's whaleboat was lost in a storm while undertowed behind the Indian, although the whaleboat's three surviving former occupants were already safely aboard the Indian.[13]

Pollard's and Hendricks' boats[edit]

Obed Hendricks' boat carried crew members William Bond and Joseph West. They exhausted their food supplies on 14 January.

Pollard's boat carried Lawson Thomas, Charles Shorter, Isaiah Sheppard, Samuel Reed, Owen Coffin, Barzillai Ray, and Charles Ramsdell. They ran out of food on 21 January. Thomas died on 20 January, and the others decided they had no choice but to keep the body for food. Still, Shorter died on 23 January, Sheppard on 27 January, and Reed the next day.

Later that day, the two boats separated; Hendricks' boat was never seen again. All three men are presumed to have died at sea. A whaleboat was later found washed up on Ducie Island, just east of Henderson Island, with the skeletons of three people inside.[14] Although it was suspected to be Obed Hendricks' missing boat, and the remains those of Hendricks, Bond, and West, the remains have never been positively identified.[13]

By 1 February, the food on Pollard's boat was exhausted, and the survivors' situation became dire. The men drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed for the survival of the remainder. 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; Ramsdell, Pollard, and Barzillai Ray consumed the body.

On 11 February, Ray also died. For the remainder of their journey, Pollard and Ramsdell survived by gnawing on Coffin and Ray's bones.

Rescue and reunion[edit]

They were rescued when almost within sight of the South American coast by the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin, on 23 February, 93 days after Essex sank. Pollard and Ramsdell by that time were so completely dissociative they did not even notice the Dauphin alongside them and became terrified when they saw their rescuers. On 5 March, Dauphin encountered Two Brothers, which was sailing to Valparaiso, and transferred the two men to her.

After a few days in Valparaíso, Chase, Lawrence, and Nickerson were transferred to the frigate USS Constellation and placed under the care of the ship’s doctor, who oversaw their recovery. After officials were informed that three Essex survivors were stranded on Henderson Island, the authorities asked the merchant vessel Surrey, which was already intending to sail across the Pacific, to look for the men. As mentioned above, the rescue succeeded.[13]

On 17 March, Pollard and Ramsdell were reunited with Chase, Lawrence, and Nickerson. By the time the last of the eight survivors were rescued on 5 April 1821, the corpses of seven fellow sailors had been consumed. All eight went to sea again within months of their return to Nantucket. Herman Melville later speculated that all would have survived had they followed Captain Pollard's recommendation and sailed to Tahiti.[15]


Owen Chase in later life
  • Captain George Pollard, Jr. returned to sea in early 1822 to captain the whaleship Two Brothers. It was wrecked on the French Frigate Shoals during a storm off the coast of Hawaii on his first voyage, after which he joined a merchant vessel, which was wrecked off the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands) shortly thereafter. By now Pollard was considered a "Jonah" (unlucky), and no ship owner would trust him to sail on a ship again, so he was forced to retire. He became Nantucket's night watchman. Every 20 November, he would lock himself in his room and fast in memory of the men of Essex.[12] He died in Nantucket on 7 January 1870, aged 78.[16]
  • First Mate Owen Chase returned to Nantucket on 11 June 1821 to find he had a 14-month-old daughter he had never seen. Four months later he had completed an account of the disaster, the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex; Herman Melville used this as one of the inspirations for his novel Moby-Dick (1851). In December, Chase sailed as first mate on the whaler Florida, and then as captain of Winslow for each subsequent voyage, until he had his own whaler, Charles Carrol, built. Chase remained at sea for 19 years, only returning home for short periods every two or three years, each time fathering a child. His first two wives died while he was at sea. He divorced his third wife when he found she had given birth 16 months after he had last seen her, although he subsequently brought up the child as his own. In September 1840, two months after the divorce was finalised, he married for the fourth and final time, and retired from whaling.[12] Memories of the harrowing ordeal on the Essex haunted Chase, and he suffered terrible headaches and nightmares. Later in his life, he began hiding food in the attic of his Nantucket house on Orange Street and was eventually institutionalized.[17] He died in Nantucket on 7 March 1869, aged 73.
  • The cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, became a captain in the Merchant Service and later wrote another account of the sinking, titled The Loss of the Ship "Essex" Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats. Nickerson wrote this account late in his life, and it was lost until 1960; the Nantucket Historical Association published it in 1984. He died in February 1883, aged 77.
  • Thomas Chappel died in Timor while working as a missionary.[18]
  • William Wright was lost in a West Indies hurricane.[19]
  • Charles Ramsdell died in Nantucket on 8 July 1866, aged 62.[20]
  • Benjamin Lawrence died in Nantucket on 28 March 1879, aged 80.[21]

In popular culture[edit]

Other ships attacked by whales[edit]

The Essex was not the only ship believed to be attacked by a whale.

  • In 1807, a whale attacked and sank Union.[24]
  • In 1835, Pusie Hall was attacked.[25]
  • In 1836, whales attacked Lydia[citation needed] and Two Generals.[25]
  • In 1850, a whale sank Pocahontas.[25]
  • On 20 August 1851, a whale sank Ann Alexander.
  • On 7 July 1999, a humpback whale sunk the 73' long, 111-year old Herreshoff-designed Merlin in Whale Bay, Baranof Island, Alaska.[26]

See also[edit]

Cannibalism out of necessity


  1. ^ a b "Essex (whaler)". National Maritime Digital Library. Retrieved 27 January 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Heffernan (1990), pp. 9–10
  3. ^ Brinkley, Howard (2014). The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex: The History of the Shipwreck That Inspired Moby Dick. HistoryCaps. ISBN 978-1629172019. Retrieved 2014-12-11. 
  4. ^ Philbrick 2001, p. 241, citing original 1799 specifications.
  5. ^ Chase (1965), p. 19
  6. ^ Not Panicking Ltd. "h2g2 - Oops.". 
  7. ^ Philbrick 2001, p. 74
  8. ^ Nickerson, Thomas. Account of the Ship Essex Sinking, 1819–1821. 
  9. ^ Chase (1965), p. 30
  10. ^ Chase(1821) p. 26
  11. ^ "n° 5642". Lloyd's List. 6 November 1821. 
  12. ^ a b c Leslie, Edward (1998). Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors. Foreword by Sterling Seagrave. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 251–253. ISBN 978-0-395-91150-1. 
  13. ^ a b c "Surviving the Essex Disaster (Part 3 of 3)". Providencia. December 2, 2012. 
  14. ^ Philbrick, Nathaniel (2001). In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex ([Nachdr.] ed.). New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-100182-1. 
  15. ^ Gussow, Mel (1 August 2000). "Resurrecting The Tale That Inspired and Sank Melville". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 August 2012. Melville wrote in his annotations on his copy of Chase's Narrative: 'All the sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex might, in all human probability, have been avoided had they immediately after leaving the wreck, steered straight for Tahiti, from which they were not very distant at the time. But they dreaded cannibals.' Melville knew that missionaries had been on the island and that it was safe. 
  16. ^ "LDS family record". 
  17. ^ Philbrick 2001, p. 244.
  18. ^ "Whaleship Essex Wreck". 
  19. ^ "Whaleship Essex Wreck". 
  20. ^ "LDS Family Search". 
  21. ^ "LDS Family Search". 
  22. ^ "LDS family search". 
  23. ^ Revenge of the Whale (2001) on IMDb
  24. ^ Report of the Commissionaries. 
  25. ^ a b c Moritz, Bjoern. "Maritime Topics on stamps, Whaling Part 1". Ships on Stamps Unit. American Topical Association, American Philatelic Society. Retrieved June 4, 2017. 
  26. ^ "Whale baleen found in hull of sunken sailboat". Juneau Empire. August 22, 1999. Retrieved June 4, 2017. 


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 0°41′S 118°00′W / 0.683°S 118.000°W / -0.683; -118.000