Most whalers shipped out of Nantucket New England, but some of the whalers came from other parts of New England. When you think of the New England homes on the Ocean with the widows walk where wives would watch for their husbands ships to come in, they were very likely whalers. Merchant ships left port for months at a time, but it was the whaler that spent most of their time at sea, sailing around the world in pursuit of whales, typically Sperm Whales. Whaling men were hardy, rough and rugged men who enjoyed the comradery of ship life and the freedom of the sea.
What I did not know before reading Moby Dick, (maybe you already knew this), was that book was based on two different whaling tragedies. Whaling ships were not overly large and were typically crewed by no more than 20 hands and Captain. So, with that all said, today we are going to start looking at the crew and wreck of the Essex on November 20, 1820 following an attack on the whaler by a bull sperm whale protecting his herd. Twenty men sailed from Nantucket New England, 8 returned alive. Can you claim any of the men in your family tree? Maybe you have come to a dead end on one of your relatives and had no idea what happened to them. Well, I am about to attempt to recover the lost souls of the Essex so they can rejoin their families and rest in peace, figuratively speaking.
Whaling in the early 1800’s was a perilous endeavor. After spotting a whale, which typically measured 75 feet on average and weighed approximately 57 tons, several small whaling boats were launched with an average of 6 men in each. They would chase the whale with harpoons tied to ropes and tethered to the small boat. When they were within range the harpoon would be hand launched, thrown at the whale and the whale would then be tethered to the small boats. The whale would then thrash and buck until they tired. Once the crew were able to get the whale tethered to two or more boats to immobilize it, the men would leave the boats and climb onto the back of the whale and harpoon it over and over until it died. Then they would row the boats, towing the whale, back to the larger whaler. In so doing, the whale would be bleeding into the water, drawing sharks around the small boats.
By 1820 the Essex was considered an old ship, but it had a prosperous history and was known to be a “lucky” ship. Prior to the final voyage, the Essex had been totally refitted, but at only 88 feet in length, and measuring about 239 tons burthen, she was small for a whaleship. Essex was equipped with four whaleboats, each about 28 ft in length. In addition, she had a spare whaleboat below decks. These boats were clinker built, with planks that overlapped each other rather than fitting flush together. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_(whaleship)#Ship_and_crew)
Of the crew taking the final voyage, two had been on the previous voyage and received
promotions as a result of the prosperous returns that voyage brought in. n 1819, George Pollard Jr. was promoted to Captain at the age of 29. Polard was one of the youngest men ever to captain a whaling vessel. Similarly, ship mate, Owen Chase was promoted to first mate at the age of 23. The youngest member of the Essex crew on the 1820 voyage was the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, who was 14.
The Essex set sail on it’s final journey on August 12, 1819, heading from Nantucket to the South Pacific. On August 14, 1819, the ship was hit by a squall and was knocked briefly on it’s side, nearly sinking. The Essex sustained damage and lost two whaleboats, and Captain Pollard initially wanted to return to port. First Mate Owen Chase, knowing whalers to be a superstitious lot, and feared that a return to port would result in desertions as the men would believe the event was a bad omen, convinced Pollard to continue. This was not the first time Pollard deferred his decision to that of his first Mate, to his deep regret.
The Essex was searching for sperm whales, but did not have their first sighting until two months into their journey, while the Essex was south of Rio De Janeiro. However, it was not until some two months into the voyage, when the Essex was south of Rio de Janeiro, that the first whale was sighted, and killed. In January 1820, the Essex rounded Cape Horn, Southern Chile and entered the South Pacific. They did not spot another whale until they reached the waters off Peru. There they too in ten whales. In late May, Pollard decided to head farther from the coast, into a distant area that had recently proved highly profitable for whalers. In preparation, the Essex stopped at Atacames, Ecuador, in September 1820, and while there one of the crewmen deserted. Although shorthanded, the ship sailed on, stopping at Hood Island, Galapagos, where they fixed a leak on the Essex and caught nearly 200 tortoises. In late October 1820 they reached Charles Island and collected more tortoises before one of the crew members started a fire that soon spread throughout the small island, causing the men to flee.
The Essex resumed its journey, and on November 20, 1820, it was more than 1,500 nautical miles (2,800 km) from the Galapagos. That day whales were spotted, and three whaleboats were launched. The vessel commanded by Chase was damaged, however, and was forced to return to the Essex. While repairs were being made, a huge male sperm whale was spotted close to the ship. It was estimated to be 85 feet long; a typical male sperm whale was no bigger than 65 feet. Some of the survivors speculated that the reason the usually timid creature attacked the ship may have been due to the hammering on the whaleboat, as repairs were being made. They speculated that the sound of the hammering sounded similar to the clicks made by whales to communicate. Under this theory, the agitated animal believed that the boat was another male that had entered his territory.
Whatever its reason, the whale began speeding toward the Essex, ramming the port (left) side. After passing under the ship, the animal resurfaced and appeared stunned. However, it resumed its attack “with tenfold fury and vengeance,” striking the bow and causing catastrophic damage before disappearing.
The other whaleboats returned to the Essex finding it had capsized. Realizing that the ship was doomed, Pollard believed they should head for either the Marquesas or Society islands, more than 1,200 miles or 2,000 miles away, respectively. Not only were they the closest land mass, the crew would be sailing with the wind. However, Chase and Second Mate Matthew Joy feared that they would likely encounter cannibals. Instead, they argued for Peru or Chile, even though much of the course—which measured more than 4,000 miles, would be against both the wind and strong currents. Pollard ultimately relented, and on November 22 the men left the barely afloat Essex. The three whaleboats, which had been outfitted with makeshift sails and given two months of provisions, were each commanded by one of the officers: Pollard, Chase, and Joy.
The journey soon turned perilous as the provisions dwindled, the men began to suffer from dehydration, and the boats encountered bad weather and were in constant need of repair; in late November Pollard’s boat was damaged by a marine animal, possibly a killer whale. On December 20, after having traveled some 1,500 miles, they arrived at what they thought was Ducie Island but was actually nearby Henderson, one of the Pitcairn Islands. They found fresh water there but little food. Realizing they would need to continue sailing, the crew returned to their navigation charts and determined that while Chile was 3,000 miles (5,600 km) away, Easter Island was less than 1,000 miles. Although the men were unfamiliar with the Easter Islands, they were by now desperate and charted a course for it, setting sail again on December 27, 1820. Three Sailors chose to remain behind on Henderson and take their chances. The rest of the crew promised to send help once they reached land.
On January 10, 1821, Joy became the first sailor to die, and he was buried at sea; his boat then fell under the command of Obed Hendricks. The next day a storm caused Chase’s boat to separate from the others, and one of its crew members passed away on January 20. Some three weeks later, another sailor in that boat died, and the decision was made to cannibalize his body. On February 18, the remaining three sailors in Chase’s boat spotted a distant ship, the British brig Indian, and managed to sail to it, ending their 89-day ordeal.
On January 20–27, three men died on Hendricks’s boat and were eaten. On January 28 Pollard lost his first man, who was cannibalized. The two vessels were then separated the following day, and the boat carrying Hendricks and two others—none of whom had navigational equipment—was never seen again; a whaleboat with three skeletons was later found on Ducie Island, though it was never determined if they were from the Essex.
Facing near death, the men on Pollard’s boat decided to draw lots to see who would be killed and eaten. Pollard’s cousin Owen Coffin pulled the shortest straw. Although Pollard offered to take his place, the teenager is said to have refused. He was shot on February 6, 1820 and eaten. Five days later another crew member died, and he was also cannibalized. The two remaining men were rescued by the Dauphin, an American whaling ship, on February 23,1820.
All those rescued at sea were taken to Valparaíso, Chile, where they were reunited. After being told of the men on Ducie, the Australian ship Surry was dispatched to the island. Upon finding no one there, the Surry headed to Henderson Island, and on April 9, 1821, it rescued the remaining survivors. After returning to Nantucket, Chase wrote Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex (1821; republished under various titles). In addition, Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy on the Essex, later wrote his account of the sinking and rescue, but the notebook was lost and not published until 1984.
Because so many whalers were sailing from Nantucket, by 1819, Pollard and the Essex’s owners had to find crew members who were from Cape Cod and the mainland. In Nantucket parlance, these off-island chaps were called “coofs.”
There were numerous coofs aboard the Essex when she left the harbor on August 12, 1819. Viewed as outsiders, by native Natucketers, coofs were not part of the island’s “family.”
Even so, working on a whaler—which, by 1819, was both a ship and a factory—African-American crewmen experienced the relative equality of shipboard life. They mostly served as sailors and stewards.
George Pollard Jr- Captain (age 29) b7/18/1791-d 1/7/1870
Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.
Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”
Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.
Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.
Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”
Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”
The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island; three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.
Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)
Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.
Owen Chase—the First Mate (Age 23)
By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.
By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.
Matthew Joy—the Second Mate
Thomas Nickerson-Cabin boy (age 14)
The Essex boatsteers were:
- Thomas Chappel
- Obed Hendricks
- Benjamin Lawrence
- Owen Coffin (Pollards cousin or nephew)
- Isaac Cole
- Henry Dewitt (also a ship keeper who stayed aboard the Essex during whale hunts)
- Richard Peterson
- Charles Ramsdell
- Barzillai Ray
- Samuel Reed
- Isaiah Sheppard
- Charles Shorter
- Lawson Thomas
- Seth Weeks
- Joseph West
- William Wright