This story appears in the November/December 2016 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
“Death to the living, Long life to the killers, Success to sailors’ wives, And greasy luck to whalers.” So went a popular toast when Nantucket, Massachusetts, was still the center of the whaling industry in the early 19th century.
But times were changing: Whale populations in the North Atlantic had declined, forcing whaling ships to head to more distant waters, first plundering the rich pickings off the South American coast, then striking out into the Pacific. The economic stakes were high: Each expedition could yield hundreds of barrels of precious whale oil. There was also valuable ambergris, a substance from the sperm whale used in making perfumes and medicines. Expeditions could last for years while being highly profitable.
But the story of the Essex would be different. The 88-foot, 238-ton whaleship left Nantucket on August 12, 1819, scheduled for two and a half years at sea. At the helm was Captain George Pollard, Jr., age 28, with first mate Owen Chase and second mate Mathew Joy. The 18-man crew included teenagers like Owen Coffin, the captain’s cousin, and Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy, age 14. Seven of the sailors were African American. Later there would be talk of how strange omens appeared in Nantucket the summer the Essex set sail. In July a comet had crossed the skies, and a plague of locusts had destroyed the crops. The local newspaper, the New Bedford Mercury, recorded sightings of “an extraordinary sea animal” resembling a serpent.
Only three days into their voyage, a violent squall battered the Essex, terrifying the inexperienced crew. The ship began to creak and listed dangerously. Captain Pollard managed to reach the island of Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa, at the end of September, where they repaired the ship. They set sail again for the South American coast and caught their first sperm whale in the waters near Brazil. This region was largely fished out, so they headed to the Pacific in search of better luck.
In January 1820 they rounded Cape Horn. For many months, toiling up the long Chilean coastline, they sighted few whales. When they reached the South Pacific close to Peru, their fortunes changed: They were catching a sperm whale every five days, a bonanza that yielded a total of 450 barrels of oil.
However, rough sea conditions forced them to head west again. On a final stop in the Galápagos, they were able to stock up on provisions, including some giant turtles for food. From there the Pacific Ocean stretched out, apparently infinite, in every direction. They were more than 1,500 miles west of Peru, about as far from land as it is possible to be on Earth.
Head On Collision
On November 20, the crew sighted a huge male sperm whale leading a pod. Three small whaling boats were launched under the command of the captain and the ship’s two mates. They had soon managed to corral several of the whales when a calf smashed into Chase’s boat forcing him to return to the main ship. It was then that the young cabin boy Nickerson spotted a looming shape underneath the bow of the Essex. It was a mighty sperm whale some 85 feet long, weighing as much as 80 tons.
First mate Owen Chase wrote later how he saw the whale “appear with ten-fold 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 ... I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together as if distracted with rage and fury.”
The huge creature smashed into the Essex repeatedly, on each occasion causing it to list even more. The men just had time to save some of the provisions and regroup in three small whaling boats before their ship succumbed to the waves. “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” Captain Pollard asked in utter shock. “We have been stove by a whale,” came the bitter reply.
Adrift in the small boats, her crew were as far as they could possibly be from any known land. They inventoried the provisions they had salvaged: around 300 pounds of biscuits, several casks of water, and some of the Galápagos turtles. Pollard, Chase, and Joy each took charge of one of the small whale boats. Pollard proposed heading for one of the small Pacific islands, such as Tahiti, which he calculated could be reached within 30 days. But Chase, believing those islands to be inhabited by cannibals, stubbornly opposed this plan and, along with the inexperienced Joy, persuaded Captain Pollard that they must attempt the longer journey back to the South American coast.
Pollard and Chase had saved the navigation instruments from the wreckage, and decided that Joy should simply follow their lead. They fixed their course toward the coast. In his diary of the voyage, discovered in 1960, cabin boy Thomas Nickerson wrote how quickly they all realized, “the slender thread upon which our lives were hung.”
The officers rationed the biscuits according to Chase’s calculations, allowing just 500 calories a day per person. But the shortage of water soon became critical. A month later, on the verge of dying of thirst, they reached Henderson Island, a desolate coral islet that was little more than a refuge for a few seabirds. There they found a spring that provided a trickle of brackish water. In a few days they had finished off most of the seabirds on the island. Three survivors chose to stay marooned there, but the rest saw their best hope in taking to the seas again.
Thirst and the brutal sun soon finished off the weakest, and their bodies were thrown overboard. But in the days that followed, hunger forced the survivors to realize that wasting a valuable source of nourishment was foolish. In the end, when the next sailor succumbed, he was dismembered and his flesh cooked on a flat stone in the bottom of the boat. Cannibalism would sustain these men but bring them to the edge of madness.
In time the three boats drifted apart and separated. When Captain Pollard’s boat was down to four survivors, the situation took a desperate turn. The captain was persuaded by a crew member, Charles Ramsdell, that they should each draw lots to decide the next to be killed and eaten so that the others could live. The short straw was drawn by Coffin, the captain’s 18-year-old cousin. The young man resigned himself to his grisly fate and Ramsdell shot him.
On February 23, 1821, three months after the sperm whale sank the ship, the Dauphin, another Nantucket whaling vessel, sighted a small boat filled with sun-bleached bones with the emaciated figures of Pollard and Ramsdell laying amid the carnage. One of the other boats, carrying Chase, Lawrence, and Nickerson, had been rescued some days earlier in similar conditions. The third boat was not so fortunate; it was discovered years later on Ducie Island, manned by three skeletons. The three men who had stayed on Henderson Island survived and were rescued in April 1821.
Captain Pollard returned to sea at the helm of another whaler, survived another shipwreck, and retired from the sea. He ended his days as a night watchman on Nantucket Island, telling few people of the terrible events he had endured. Owen Chase went on to write his chilling account of his months at sea. Chase eventually died many years later in severe mental distress, obsessed with hoarding food in his attic. The horrors of the Essex would live on as a source of inspiration for one of America’s greatest novels, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the story of a doomed whaling voyage that ends when the ship is rammed and sunk by a massive white sperm whale.