Nov. 20, 1820: One Whale Exacts His Revenge

1820: The whaling ship Essex is rammed and sunk by a sperm whale 2,000 miles off the west coast of South America. The ordeal of the crew inspires Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick.

The Essex was an aging vessel from Nantucket, which at the time possessed the largest whaling fleet in the world. The three-masted ship was 87 feet long and weighed 238 tons. She was captained by George Pollard Jr., at 28 already an experienced whaler.

By November 1820 the Essex had been at sea for over a year (three years out was not uncommon), surviving an early knockdown in an Atlantic squall and a rough passage around Cape Horn. Once the ship reached the fertile Pacific whaling grounds, however, things began looking up.

If the risks of whaling were many, the rewards could be great. Whale oil was prized as a lighting fuel. A successful voyage could make a captain wealthy, and meant a good payday for the crew as well. The Essex had taken its share of whales and on Nov. 20 appeared ready to take a few more when a pod was sighted off the starboard beam.

The ship's three remaining whaleboats — one had been destroyed by a whale's flukes during an earlier hunt — were dispatched for the kill. As the harpooning began, First Mate Owen Chase, commanding one of the whaleboats, looked back and saw a large sperm whale, which he estimated at 85 feet, approaching the Essex.

As he watched helplessly, the whale propelled itself into the ship with great force. Some crewmen on board were knocked off their feet by the collision, and Chase watched in disbelief as the whale drew back and rammed the ship again. This time the Essex was holed below the waterline, and doomed.

The crew organized what provisions they could and two days later abandoned ship aboard the three whaleboats. Twenty men left the Essex. Eight would ultimately survive the harrowing ordeal that played out over the next three months.

Fearing the "cannibalistic savages" of the South Seas islands (the irony of that reasoning will become apparent momentarily), Pollard decided to head for the more distant coastlines of Chile or Peru, first heading south to catch the expected favorable winds.

The winds, it turned out, weren't favorable at all, but Pollard was determined to reach South America. Eventually the three boats became separated from one another. One vanished and was never heard from again. The other two, one commanded by Pollard and the other by Chase, thrashed against the elements, and as the provisions dwindled and ran out, men began to die.

The first to go were given proper burials at sea, but as food ran out and the survivors on both boats became delirious from hunger, they turned to cannibalism. In Pollard's boat, straws were drawn to see who of the remaining four would be sacrificed so that the other three might survive. Pollard's young cousin, Owen Coffin, drew short straw. He was shot and eaten.

Only two men on that boat, Pollard and Charles Ramsdell, were alive when they were rescued by the whaling ship Dauphin after 95 days in an open boat. Chase and the survivors of his boat were picked up after 90 days. Three other men, who had chosen to remain on a small island shortly after the ordeal began, were also rescued.

What is known of the details of the ship's ill-fated voyage rests largely on Chase's memoir. He could offer no reason why the whale should attack the ship. But another young Nantucket whaleman, Herman Melville, drew his own conclusions. Moby Dick was a very, very smart whale.

Source: BBC


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