The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex
Created | Updated Aug 8, 2003
The whaling ship Essex left Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1819 on a two-and-a-half-year voyage in the whaling grounds of the South Pacific to hunt the lucrative but aggressive sperm whale. In June 1821, 13 of the 21 crew were dead, and the eight survivors have entered maritime history as part of one of the most remarkable sea-faring stories ever told.
The Ship and its Crew
Both the Captain and the First Mate of the Essex, George Pollard and Owen Chase, had served on the ship's previous voyage. Due to the success of that voyage, both had been promoted. Pollard was, at only 29, one of the youngest men ever to command a whaling ship. Owen Chase was a mere 23. The youngest member of the crew was the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, who was only 15.
The Essex itself was an elderly ship, but had recently been totally refitted. At 87 feet long and weighing 238 tons, unladen, the ship was small for a whaler. The Essex was fitted with four separate whaleboats, of around 20 to 30 feet in length, which were launched from the main ship. These boats were built for speed rather than durability, being 'Clinker built', with planks that overlap rather than lying flush with each other.
Ironically, the success of previous voyages had also left the Essex with a reputation as a 'lucky' ship.
The Essex set sail on the 12 August, 1819. Two days out from port, the Essex was 'knocked over' by a sudden squall. The ship lay completely on its side for several minutes before righting itself, and no permanent damage was done, but many of the crew took it as an ill omen. It was Owen Chase who persuaded them by a mixture of entreaty and bullying not to turn back.
The ship reached Cape Horn on 18 January, 1820, but it took a gruelling five weeks to navigate the treacherous waters. Even by the standards of the time, this was a difficult passage that must have had an effect on the morale of crew and officers alike.
Once in the South Pacific however, the Essex had an uneventful and prosperous voyage until 16 November. On that day, Owen Chase's whaleboat was struck by the tail fluke of a sperm whale and wrecked, leaving the Essex with only three serviceable whaleboats, though none of the crew was injured. Such happenings were common, but the loss of a whaleboat at that time was to prove crucial in events to come.
On 20 November, The Essex sighted a school of whales, and all three boats set off in pursuit. But Chase had bad luck again, as a whale immediately holed his boat. Cutting the line on the whale he had harpooned, Chase returned to the Essex to effect repairs. Unable to launch a new boat, as would normally be the practice, Chase quickly set about repairing the boat he had.
While he worked, Chase became aware of a huge whale, of some 85 feet in length, swimming in the water 100 feet away from the Essex. As he and the crew watched in alarm, the whale then proceeded to charge the Essex, and struck the bow of the vessel with sufficient force to knock some of the crew from their feet. The crew watched again in disbelief as the whale charged the ship a second time. This impact was hard enough to put a hole in the Essex below the water line. It is not clear why the whale attacked the Essex at all, though it seems likely that by pure chance, Chase's hammering on the deck may have sent signals through the hull of the ship to the whale.
Chase quickly realised that the ship was doomed. Within ten minutes1, he and the eight men left the Essex on the whale-boat which was by now repaired, collecting what rations and supplies they could. By the time that they had collected their thoughts, the Essex had capsized. The whale was never seen again.
When Pollard and second mate Matthew Joy returned to the Essex in their own Whaleboats, they were dismayed to find it capsized. Never before in the century long history of whaling had any ship been attacked by a whale2. However, survival was the most pressing concern facing the 20 men3 aboard all three whaling boats.
The Essex was righted by severing the masts, and further plundered for supplies and equipment. Once that had been done, the ship's Officers, Pollard Chase and Joy, set about formulating a plan to save themselves and their crew. After some discussion, Pollard settled on a plan to sail south to the area of 'the variable winds' and then east on those winds, making landfall on the coast of either Chile or Peru. The idea of sailing for possibly nearer islands in the South Pacific was rejected due to a fear of cannibalistic savages.
They estimated that the journey would take them some 56 days. For a voyage of that length, the provisions they had been salvaged allowed for a daily ration of some ounces of bread, a biscuit weighing one pound and three ounces and half a pint of water per man per day. This represented something like one third of the minimum required food intake and only a half of the minimum water intake for a healthy adult.
First, the crews were divided among the three whaleboats. Pollard and Joy took six men each, while Chase's boat had five crew assigned to it, this being felt sensible due to the fact that the boat was already damaged.
The three boats finally left the wreck of the Essex on the afternoon of 22 November, and by 4pm, the ship was lost from sight. Within days, Chase's boat proved to be a liability, and within three days, all three boats had to be halted in order that it could be repaired, as it was shipping water at an alarming rate.
By 30 November, however, the boats had made some 480 miles progress and the provisions were holding out much as expected. Pollard and Chase were encouraged by the way that the plan was proceeding. The men seemed in good spirits, under the circumstances, and all signs seemed to indicate that although they were hungry and tired, they might yet survive the trip.
On 20 December, land was spied, a small rocky outcrop that Pollard and Chase took to be Ducie Island. At first, the men took themselves to be saved, gorging themselves on food and water from the island. By Christmas Day, however, it was apparent that the island would not support all 20 men, and reluctantly, plans were made to return to the open ocean.
Three of the men elected to stay on the island and take their chances on land rather than on the sea. William Wright, Seth Weeks and Thomas Chapple gambled that their survival was more likely for three men on the small island than for 20 men in open boats. On 26 December, the 17 remaining crew set sail once again for the south.
By this time, rations had been halved, and the men were severely starved and dehydrated. On 10 January, 1821, Matthew Joy was the first man to die. Chase maintained that Joy had been of a sickly constitution in any event, and that his death was as much due to that as the hardships of the voyage. His body was committed to the ocean the following day. His boat was placed under the control of Obed Hendricks.
The day after Joy's burial, a brief squall separated Chase's boat from the other two forever. By this time, any effort beyond merely lying in the bottom of their boats was monumental, and the men could not muster the effort required to find their companions.
The First Boat
Chase's boat proceeded south, as best they could tell, for a number of days. On 18 January, Richard Peterson died 'having made up his mind', as Chase later described it. He, like Joy, was buried at sea.
On 8 February, Isaac Cole died, 'in the most dreadful of agonies'. Rather than commit his body to the sea, Chase was moved to think the unpalatable, and proposed to his two remaining colleagues that the body be kept for food. Both Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson readily agreed, knowing that their food supplies were perilously low.
The grisly supply of food lasted them until the 15 February, at which point all seemed lost. Nickerson had abandoned all hope of rescue when, on 18 February, the British brig, Indian rescued the three men.
The Second and Third Boats
After the separation of Chase's boat, the remaining two boats stayed together for some time. By the 14 January, however, Obed Hendrick's boat was entirely exhausted of supplies, and Pollard's boat finally ran out of food on the 21 January.
Lawson Thomas had died on 20 January, and Pollard and the others made the same dreadful decision that Chase and his companions would eventually make. However, worse was yet to come. On 23 January, Charles Shorter died. On the 27 January, Isiah Shepard died followed a day later by Samuel Reed. All were eaten by their companions in their desperate bid to survive.
On 28 January, the two boats were separated. The third boat, now containing only Obed Hendricks, Joseph West and William Bond, was never seen again. All three men are presumed to have died at sea.
On 1 February, Pollard's boat ran out of food again. Faced with a long lingering death, members of the crew suggested the drawing of lots to see who should next be eaten, the unlucky candidate to first be shot by one of his companions. At first, Pollard rejected the idea out of hand, but eventually gave way to his crew. By a cruel irony, it was Pollard's 17-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin, who drew the shortest straw, and was shot by Charles Ramsdell, who drew the next shortest. On 11 February, Brazillai Ray also died.
The whaling ship Dauphin finally rescued Pollard and Ramsdell, the sole survivors of their boat, on 23 February, 1821.
Chapple, Weeks and Wright were finally rescued from their island refuge on 5 April, 1821. In fact, they had not been on Ducie Island, as supposed by Pollard and Chase, but on a small, unnamed island some 200 miles west of their supposed location. It is now known as Henderson Island.
Pollard and Ramsdell and been 95 days in an open boat, Chase, Lawrence and Nickerson 90. They had travelled nearly 3500 miles since the wreck of the Essex some three months previously.
George Pollard sailed only once more from Nantucket, as the Captain of the whaling ship Two Brothers. In March 1823, the ship was wrecked on a coral reef. Pollard returned to Nantucket a broken man, and served out 45 years as a night watchman.
Benjamin Lawrence went on to captain two successful whaling voyages aboard the Dromo and the Huron. Thereafter, he retired to the life of a farmer, and died at the age of 80.
Charles Ramsdell captained the General Jackson on a successful trip before his retirement from the sea. Thomas Nickerson became a captain in the Merchant Service before retiring to run a boarding house in Nantucket.
William Wright was drowned in a hurricane while sailing in the West Indies. Seth Weeks alone seems to have immediately retired from sea-faring, retiring to Cape Cod. Thomas Chapple, an Englishman, seems to have become a missionary preacher, and died of plague-fever on Timor.
Owen Chase was appointed Captain of the Carroll in 1832. He made two very successful voyages into the South Pacific before retiring from the sea in 1840, partly due to ill health. For the rest of his life, he suffered from debilitating headaches, which seemed to owe their origins to the events of 1821. Towards the end of his life he became mentally unstable, and was found to be hoarding food in the attic of his house. He died in March 1869, aged 71.
Most of the survivors at some time or another wrote accounts of the disaster, some of which differ markedly on details of the character of the main players in the story. The best known is Chase's Narrative of the Most Extra-Ordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex, which was published in 1821. While whaling in the South Pacific, Owen's son William met a young whaler, and spoke with him at some length about the Essex, and gave a copy of his father's manuscript to the young man. That young man was Herman Melville, and it was Chase's narrative that inspired Melville's greatest work, Moby Dick.