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“Moby Dick” and the Essex
By Lynn Whitney
“Moby Dick.” That great Leviathan of a novel, capable of striking fear into the heart of any student seeing it on his syllabus. An exhausting tome that becomes a feat of endurance in itself. The epic work of fiction recounting Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for vengeance against the great white whale. But was it really fiction?
A chance viewing of a trailer for the new movie, “In the Heart of the Sea,” led me to the book by Nathan Philbrick, “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.” Here is the true story of the disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s, “Moby Dick.”
In 1840, a young Melville was just beginning his whaling career aboard the New Bedford Whaleship, Acushnet. During a “gam” (a friendly meeting at sea) in the Pacific, Melville became acquainted with William Henry Chase, the teenage son of Owen Chase. A conversation ensued and a tragic tale unfolded. Melville left with a borrowed copy of Owen Chase’s narrative of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged sperm whale. The seeds of “Moby Dick” were sewn.
The Essex departed Nantucket on August 12, 1819. Aboard, were Captain George Pollard, age 28, and First Mate Owen Chase, age 23. The youngest crew member was the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, age 14. Deemed to be a lucky vessel, based on her previous performance, her luck was about to run out. Two days into what was to be a 2 ½ year voyage, she was hit by a squall. In the first of what would be many too many indecisive moments, Capt. Pollard miscalculated the situation. The gust slammed into the Essex as she turned sideways, knocking her on her beam end. The topsail was lost, one whaleboat damaged and two destroyed. Pollard wanted to return to Nantucket for repairs, but ceded to Chase’s urgings to continue. While heading to Cape Verde, they came upon a wrecked whaler from whose Captain they were able to purchase a whaleboat. A whaleship required a minimum of 3 whaleboats plus 2 spares. The Essex now had a total of 4, leaving little room for error. Talk of ill omens began.
The Essex rounded Cape Horn and headed for the warm waters of the Pacific, only to find them nearly fished out. She continued on to the Central Pacific, into what was known as the “offshore ground.” This was an immense area, what Owen Chase called, “an almost untraversed ocean,” little explored and whose islands were rumored to be inhabited by bloodthirsty cannibals.
Tension mounted on the Essex as day after day, the whaleboats came up empty. In another stroke of bad luck, Chase’s whaleboat was dashed to pieces when a whale surfaced directly below it, leaving the Essex with only 3 remaining whaleboats. On Nov. 20, Chase was busy making repairs to a damaged whaleboat, leaving young Thomas Nickerson at the helm. It was then that Nickerson noticed a huge sperm whale, at least 85 feet in length, motionless, facing the boat. Suddenly it began to move, picking up speed, aiming directly at the Essex’s port side. It rammed the ship with enough force to knock its crew off their feet, and swam under the ship, knocking off its false keel. It surfaced on the starboard side and lay stunned, its head by the bow and tail by the stern. Chase prepared to harpoon it, but feared that if provoked it could destroy the rudder, leaving the ship disabled, thousands of miles from land, a costly misjudgment on his part . To the horror of the crew, the whale recovered, retreated and once again attacked the ship, crushing the bow and leaving the boat sinking.
Capt. Pollard, who had been aboard a whaleboat, was the first to reach the floundering ship, uttering, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” “We have been stove by a whale,” answered Chase.
The crew of 20 spent the next 2 days salvaging food, water and navigational equipment from the sinking ship. It was Capt. Pollard’s intention to head for the Marquesas Islands, some 1,200 miles away, but in another indecisive moment, he conceded to Chase’s fear that they were inhabited by cannibals. On Chase’s order, the men shoved off, headed for South America, 4000 miles away, with inadequate food and water for the journey.
Within days, the scant food and water was soaked in saltwater, creating more thirst when consumed. For nearly one month, the sailors managed to keep the 3 boats together, suffering the agonies of hunger and severe dehydration, and constantly making repairs to their fragile vessels. On Dec. 19, nearing death, they made land on uninhabited and inhospitable Henderson Island. One week later, they had exhausted its food and water supply. With trepidation, the men boarded the 3 boats and headed for Easter Island. Three men chose to remain.
On Jan. 10, food and water gone, drifting too far south to reach Easter Island, the first of the crew died. The next day, the boats became separated during a squall. One by one, the men started to die, and the true horror began. Suffering unbearable dehydration and starvation, the men in Chase’s boat resorted to cannibalism, the fear which originally drove them from what could have been a safe harbor.
Ninety days after the sinking of the Essex, on Feb. 18, Chase’s boat was rescued by the British whaleship Indian. Meanwhile, Capt. Pollard’s boat was suffering the same horror. With death certain, the men drew lots to see who would be sacrificed to save the others. Owen Coffin, Pollard’s 17 year old nephew, drew the blood spot. Lots were then drawn to see who would be the executioner. Pollard offered to take young Coffin’s place, but in an act of extreme bravery, Coffin refused.
On Feb. 23, after 95 days adrift, Pollard and one other survivor were found by the Nantucket whaleship, Dauphin, clutching the bones of their dead companions. The third ship was never found. Directions were given to Henderson Island, and the 3 men were rescued.
Amazingly, all 8 survivors returned to the sea within months of their return. It was speculated that had they followed Capt. Pollard’s original orders, they could have survived.
So, now, many years removed from that overwhelmed college student, older and wiser and with more life experience, I have a new understanding of Melville’s vision. I have insight into the microcosm that was Nantucket, into its Quaker influence, its leadership structure, race relations and prejudice against non-Islanders and Native Americans. I still cannot grasp their innate desire to go to sea, to put their safety and well-being in the hands of their Captain, to be willing to leave their homes and loved ones for what could be years. But, that’s the mystery of “Moby Dick,” and I just might try it again. And this time for the pleasure of it.