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3rd September 1956: A London Zoo worker cleans the teeth of 'Moby Dick', which formed part of an exhibit on whales. One of Moby Dick's inspirations ? the true to life sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820 ? is a story that?s steeped in horrific events like starvation, cannibalism and the crew slowly driven mad by their tragic circumstances. (Photo : Fox Photos/Getty Images)

3rd September 1956: A London Zoo worker cleans the teeth of ‘Moby Dick’, which formed part of an exhibit on whales. One of Moby Dick’s inspirations ? the true to life sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820 ? is a story that?s steeped in horrific events like starvation, cannibalism and the crew slowly driven mad by their tragic circumstances. (Photo : Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Whaling, Human Sacrifice and the True Story of ?Moby-Dick?

On the morning of November 20, 1820, in the Pacific Ocean, an enraged sperm whale rammed the Nantucket whaler Essex. As the boat began to sink, her crew of twenty?had time only to collect some bread and water before pulling away in three frail open boats. Without charts, alone on the open seas, and thousands of miles from any known land, the sailors began their terrifying journey of survival. Ninety days later, after much suffering and death by starvation, intense heat, and dehydration, only eight men survived to reach land. One of them was Owen Chase, first mate of the ill-fated ship, whose account of the long and perilous journey has become a classic of endurance and human courage. The elements of his tale inspired Herman Melville (who was born the year the Essex sank) to write the classic Moby Dick.

In its day, word of the ill-fated voyage created a kind of tidal wave of horror, passing from ship to ship and shore to shore. The tale so haunted whaling circles that Melville, already familiar with the story, was intrigued when a shipmate, on a long ocean journey, pulled a book from his sea chest. It was a chronicle of the disaster written by the sailor?s father, Owen Chase, the first mate on the Essex. ?The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea,? Melville later wrote, ?had a surprising effect upon me.? Chase?s memoir would go on to serve as the basis for the climax of Melville?s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick.

In the 18th century, the oil capital of the world was Nantucket.

It?s not that the ground contained oil. Rather, sailing men of Nantucket left their offshore island on ships to hunt the most highly prized source of oil at the time:? The oil contained in a sperm whale?s body.
Especially valuable was the oil located in a sperm whale?s gigantic head.
How much oil could whalers extract from a sperm whale? The head and body of a really large male could produce around 100 barrels of oil (at a time when each barrel held between 30-35 gallons).
A whaling ship, called the?Essex, left this oil capital of the world in August of 1819. Onboard was a crew of 21 men, including seven African-Americans and a cabin boy.

Expecting to return home within 24 months, or so, the crew and their ship met a very different fate. The?Essex?happened to be a vessel which a great?cachalot?(an alternative name for a sperm whale) fatally rammed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
In the heart of the sea, with too little drinkable water and too little edible food, the?Essex crew endured the unimaginable.
Many of them did not survive.

The ship?s captain was 29-year-old George Pollard, a Nantucket man, who had previously?and successfully?sailed on the?Essex?as First Mate. This was his first command aboard a whaling ship.
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 harbour 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.

When Owen Chase says run, you run! Owen Chase (October 7, 1797 ? March 7, 1869) was First Mate of the whaler Essex, which a sperm whale rammed and sank on 28 October 1820. Chase wrote about the incident in Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

When Owen Chase says run, you run! Owen Chase (October 7, 1797 ? March 7, 1869) was First Mate of the whaler Essex, which a sperm whale rammed and sank on 28 October 1820. Chase wrote about the incident in Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

By 1904, when this photo was taken aboard a bark called Sunbeam, not much had changed in the method by which whalers removed spermaceti (high-quality whale oil) from the head of a sperm whale (cachalot). Spermaceti is located in the part of the whale's head known as the "case." Photo, by C. W. Ashley, circa 1904.

By 1904, when this photo was taken aboard a bark called Sunbeam, not much had changed in the method by which whalers removed spermaceti (high-quality whale oil) from the head of a sperm whale (cachalot). Spermaceti is located in the part of the whale’s head known as the “case.” Photo, by C. W. Ashley, circa 1904.

Nantucketers held the key jobs and command positions. On the?Essex, in addition to Captain Pollard, those men were:

  • Owen Chase?the First Mate
  • Matthew Joy?the Second Mate

The rest of the crew?beyond the steward (William Bond) and the cabin boy (Thomas Nickerson)?consisted of boatsteerers (the men who helm small whaleboats during extremely intense whale hunts) and sailors (whose main duties were aboard the Essex and as rowers on the whaleboats).

As the?Essex?began its long voyage to the Pacific, by first sailing in the Atlantic, her crew sighted no whales for weeks.
Crew members would rotate their turns at the top of a ship mast, searching for the blow of a whale. After a two-hour stint, the next man would shimmy to the top of the square-rigger.
The journey south could not be direct because the ship was at the mercy of the Atlantic?s prevailing winds. To reach Cape Horn at the bottom of South America, where the?Essex?could finally head west, then north to the Pacific coast off Peru, the crew had to follow a zig-zagging course.

Less than a week out of Nantucket, and long before the crew reached the Horn,?Essex encountered her first misfortune. The sky turned an ominous color, telling the men that a squall was on its way.
Instead of preparing to ride out what could be a really bad storm, Captain Pollard decided to keep making good time. Not until it was too late did he order his crew to change sails so they could deal with the storm.
When a really bad gust hit the?Essex, she was sideways to the wind … the worst-possible position. The weather was frighteningly bad by this point, and the?Essex?could not resist the wind?s pressure.
She rolled over, nearly ninety degrees, onto her side – knocked down on her ?beam ends.?

The crew of the?Essex, mostly inexperienced young men, learned something interesting from their disastrous knock-down experience in the Atlantic Ocean.
When a ship gets knocked down, her hull begins to serve a very different purpose. It acts like a barrier which blocks the ferocious wind and pelting rain.
This brief moment, of apparent calm, also occurred on the?Essex. It helped George Pollard to regroup with his crew.

Starbuck hunting whales, illustration for Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1819-1891), Belgian edition of 1956.

Starbuck hunting whales, illustration for Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1819-1891), Belgian edition of 1956.

Calming the crew, however, did little for the whaleboats which were hanging on the port side of the ship. Two of them were irretrievably separated from the?Essex.
An extra whaleboat, stored at the back of the ship (on its stern), had been crushed by the powerful waves.
On the fourth day of her anticipated two-year voyage, the?Essex?was now massively crippled. She was left with two whaleboats (when she needed at least three, preferably four) and no spare (even though her crushed stern boat could be repaired).
Still close-enough to Nantucket, so they could turn back for repairs; Captain Pollard announced that is what the men would do.
Owen Chase (the first mate) and Matthew Joy (the second mate) disagreed with the captain. They both thought they should keep sailing toward?the Azores, where they could repair the Essex?and buy replacement whaleboats.
The junior officers must have forgotten?or disregarded?a fundamental rule of life at sea. On a ship, the captain?s decisions are the law of the ship.
George Pollard, four days into his first command at sea, reversed himself. Instead of following his own counsel, and returning to Nantucket, he instructed the crew to keep sailing.
Unfortunately, when the?Essex?reached port there were no solid whaleboats to buy. All Pollard could find, at the?Cape Verde Islands, was an old and leaky replacement. By then, however, the men were too far from Nantucket to turn back with nothing to show for their efforts.
Nothing to show for their efforts mattered, a great deal, to these men. If they returned without oil, not a single crew member would be paid for his work. That was the deal crew members made with ship owners. They would split the profits of the voyage, in predetermined shares (minus their individual expenses).
If there were no profits, there was no payday … even for the Captain. Even if the voyage lasted three or four years.

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Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.

To restock, the?Essex?anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard?s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.

By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the?Essex?had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called ?Nantucket sleigh rides.? Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the?Essex?to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale?85 feet in length, he estimated?lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the?Essex, ?coming down for us at great celerity,? Chase would recall?at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with ?such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.?

The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. ?I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,? Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, ?Here he is?he is making for us again.? Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed?this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.

The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the?Essex?turned over on its side.

Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the?Essex?in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, ?My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter??

?We have been stove by a whale,? his first mate answered.

Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, ?had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.?

The men were unwilling to leave the doomed?Essex?as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men.

mobydick

'The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex'

‘The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex’

They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them?but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew?s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands.
Although rumours of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.
Thus they left the?Essex?to board their three different 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard?s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land?Henderson Island?two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they?d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.
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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.

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.?

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.

The rest of the men, trying to stay together, did the best they could in their three separate whalers. Pollard and his officers were each in charge of their individual boats.

The rest of the men, trying to stay together, did the best they could in their three separate whalers. Pollard and his officers were each in charge of their individual boats.

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. 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 honour of his lost crewmen.

Captain Pollard went on to captain another whaling ship called the Two Brothers. The ship was wrecked on a coral reef two years later.

Captain Pollard was marked as ?unlucky? at sea, and none of the ship owners would trust him with their ships again. He lived out his remaining years as a village night watchman, never again setting out to sea.

Along with three other survivors of the?Essex,?Owen Chase returned to Nantucket on the?Eagle?on June 11, 1821 to find he had a 14-month-old daughter he had never seen named Phoebe. An account of the homecoming was later published in a magazine. A large crowd had gathered at the docks to see the survivors arrive and as they disembarked, had parted without a sound. The survivors walked alone to their homes without a word being spoken.

Within four months and with the help of a?ghostwriter, he completed an account of the disaster, the?Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex; this was used by?Herman Melville?as one of the inspirations for his novel?Moby-Dick.

While this story was the initial inspiration for Moby Dick, other elements of the story were inspired by a real life white whale, Mocha Dick, which also had a propensity for destroying whaling ships and which Melville later learned of. Interestingly, while Moby Dick today is considered a great work of literature, in its day, it wasn?t very successful and only earned Melville $556.37 and less than 3000 copies were sold over the next 40 years or so before Melville died.

The character of Moby Dick is larger than life. The white whale is based on a real-life cetacean called?Mocha Dick. Named after the Chilean island of Mocha (near which the beast was?first encountered), he was an albino sperm whale with a formidable reputation. Over 70 feet long, the mammal was famous for swimming gently next to the whaling boats. On the first sign of aggression, however, the whale would spring into action and try to destroy any boat that attacked him. When the notorious animal was finally brought down?circa 1839, at least 19 harpoons were found lodged in his sides. The following year,?The?Knickerbocker Magazine?ran an article entitled ?Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific.? For his novel, Melville would replace the word ?Mocha? with ?Moby? (though no one is sure?why). But the tale was also heavily influenced by an event that had taken place in the south Pacific over a decade before Mocha Dick?s demise.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville: Text, Ebook

Whaling, human sacrifice and the true story of ?Moby-Dick? – Salon

The True Story Behind ‘Moby-Dick’ is Scarier than a Cannibal Horror …

Was there a real Moby Dick? – Ask History

The Chilling True Story Behind ‘In The Heart of The Sea’ – Men’s Journal

Moby-Dick Online

Moby-Dick – The Life and Works of Herman Melville

Was Moby Dick a Real Whale? – 19th Century History – About.com

The True-Life Horror That Inspired Moby-Dick | History | Smithsonian

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