The Essex, an American whaleship from Nantucket, Massachusetts, was an elderly ship but with so many of her voyages were profitable she gained the reputation as a “lucky” vessel. Captain George Pollard and his first mate, Owen Chase, had served together on her previous, equally successful, trips, and it led to their promotions. Only 29, Pollard was one of the youngest men ever to command a whaling ship. Owen Chase was 23, and the youngest member of the crew was the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, who was only 15.
Thousands of miles from the coast of South America, tension was mounting among the officers of the Essex, in particular between Pollard and Chase. The launched whaleboats had come up empty for days, and on November 16th 1820, Chase’s boat had been “dashed…literally in pieces” by a whale surfacing directly beneath it. But at eight in the morning of November 20th, 1820, the lookout sighted spouts and three of the ship’s four remaining whaleboats set out to pursue a sperm whale pod.
On the leeward side of the Essex Chase’s boat harpooned a whale, but its fluke struck the boat and opened up a seam, resulting in their having to cut his line from the whale and put back to the ship for repairs. Two miles away off the windward side, Captain Pollard and the second mate’s boats had each harpooned a whale and were being dragged towards the horizon in what was known as a Nantucket sleighride. Chase was repairing the damaged boat on board when the crew observed a whale, that was much larger than normal (alleged to be around 85 feet (26 m)), acting strangely. It lay motionless on the surface with its head facing the ship, then began to move towards the vessel, picking up speed by shallow diving. The whale rammed the ship and then went under, battering it and causing it to tip from side to side.
Finally surfacing close on the starboard side of the Essex with its head by the bow and tail by the stern, the whale appeared to be stunned and motionless. Chase prepared to harpoon it from the deck when he realized that its tail was only inches from the rudder, which the whale could easily destroy if provoked by an attempt to kill it. Fearing to leave the ship stuck thousands of miles from land with no way to steer it, he relented. The whale recovered and swam several hundred yards ahead of the ship and turned to face the bow.
“I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed (around 24 knots or 44kph), and it appeared with tenfold 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.” —Owen Chase.
The whale crushed the bow like an eggshell, driving the 238-ton vessel backwards. The whale finally disengaged its head from the shattered timbers and swam off, never to be seen again, leaving the Essex quickly going down by the bow. Chase and the remaining sailors frantically tried to add rigging to the only remaining whaleboat, while the steward ran below to gather up whatever navigational aids he could find.
“The captain’s boat was the first that reached us. He stopped about a boat’s length off, but had no power to utter a single syllable; he was so completely overpowered with the spectacle before him. He was in a short time, however, enabled to address the inquiry to me, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” I answered, “We have been stove by a whale.” —Owen Chase.
The ship sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of South America. After spending two days salvaging what supplies they could, the twenty sailors set out in the three small whaleboats with wholly inadequate supplies of food and fresh water. The closest known islands, the Marquesas, were more than 1,200 mi (1,900 km) to the west and Captain Pollard intended to make for them but the crew, led by Owen Chase, feared the islands may be inhabited by cannibals and voted to make for South America. Unable to sail against the Trade winds, the boats would need to sail south for 1,000 mi (1,600 km) before they could use the Westerlies to turn towards South America, which would still lie another 3,000 mi (4,800 km) to the east.
Food and water was rationed from the beginning, most of the food had been soaked in seawater and this was eaten first despite it increasing their thirst. It took around two weeks to consume the contaminated food and by this time the survivors were rinsing their mouths with seawater and drinking their own urine. Never designed for long voyages, all the whaleboats had been roughly repaired and leaks were a constant and serious problem. After losing a timber, the crew of one boat had to lean to one side to raise the other side out of the water, however another boat was able to draw close and a sailor nailed a piece of wood over the hole. Literally within hours of the crew beginning to die of thirst the boats landed on uninhabited Henderson Island, within the modern-day British territory of the Pitcairn Islands. Had they landed on Pitcairn, 104 miles (167 km) to the S/W, they would have received help: it was habitable and the survivors of the HMS Bounty still lived there. On Henderson Island they found a small freshwater spring and the men gorged on birds, eggs, crabs, and peppergrass. However, after one week, they had largely exhausted the island’s food resources and on December 26 concluded that they would starve if they remained much longer. Three men, William Wright, Seth Weeks and Thomas Chapple, who were the only white members of the crew who were not natives of Nantucket, opted to stay behind on Henderson. The remaining Essex crewmen resumed the journey on New Year’s Eve hoping to reach Easter Island. Within three days they had exhausted the crabs and birds they had collected for the voyage, leaving only a small reserve of bread, salvaged from the Essex. On January 4, they estimated that they had drifted too far south of Easter Island to reach it and decided to make for Más a Tierra island, 1,818 miles (2,926 km) to the east and 419 miles (674 km) west of South America. One by one, the men began to die.
On January 10, Matthew Joy died and on the following day the boat carrying Owen Chase, Richard Peterson, Isaac Cole, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson became separated from the others during a squall. Peterson died on January 18 and like Joy, was sewn in his clothes and buried at sea, as was the custom. On February 8, Isaac Cole died but with food running out they kept his body and, after a discussion, the men resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. By February 15 the three remaining men had again run out of food and on February 18, were spotted and rescued by the British whaleship Indian 90 days after the sinking of the Essex.
Pollard and Hendricks boats
Obed Hendricks’s boat exhausted their food supplies on January 14 with Pollard’s men exhausting theirs on January 21. Lawson Thomas had died on January 20 and it was now decided they had no choice but to keep the body for food. Charles Shorter died on January 23, Isiah Shepard on January 27 and Samuel Reed on January 28. Later that day the two boats separated with the one carrying Obed Hendricks, Joseph West and William Bond never to be seen again.
By February 1 the food had run out and the situation in Captain Pollard’s boat became quite critical. The men drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed for the survival of the crew. A young man named Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard’s 17 year old cousin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot. Pollard allegedly offered to protect his cousin but Coffin is said to have replied “No, I like my lot as well as any other.” Lots were drawn again to determine who would be Coffin’s executioner. His young friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot. Ramsdell shot Coffin, and his remains were consumed by Pollard, Barzillai Ray, and Charles Ramsdell. On February 11, Ray also died. For the remainder of their journey, Pollard and Ramsdell survived by gnawing on the bones of Coffin and Ray. They were rescued when almost within sight of the South American coast by the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin on February 23, 95 days after the Essex sank. Both men by that time were so completely dissociative that they did not even notice the Dauphin alongside them and became terrified by seeing their rescuers.