‘Look, look, what ails the ship, she is upsetting’

Peter Nichols

On 7 May 1841, the whaling ship Acushnet, newly built at Fairhaven, Massachusetts, fell in with the whaler William Wirt, of Nantucket, near the Pacific island of Juan Fernández (Alexander Selkirk’s lonely home during the years 1704-9), off the coast of Chile. One of the Acushnet’s fo’c’sle crew was the young Herman Melville. The two ships hove to for a few hours while their masters visited each other, and the 22-year-old Melville caught sight of the Wirt’s captain. He was impressed: ‘He was a large, powerful, well-made man; rather tall; to all appearances something past forty-five or so; with a handsome face for a Yankee, & expressive of great uprightness & calm unostentatious courage. His whole appearance impressed me … He was the most prepossessing-looking whale-hunter I think I ever saw.’

His name was Owen Chase. Or so Melville was told. He had been the first mate of the doomed whaleship Essex, which 21 years earlier had been rammed twice, deliberately, by a whale and had sunk not far from where the two ships now lay. The sinking of the Essex was still the talk aboard whaling ships everywhere. Chase was also the author of a book, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which described not only the unique attack by the whale, but what had happened to the Essex’s crew during the three months they spent in open boats following the sinking.

A few months later, the Acushnet met another whaler, the Lima, also of Nantucket. The two ships sailed in company for a few days, and the crews visited each other’s vessels. In the Lima’s fo’c’sle, Melville met Owen Chase’s 17-year-old son, William, who pulled a copy of his father’s book from his sea chest and lent it to Melville. ‘The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me.’ Melville never knew that he was mistaken in thinking he had seen Owen Chase. Chase had gone back to sea as a whaling captain after the Essex disaster, but by 1840 he had retired ashore in Nantucket. The William Wirt’s striking captain was another man. But the sight of him, and the reading of Chase’s book a short time afterwards, took root in the young writer. A decade later, Moby-Dick was published. Unappreciated by critics and the readers of Melville’s previous books, it marked the decline of his literary career.

It did not require an epic imagination for the story of the Essex to impress itself on contemporary audiences. It was as famous in the 19th century as that of the Titanic in the 20th. This is what happened: on 20 November 1820, while the crew were harpooning among a pod of whales in their open whaleboats, an 85-foot bull sperm whale rammed the Essex twice, and sank it. The ship’s captain and 19-man crew were left with only their whaleboats and scant provisions, two and a half thousand miles from the South American coast in the vast, empty Pacific. They did not sail for the nearest land – the Marquesas, Tuamotu and Tahitian islands – which stretched from several hundred to two thousand miles away under their lee and would have made for easy downwind sailing. Afraid of encountering cannibals on these islands, they decided instead to beat to windward against strong trade winds in an attempt to reach the South American coast, a far tougher, longer, more dangerous voyage. During the gruelling months they spent in the boats, the crew members starved and, inevitably, began to eat each other.

The Loss of the Ship ‘Essex’, Sunk by a Whale is a collection of first and second-hand accounts, edited by Nathaniel Philbrick, with his father Thomas. Owen Chase’s narrative (which Philbrick and others before him, including Melville, have presumed was ghost-written) has long been the main source of the Essex story, but here it is bolstered by the ‘Desultory Sketches’ of Thomas Nickerson, the ship’s cabin boy, aged 15 at the time of the sinking, who set down his version in a notebook many years later. The notebook was found in an attic in 1960, and finally published by the Nantucket Historical Society in 1984. The ‘Others’ are people who had direct knowledge of the disaster or its survivors and wrote letters, statements and recollections. Among them, not strictly belonging there, is Melville, whose annotations from his own copy of Chase’s book are a valuable inclusion.

Nickerson was in Chase’s whaleboat, as part of the mate’s crew, at the time the Essex was sunk, and they were in the same boat throughout their ordeal. His account agrees with Chase’s, except in several crucial details, but they tell the story in very different language. Chase’s harpoon struck a whale on the morning of 20 November. As the crew of the open boat pulled hard after it, the wounded whale’s tail whipped against them, smashing a hole in the boat. Chase was forced to abandon his hoped for kill and make for the Essex while the crew tried to plug the hole with their shirts. While they were back on board repairing the boat, Nickerson, who was at the helm, called out to the mate that a very large whale was approaching on the windward side. This is how he describes the first attack:

I calld out to the mate to inform him of it. On his seeing the whale he instantly gave me an order to put the helm hard up … I had scarcely time to obey … when I heard … a tremendous crash. The whale had struck the ship with his head directly under the larboard fore chains at the waters edge with such force as to shock every man upon his feet.

The crew were astonished. The whale’s trajectory, the point of impact and its speed combined with that of the ship produced the maximum destructive effect. The whale didn’t hit the ship head on, where it was strongly reinforced, but to the side of the bow, where the planking and frames were weaker. This is not the way bull sperm whales behave on the rare occasions they fight each other. When battling for supremacy over herds of females, they roll on their sides and slash their rivals with their jaws. The whalemen had never seen this battering-ram behaviour.

Nickerson’s description of the attack contains a detail omitted by Chase. After the first ramming, he writes, the whale dived beneath the ship and resurfaced off the starboard quarter, floating beside the stern. It appeared stunned. Chase grabbed a lance – a blade long enough to reach the heart through several feet of blubber – but realised that the creature was too close, and if he speared it its flukes might damage the rudder as it thrashed about in its death throes. So he let go of the lance. Nickerson writes of the consequences of Chase’s decision: ‘could he have foreseen all that so soon followed he would probably have chosen the lesser evil and have saved the ship by killing the whale even at the expense of losing the rudder.’

It was immediately evident that the whale had smashed a hole in the ship. Chase ordered men to the pumps, and a signal to be sent to the other whaleboats, still pulling after the pod. When he next looked to leeward, he spotted the whale, ‘apparently in convulsions’ about ‘one hundred rods’ – 500 metres – from the ship. This is Chase’s account of the second ramming:

He was enveloped in the foam of the sea, that his continual and violent thrashing about in the water had created around him, and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury … I turned to the boats … and while my attention was thus engaged for a moment, I was aroused with the cry of a man at the hatch-way, ‘here he is – he is making for us again.’ I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with apparently twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him, and his course towards us was marked by a white foam a rod in width, which he made with the continual violent thrashing of his tail; his head was about half out of water, and in that way he came upon, and again struck the ship.

This time the bow was stove in, and the whale, pumping its tail in a froth of white water, continued to push against the hull, actually driving the ship backwards. A man rushed up from below shouting that the hold was filling with water. The ship began to list to port.

With admirable foresight, William Bond, the ship’s black steward, went to the cabins and began to bring up the sea chests belonging to Chase and the Essex’s captain, George Pollard. Each contained quadrants, charts and navigation tables. Chase and his men unlashed the one remaining whaleboat, put the chests in it and launched it off the deck, now at sea level. They had rowed a short distance off when the Essex toppled over suddenly and began to settle.

Two miles away to leeward, the ship’s remaining two boats were each tied fast to a harpooned whale, when, according to Nickerson, a man in one of them gave a shout: ‘Look, look, what ails the ship, she is upsetting.’ As they turned, the Essex seemed at first to be heeling, as if beneath a press of wind, and then it keeled right over and disappeared. The stunned crews in the open boats released their whales and began rowing back to where the ship had been. Soon they could see her ‘floating upon her side and presenting the appearance of a rock’. As the boats drew near, Captain Pollard shouted from his boat: ‘My God, Mr Chase, what is the matter?’ ‘We have been stove by a whale,’ the mate answered.

For two days, the boats hung off the waterlogged Essex while the crew chopped off the masts, enabling it to come up a little, and then hacked their way through the decks and brought up quantities of hardtack, water, several Galapagos tortoises, nails, tools and other supplies. They made masts for the three boats, and sewed sails.

Chase and Nickerson give contradictory accounts of the crew’s state of mind during these first few days. As they worked, the men were either ‘mute and desponding’ (Chase), or ‘cheerfully … making sails for our boats’ (Nickerson). And at night ‘the miseries of their situation came upon them with such force, as to produce spells of extreme debility, approaching almost to fainting … Our continued state of anxiety … excluded all hopes of sleep’ (Chase), while Nickerson believed that ‘all hands’ were ‘wraped in sweet sleep … unconscious of their awful condition’. Here, Chase (also writing far sooner after the event than Nickerson) would seem to be the more credible witness.

While the men loaded the light, frail whaleboats, Captain Pollard, Chase and the second mate, Matthew Joy, discussed their options. The easterly trades, blowing relentlessly throughout the year, and against which they had no hope of sailing with their makeshift rigs, lay between them and the South American coast. Pollard was for sailing to Tahiti, in the Society Islands, two thousand miles away and an easy sail of several weeks at most. But Chase and Joy voiced strong opposition to the captain’s plan. The two mates believed that the Tahitians must be cannibals just as the Marquesas islanders were supposed to have been. ‘Strange to tell’, Melville wrote in his copy of Chase’s book, the officers of the Essex ‘knew not that for more than twenty years the English … had been resident in Tahiti; & that in the same year of the shipwreck – 1820 – it was entirely safe.’

The two mates argued for a different plan: the three boats would sail south for 1500 miles, until they were out of the trades and into a belt of variable winds, when they would head east and make for the coast of South America, another 1800 miles away – a total voyage of 3300 miles. They reckoned the boats could travel sixty miles a day, and would thus gain the coast in fifty-five days; they had enough food and water, they thought, for sixty days. Pollard, unsure of his facts, did not have the nerve or stamina to go on arguing against the inclinations of his two officers. He gave in. On 23 November, with the Essex no more than floating wreckage, the crew sailed away to the south, ‘not without an extreme dread, and anxiety, to the gloomy and disheartening prospect before us’ (Chase). Or, in Nickerson’s account, with all having ‘resumed their natural cheerfulness’.

The three boats – commanded by Pollard, Chase and Joy – did their best to stay close, ‘about a ship’s length apart’, keeping within sight of their pale white sails at night. With the loss of their ship, the small band of men grew fearfully dependent on each other, and on the resources of a full company. On the night of 28 November, Chase was woken by one of his men who had heard a shout from the captain. When the mate had sailed close enough, Pollard yelled: ‘I have been attacked by an unknown fish, and he has stove my boat.’

The fish, probably a shark, was driven off and the boat repaired, but this reminder of the Essex’s demise raised the ugly question of what would happen if one of the boats were to founder. While ‘we should have felt ourselves constrained, by every tie of humanity, to have taken the surviving sufferers into the other boats, and shared our bread and water with them, while a crumb of one or a drop of the other remained,’ Chase wrote, ‘such a course of conduct … might be the … means of consigning every soul of us to a horrid death of starvation.’ They knew that their food and water would last them the sixty days only if they severely rationed themselves, but before they had sailed a week, ‘our extreme sufferings … commenced.’ Once they had eaten the tortoises, their daily rations were reduced to small pieces of bread and a mouthful of water. In Chase’s boat, some of the bread had been soaked by the salt water, which intensified their thirst. After thirty days, their bodies had wasted to ‘mere skeletons’. They grew so enfeebled that they had trouble controlling their small sails and rudders. They had sailed 1500 miles south, but because the South American coast curved away to the south-east, they were now farther away from it than ever. Their prospects appeared grim.

On 20 December, a month after they had abandoned ship, an island came in sight, with a white beach and high rugged hills topped with vegetation. It was Henderson Island, which they mistook for Ducie, 70 miles further east. Ashore, the men could only stagger a few feet before resting, but they managed to scour the island for water and food. It proved disappointingly barren. There was a small spring, revealed only at low tide; there were a few birds and crabs, most of which were quickly eaten. They were forced to conclude that their situation ashore was worse than in the boats, where at least they would be moving towards South America. But three of the crew refused to leave the island as the others refilled their water casks and shoved off.

For a few days, life in the boats was pleasant. They had brought aboard flat stones to make fires on, and cooked the last of the fish and crabs. But once they were back on bread and water, their brief revival came to an end. On 10 January Matthew Joy died. His body was sewn into his clothes and dumped overboard. Two nights later, Chase lost sight of the other two boats, and sailed on alone, his crew badly demoralised. On 20 January, one of Chase’s men, a black crew member named Richard Peterson, died. He, too, was ‘committed to the sea’. But by 8 February, when ‘hunger became violent and outrageous’ and Isaac Cole began raving and then died, Chase suggested to his men that they eat him. There were no objections.

We separated his 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. We now first commenced to satisfy the immediate cravings of nature from the heart, which we eagerly devoured.

This grisly testimony comes from Chase alone. Nickerson, his boatmate, writing his account years later when the facts had long been known, was oddly delicate. He could not admit to cannibalism. He wrote simply that Cole’s share of the remaining food enabled the others to live. The crews of the other two boats had evidently been hungrier. Between them, they had consumed four of their dead (black) shipmates by the time Chase’s crew began to eat Isaac Cole, and now sat looking at each other ‘with horrid thoughts in our minds’. In Pollard’s boat, apparently, lots were drawn and the captain’s 18-year-old cousin Owen Coffin was executed by pistol and eaten. Several days later another seaman died and was eaten. But the details are sketchy. Pollard never wrote of his ordeal, and the only testimony of what happened in his boat comes second-hand from people he spoke to after he was rescued. Only three men remained aboard the third boat, formerly commanded by Joy, when it disappeared from Pollard’s view on the night of 29 January. It was never found.

Chase and his surviving crewmen, Nickerson and Benjamin Lawrence, were rescued by the British vessel Indian on 18 February 1821, very near the spot where Melville thought he saw the first mate of the Essex twenty years later. Pollard and his one boatmate, Charles Ramsdell, were picked up by the Nantucket whaler Dauphin on 23 February. A ship picked up the three castaways on Henderson Island. The survivors’ recourse to cannibalism was quietly accepted but not talked about on Nantucket. Pollard went back to sea, but his next voyage ended in disaster when his ship struck an uncharted rock in the Pacific and sank. He and his crew – including the 17-year-old Thomas Nickerson – took to their boats, but were rescued within a day by another whaler. It was Pollard’s last voyage. Chase went back to sea as a captain, but on receiving word that his wife was being unfaithful to him at home, he retired, spending most of the time in his house in Nantucket. He was afflicted with violent headaches and in his later years went mad and hid food about the house. Melville, according to the notes he wrote in Chase’s book, heard that ‘poor Owen … was prey to the deepest gloom.’