‘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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in