Friday, January 14, 2011

Leaving Nantucket, August 12th, 1819

Leaving Nantucket, August 12th, 1819 by Anthony D. Blake
This painting depicts the Essex sailing out of Nantucket harbor with a favorable breeze. The tide is going out, shown by the ripples on the water close to the end of Brandt Point. Behind Brandt point a large cutter has hoisted her mainsail in preparation to breaking out her anchor. Other whale ships are anchored in the harbor, or alongside the docks, in the background.

Following is an excerpt from Michael W. Pocock, 2005:

The Essex, a 238 ton whale ship, under the command of Capt. George Pollard Jr., had a crew of 20. The voyage was unlucky from the start. Only two days out of port they were hit by a squall, Two of the whaling boats were destroyed and the Essex received some minor damage.

They arrived at Cape Horn around the 18 December. Navigating around the Cape took some time. Rough seas, storms and unfavorable winds delayed them, but on 18 January they arrived at St. Mary's island then sailed to Massafuera off the Chilean coast. They began cruising off the coast of Chili and reportedly took eight whales, netting them some 250 barrels of oil.

The season now over in this area, they sailed for the waters off Peru. There the take was even better, as they reported a further 550 barrels of oil were collected. On 2 October they sailed for the Galapagos Islands where they could resupply with fresh water and turtles. As it happens, turtles were a very good and plentiful source of food for seafarers in those days. They lived for up to a year and required little food or water.

They departed Charles Island on 23 October. On 16 November, on a boat in which Owen Chase was commanding, a whale that had been harpooned used its tail to wreck the boat. The crew were all safely returned to the Essex.

On 20 November, another shoal of whales were spotted. The boats were lowered and the chase was on. Capt. Pollard in one boat and Owen Chase in the other. Chase struck the first blow. But the whale stove a hole in his little boat and Chase was forced to return to the Essex for repairs. It was then that the unthinkable happened.

While accessing the damage to his boat Chase noticed a large white whale some distance off the port bow. He thought it strange how the whale was just sitting there and spouting. Suddenly the whale (that Chase estimated to be about 85 feet in length) went under. The whale surfaced, and to Chase's astonishment, he was headed straight for the Essex. Chase estimated the whale to be moving at about 3 knots, the Essex was also moving at about that speed. Chase yelled out to the helmsman to put the ship hard up. But it was too late. Chase wrote in his narrative, "He gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces." The crew must have been stunned at what had just happened. Nothing like this had ever been reported before.

But it was not over. The whale lay off the ship a short distance, also stunned, but not for long. Soon, Chase writes, "He was enveloped in the foam of the sea, that his continued 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." Chase was now preparing the boats in case they should lose the Essex. He noticed she was settling by the bow. Suddenly, he heard someone cry, "Here he is again-he is making for us again" Chase turned around and saw the whale heading directly for the Essex, this time with a renewed fury. Chase wrote the whale was bearing down on them at twice the normal speed. The great white whale once again crashed into the ship, this time the Essex was doomed. Chase wrote, "He struck her to windward, directly under the cat-head, and completely stove in her bows." The whale passed under the ship never to be seen again.

All 21 men were now adrift, over 1,000 miles from the nearest land, in the biggest ocean in the world. The Essex was still afloat so the men went back to salvage what they could. They took on as much water as was safe to carry along with bread and turtles. They also managed to make some sails for their tiny little boats. The captain calculated it would take several weeks to get back to South America. They had minimal provisions for about 60 days.

There is no way I can describe the despair they must have felt as the three boats left the wreck of the Essex. It took a month to reach Henderson Island. By the time they arrived they were almost dead. Starved and dehydrated, the men were elated to finally find land. The island was disappointing in the natural resources it had to offer. They did, after two days manage to locate a source of fresh water. But they knew the island could not sustain 21 men for any length of time. It was decided to take to the boats again. Three of them could not face this prospect and stayed on the island. The boats left Henderson on 27 December.

On 11 January Matthew Joy became the first man to die. His body was given to the sea. On the evening of the 12th Owen Chase's boat was separated from the other two in a storm. They drifted for several more weeks, getting weaker and weaker. On 8 February Isaac Cole died in Chase's boat. By now the food was almost gone and it was decided that they would use his body for food. Chase wrote, "We separated the limbs from the 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."

Similar circumstances occurred in Pollard's boats. Four men had died and were consumed by the others. On 29 January the second mates boat became separated from Pollard's and was never seen again. Four men remained in Pollard's boat: Pollard, Owen Coffin (Pollard's cousin) Charles Ramsdell and Brazilla Ray. On 1 February they made an extraordinary decision ... they decided that one of them would be killed and used by the others for food. In a macabre scene the four men drew lots to determine who would die. It was Owen Coffin who drew the fatal stick. Pollard at once said, "My lad, my lad, if you don't like your lot, I'll shoot the first man that touches you." But Coffin was resigned to his fate, he said, " I like it as well as any other." Again lots were drawn, this time to choose the executioner. It fell upon Ramsdell, Coffins friend since childhood. Ramsdell fired a fatal shot, and soon nothing remained of Coffin. On 11 February, Brazilla Ray died, and he too was eaten.

On 15 February, the boat with Owen Chase, Thomas Nicholson and Benjamin Lawrence was finally found by the British ship Indian. The three were taken to Valparaiso, Chili. Pollard's boat was found on 23 February by the American whaling ship Dauphin. Pollard and Ramsdale, barely alive, were also returned to Valparaiso. They were reunited in March on the USS Constellation, where the captain was told about the three men left on Henderson Island. He arranged for the Australian ship Surry to sail for Henderson and recover the men. On 9 April, the Surry arrived on Henderson to find the men still alive. After 111 days on the island, Seth Weeks, William Wright and Thomas Chappel were rescued. Their stay on the island was not much better then those who were in the boats.

They all returned to Nantucket and soon their story was known by all. None of the men were ever censured for any of their actions (which had included cannibalism and murder). Surprisingly all of the survivors returned to the sea. Pollard became captain of another whaling ship, the Two Brothers. Ramsdell and Nicholson joined him on the voyage. However, this ship was lost on the rocks near the Sandwich Islands. Can you imagine the horror of the three Essex survivors when they had to take to the whale boats once again! Fortunately they were picked up the next day.

Pollard never went to sea again. He ended his life as a night watchman. It is said that on every 20 November he would lock himself in his room and fast in memory of those lost on the Essex.
Owen Chase became a successful whaling captain, but later in life his mental health declined. He became obsessed with food, buying everything in quantity, and having nightmares of starving to death.

Chase's two sons also became whalers, and it was William Henry Chase who gave a copy of his father's narrative to one Herman Melville. Melville was so moved by this manuscript that he used the story of the Essex as an inspiration for his book Moby Dick.

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