"... and what is more, the Sperm Whale has done it" - On Whaling and the Wreck of the "Essex" in 1820

20 November 1820, a giant sperm whale sank the Nantucket whaler “Essex” 2,000 miles west of South America, an incident that formed the background of Herman Melville’s tale of “Moby Dick; or The Whale”, published 30 years later. 

“But fortunately the special point I here seek can be established upon testimony entirely independent of my own. That point is this: The Sperm Whale is in some cases sufficiently powerful, knowing, and judiciously malicious, as with direct aforethought to stave in, utterly destroy, and sink a large ship; and what is more, the Sperm Whale has done it. First: In the year 1820 the ship Essex, Captain Pollard, of Nantucket, was cruising in the Pacific Ocean. One day she saw spouts, lowered her boats, and gave chase to a shoal of sperm whales. Ere long, several of the whales were wounded; when, suddenly, a very large whale escaping from the boats, issued from the shoal, and bore directly down upon the ship. Dashing his forehead against her hull, he so stove her in, that in less than "ten minutes" she settled down and fell over. Not a surviving plank of her has been seen since. After the severest exposure, part of the crew reached the land in their boats. Being returned home at last, Captain Pollard once more sailed for the Pacific in command of another ship, but the gods shipwrecked him again upon unknown rocks and breakers; for the second time his ship was utterly lost, and forthwith forswearing the sea, he has never tempted it since. At this day Captain Pollard is a resident of Nantucket. I have seen Owen Chace, who was chief mate of the Essex at the time of the tragedy; I have read his plain and faithful narrative; I have conversed with his son; and all this within a few miles of the scene of the catastrophe.“ (Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”)

"Encounter With a Whale" from "The Mariner’s Chronicle of Shipwrecks, Fires, Famines, and other Disasters at Sea,Volume 1" (Boston, 1835)

There is a waxy substance found in the head cavities of sperm whales, the eponymic spermaceti, and nobody knows for certain what it is actually good for. In the head of a sperm whale, that is. Chandlers, soap makers, cosmeticians and other trades knew, though, what to do with it, as soon as it was outside of a whale’s head. Processing it into expensive candles and oils, for example. And there was sperm oil, something along the lines of liquid wax, likewise found in the head of sperm whales and, likewise, highly priced - as Melville put it: “what kind of oil is used at coronations? Certainly it cannot be olive oil, nor macassar oil, nor castor oil, nor bear's oil, nor train oil, nor cod-liver oil. What then can it possibly be, but sperm oil in its unmanufactured, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils?” Whale blubber, the adipose tissue, was boiled into whale or train oil, from the Dutch word “tear” or “drop”, and used for almost everything from lighting lamps to lubricants for machinery and oil from a sperm whale’s blubber was known to have the highest viscosity and was thus the most expensive variant. All kinds of sea mammals and cetaceans were hunted by humans for their oil since time immemorial, but it was as late as 1712 that a New England man, one Christopher Hussey, threw his lance for the first time against a sperm whale. A hundred years later, a downright whaling industry had developed in Hussey’s home town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, some 30 miles south of Cape Cod, hunting for sperm whales across the world. Nantucket’s whale oil barons, almost exclusively Quakers and most of them whaling veterans themselves, owned about 70 whalers and one of them was the old “Essex”, 87’ long and measuring 239 tons burthen, somewhat smaller than most New England whaleships “cruising for sperm” on the coast of Peru, in the Bay of Bengal, off Japan and New Zealand and, since overhunting already began to tell, farer and farer out in the Pacific. With George Pollard Jr. as her captain, then just 29 years old, the youngest skipper of a whaler yet, and a crew of 20, “Essex” left for the hunting grounds out there on August 12, 1819.

"Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better. " - contemporary illustration, around 1850

Unlike most other cetaceans, bull sperm whales take the fight to their tormentors to defend themselves. Whale boats, usually about 30’ long, were attacked on a regular basis, capsized or smashed to pieces with a “flourish of his tail”, dragged under when the whale suddenly broke off the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” and dived or charged head on. Attacking the whaleships themselves was rare, but not unheard of. Especially when huge bull sperm whales were involved. Like the one that charged the “Essex” on November 20, 1820. After a by and large unsuccessful cruise in the South Atlantic, around the Horn and off Peru, the Nantucket whaler hunted 2,000 miles west of Ecuador. First Mate Owen Chase (or Chace) was aboard ship with a few men, trying to repair a damaged whale boat, while Captain Pollard was pursuing a pod of probably female sperm whales with the two remaining boats. All of a sudden, the men aboard “Essex” saw a large bull sperm whale behaving strangely, a giant of a bull sperm whale, actually, 85’ long in contrast to the average 52’ length of a male and certainly weighing more than 60 tons. The leviathan lay motionless at the ocean’s surface, as if considering a plan of attack. Then he charged head on, gathering speed as he raced towards “Essex’s” broadside and rammed her at full tilt, dived under her, lay there for a moment, stunned, and swam away again to gain new momentum for his next assault. “I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods [500 m or 550 yards] directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44 km/h), 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 would write later in his “Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket“. Two days later, the battered “Essex” sank.

Cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, then 14 years old, sketched the events after he was rescued as one of the three survivors of Owen Chase's boat 

With everything that could be salvaged from the wrecked whaler, the castaways tried to make for the coast of Chile in their three whale boats, four weeks later they reached one of the largely uncharted Pitcairn Islands, narrowly missing the surviving protagonists of one of the other tales from the South Seas, that of the “Bounty” mutiny on the main island, three former crew members of the “Essex” decided to stay there on the almost uninhabitable speck of land, the rest moved on and then their ordeal began in earnest. By the end of January 1821, the three boats had lost contact. Four weeks later, Chase’s boat with three survivors was fished out by the British whaler “Indian” near the Juan Fernández Islands, Robinson Crusoe’s island, of all the places, west of Chile. Two men had died in Chase’s boat and when the third passed away, one Isaac Cole, Chase and the other two decided to eat his remains to survive and they did. Pollard’s boat hardly fared any better and they drew lots when they were out of provisions, killed and ate the skipper’s cousin, 17-years-old Owen Coffin who had drawn the black spot and finally, Pollard and another member of his former crew were found by another Nantucket whaler, the “Dauphin”, completely exhausted, mentally and physically, allegedly still gnawing on the bones of their former shipmate. The third boat was never seen again, but the three men that stayed behind on the Pitcairns were rescued. However, all eight survivors of the wreck of the “Essex” returned back home to Nantucket by the end of the year, Chase published his narrative and all of them went back to sea. Pollard commanded another whale ship, the “Two Brothers” and managed to loose her as well, on a reef off Hawaii in 1823. He was rescued again, but retired from whaling and sailing and lived out the rest of his life as a night watchmen in his native Nantucket. Allegedly Melville heard the tale of Chase and the “Essex” for the first time when he sailed the same waters on board the whaler “Acushnet” out of New Bedford. He met Chase’s son William when the “Acushnet” rendezvoused with the whale ship “Lima” of Nantucket who gave him his father’s narrative and Chase’s tale became the background for one of the mightiest tales in world literature.

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