Written and presented by Kelly Jensen, Founding Fellow of Odd Salon. Kelly is a photo archivist and knows too much about cemeteries and crows.
“Here’s how whale hunting works: the whole crew gets into teeny crappy little rowboats that get lowered from your big whaling ship. You harpoon the whale, and often as not, it gets justifiably upset and it smashes your boat.”
In this episode, Odd Salon Fellow Kelly Jensen takes us on an ill-fated sea voyage that would go on to inspire one of literature’s greatest works.
In 1820, two thousand miles into the Pacific Ocean, the whaleship Essex was attacked and sunk by an angry whale. Twenty survivors packed into three tiny boats and headed for land. Their horrifying, ill-starred journey would inspire Herman Melville to write Moby Dick (though he left out the cannibalism).
It’s 8:00 am on a sunny morning, you’re a thousand miles from land, and you and your crew are sitting in a leaky little whaling boat, watching your ship sink from the two huge holes that have just been punched in it. The captain of the ship rows up in his little whale boat and says, “My God, what is the matter?!” and the first mate replies, “We have been stove by a whale.” It is not going to be a good Monday.
Hi, I’m Kelly Jensen, and in this episode I’ll be talking about angry whales, doomed sailors, and the true story that inspired one of the great American novels.
So, how does one find oneself adrift on that exceptionally blue Monday, which Herman Melville would later use as the ending of his novel Moby Dick? (Oh, spoiler alert: bad things with whales happen in Moby Dick. Now you don’t have to read it, you’re welcome.) For our hero, cabin boy Tom Nickerson, the story starts 18 months earlier, in Nantucket, the tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts.
It’s August of 1819, and New England (Nantucket in particular) is the center of the whaling industry. Hunting whales has become the first oil industry: the world wants candles for light and oil to lubricate the steam-powered machines that are driving the Industrial Revolution.
Thomas Nickerson was fourteen years old that summer, a Nantucket orphan raised by his grandparents. He’s begged them to let him go to sea, and he’s finally going on his first voyage as a cabin boy aboard the whaleship Essex.
The Essex was known as a lucky ship. On this voyage she’d be under the command of first-time captain George Pollard, along with his opinionated first mate, Owen Chase. The crew of The Essex consisted of 21 men (14 white, 7 Black), who were planning for a 2-3 year whaling voyage.
Let’s pause on that for a second: a third of the crew was Black. It’s 1819, y’all: the US is still deeply enmeshed in slavery. The Civil War is still 40 years in the future. Whaling was pretty much the only industry where multiracial crews were a thing.
The short version of why is: whaling was so different from other kinds of sailing that ship owners preferred to hire people who’d never sailed before since they didn’t have to unlearn old habits, and not hiring experienced sailors meant the color barrier of other shipping trades didn’t apply here. Add to that the fact that New England was full of abolitionist Quakers who were cool with hiring Black folks. And finally whaling, though potentially lucrative, was also terrible and nobody wanted to do it, so labor was scarce. It was dangerous, and filthy, and boring, but it was one of the only job options for people of color at that time. The diversity of the crew depicted in Moby Dick wasn’t an exaggeration: 20-30% of whaling crews were likely to be Black and Indigenous people of color.
Anyway, remember The Essex? It’s a story about The Essex.
The bad luck started just 2 days out of port when the ship was knocked onto her side in a terrible storm. She lost a couple of boats, and for a whaling voyage you REALLY need all of your boats. But instead of going back home to repair the damage, she pressed on.
Now the thing about whaling is that there were originally lots of whales around New England, but as hunting made them more scarce, whalers started searching further and further afield until they were sailing almost around the world.
Teenaged Tom Nickerson has never left Nantucket, but now he’s seeing the coast of West Africa, and they’re sailing round the tip of South America, seeing new sights and making friends in the port cities where they stop to get supplies. He also mentions catching albatrosses on the ship, and if there’s one thing the Rime of the Ancient Mariner teaches us, it’s don’t mess with the albatross. When The Essex got to Ecuador, one of the Black crew members jumped ship, which turned out to be a very good idea.
They’d been at sea for about 14 months when The Essex stopped at the Galapagos Islands to stock up on tortoises to eat. That was very common for whaling ships, and it’s a big part of why Galapagos tortoises are so rare now. Tortoises have a lot of meat on them, and sailors believed they didn’t require food or water to keep them alive on board. Tom Nickerson disagreed: he could see that they were hungry and thirsty, and he felt really bad about the way the tortoises were captured & treated. Herman Melville never read Tom’s account of The Essex voyage, but I think he would have appreciated Tom’s love of the natural world.
When they arrived on Charles Island (also known as Floreana) tortoises were already scarce. As a fun prank, one crewmember set fire to the island, which burned down to the dirt. Tom Nickerson and the rest of the crew were PISSED about it. Tom went back YEARS later on a different voyage and the vegetation still hadn’t grown back. So, Thomas Chapel (may his name live in infamy) was instrumental in causing the extinction of the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
Anyway, the crew collected hundreds of tortoises, and sailed off, far west into the Pacific Ocean. Whales were very scarce off South America, where they had once been plentiful. The newly-discovered Offshore Ground, thousands of miles out into the Pacific, was a breeding ground & nursery for pods of sperm whales, and that’s where The Essex was headed.
A word about sperm whales and why they were so sought after. You may be thinking that the name “sperm whale” is just an awkward and embarrassing coincidence, but no! They’re called that because the oil inside their huge square heads is milky-white and looks just like semen, and early whalers thought maybe they kept their sperm in their heads. That spermaceti oil made the best candles and the finest lamp and lubricating oil, and so it was very valuable.
Before whalers found out about sperm whales, they had hunted a species called the right whale, so named because it was the whale you wanted to hunt, as in “yes that’s the right one.” Right whales also provided oil from their blubber, and their baleen was used as “whalebone”, a precursor to plastics in things like corsets and umbrellas.
So, here’s how whale-hunting works: the whole crew gets into teeny crappy row boats that get lowered from your big whaling ship, you harpoon the whale, often as not it gets justifiably upset and it smashes your boat. Then your crewmates have to come back and haul you out of the sea along with the pieces of your splintered boat.
But what you’re hoping for (if you’re a whaler and you like that sort of thing) is that the whale will drag you along behind it on the harpoon line until it gets tired & dies. Then you haul it back to the ship and you tie up the carcass so it’s floating alongside the ship. You carve off the blubber, kind of like peeling an orange, and you try to get all the spermaceti out of the whale’s head, hopefully without falling in. Then you render the blubber into oil by boiling it in these huge hellish stinking cauldrons on board the ship. And honestly, if you want more details at this point, I’m sorry but you’re just gonna have to read Moby Dick.
Which brings us back to The Essex. Kind of? Anyway. Now it’s November 20, 1820, a bright sunny Monday morning. The crew of The Essex sighted a pod of sperm whales and lowered 3 whaleboats for a hunt. Two boats harpooned whales and were dragged off in pursuit, but first mate Owen Chase’s boat was stove in by a whale and returned to the ship for repairs.
Tom Nickerson had been in Chase’s boat, so now he’s at the ship’s helm keeping his eyes on the road, while Owen Chase is repairing the smashed boat on the ship’s deck.
While this was happening, an 85-foot male sperm whale cruised up to The Essex and stared at it. For comparison, the ship was only 87 feet long. This was a HUGE whale, the size of two city buses end-to-end. Sperm whales don’t get this big anymore, possibly because humans have selectively hunted the largest whales out of the breeding population. They’re only about 50 feet long now.
Tom sees this whale, which is now swimming fast toward them, and calls out to Chase, who orders Tom to steer the ship away from it. Here’s Owen Chase’s account of what happened next: “The words were scarcely out of my mouth, before he came down upon us with full speed, and struck the ship with his head… The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock.”
The whale had punched a hole in the ship. It was briefly stunned, and then it turned around and came back. Again, Owen Chase: “He was enveloped in the foam of the sea, …and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury. I… saw him… directly ahead of us, coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.” This time the whale rammed the Essex so hard that it pushed the ship backwards, and completely stove in the bows.
So now the ship’s sinking good and hard. The men immediately lowered the spare boat; the ship’s steward managed to salvage two sets of navigational equipment from the wreck before it capsized, which proved crucial to the crew’s survival.
The two whaleboats that had fastened to whales saw the disturbance from a distance; by the time they disengaged and rowed back to the ship, it was already lying on its side. The captain turned pale, sank back in his boat, and asked what had happened. The reply was: “We have been stove by a whale.” No known ship had ever been sunk by a whale attack before.
The crew managed to salvage enough food & water from the floating wreck to last them 2 months on starvation rations. They equipped the leaky, busted old whale boats with masts and sails and built up the sides of each boat to keep the waves out.
Now, to picture where they were when the ship sank, say you’re on the west coast of South America. If you go out into the Pacific for about 2000 miles, you reach a point that is nautically known as “the ass end of nowhere.” They were about as far from land as it’s possible to be on this planet. The logical option was to sail with the wind 1200 miles toward the Marquesas or the Society Islands, but the crew didn’t know anything about those places except for rumors about cannibalism, so they worried about going there. Remember this irony later on.
The other option was to sail against the wind toward South America, much further away. Nathaniel Philbrick (author of In the Heart of the Sea, the best book about The Essex tragedy) sums it up this way: “Only a Nantucketer in November 1820 possessed the necessary combination of arrogance, ignorance, and xenophobia to shun a beckoning (albeit unknown) island and choose instead an open-sea voyage of several thousand miles.”
Incidentally, you know what the Society Islands are? That’s Tahiti. And for some reason the crew didn’t know that Westerners had been going there for at least 20 years and it was totally safe and fine and, in fact, idyllic. So just remember: instead of everything that happens next, they could have been in Tahiti.
The three whaleboats were headed by Captain George Pollard, first mate Owen Chase, and the second mate Matthew Joy, who was already seriously ill. We’re going to skip over the first month they spent in the boats, because nothing much happened except for one of the boats getting attacked by a killer whale (because apparently WHALES HATE BOATS), and passing on another chance to cut their losses and go to Tahiti, and everybody nearly dying in a storm. No bigs.
Week 5: As the crew were on the verge of dying of thirst, they finally sighted land: a tiny speck of an island. Despite their hopes of salvation, the only fresh water was a spring that was only accessible at low tide. The island was home to a few fish & birds, but not nearly enough to sustain the crew for any length of time. They decided to return to the boats, except for 3 sailors who chose to stay on the island, including the jerk who burned down the Galapagos.
All the men who chose to remain on the island were off-islanders, i.e. not from Nantucket. There were sort of cliques on the ship: the popular kids being the ones from Nantucket, then the white guys from other places, and then the Black guys. This was reflected in who was in which boat: Captain Pollard got almost all of the Nantucketers, first mate Chase had a mix, and second mate Joy had most of the Black guys. This matters because in a survival situation, you want to be part of a close-knit group who all know each other well, ideally a family. The more you seem to belong, the better off you’ll be. Tom Nickerson was in Chase’s boat, as he had been when they were on the ship, so he at least was in good shape.
Week 8: After three more weeks at sea with barely any food or water, men began to die. The second mate Matthew Joy, who’d been sick the whole voyage, was the first to go, and was buried at sea.
First mate Owen Chase’s boat got separated from the other two at this point, so now we have two timelines and we’re going to stick with Nickerson & Chase for a bit, in what we’re going to call The Luckiest Boat. Fortunately their boat was carrying one set of navigational equipment. Unfortunately, their boat got attacked by a giant shark, because you know who hates these guys? The sea. And everything in it.
In Week 9, the elderly cook died and was buried at sea. But by Week 12, when another sailor died, his shipmates prepared to bury him at sea, but at the last moment decided they should eat his body instead to keep themselves alive.
Week 13: On February 18th, 1821, before daylight, Tom Nickerson lay down in the bottom of the boat, and gave himself up to die. Owen Chase tried to talk him round but couldn’t. Then at 7 o’clock that morning, their last surviving shipmate cried out “There’s a sail!” Everyone leapt up, including Tom, to set their sails, and the wind enabled them to catch up with the distant ship. 89 days after The Essex sank, Owen Chase, Tom Nickerson and boat steerer Benjamin Lawrence were rescued. They were so emaciated and sunburnt that the captain of the ship wept when he saw them.
The crew of The Luckiest Boat were taken to Valparaiso, Chile, to recover, where they soon found out what had happened to the rest of their shipmates, in what will now be known as The Bad Boat and The Very Bad Boat.
Back to Week 9: In The Very Bad Boat, which had been captained by the late Matthew Joy, Lawson Thomas was the first Black sailor to die. Since the food supplies were nearly gone, his shipmates decided to eat his body to keep themselves alive. Now, the problem with suddenly eating food after you’ve been starving for a long time, is that you become much much hungrier.
Week 10: 3 out of 4 Black sailors die within days of each other and are all eaten by their shipmates. I have a lot of questions about what really happened here: maybe they died because they got worse food when they were still on the ship, or maybe they had lower fat reserves to begin with? But there are no answers because none of the Black sailors survived to tell the tale.
Week 11: The Very Bad Boat became separated from The Just Bad Boat. One of the men in this boat was the steward who had saved the navigational equipment from the sinking wreck. But the boat he was in was not carrying any of that, and none of the three sailors on board were ever seen again. A whaling boat with skeletons in it was found washed up on an island but was never properly identified as The Essex crew.
Week 12: In The Bad Boat, sailor Charles Ramsdell suggested the men should draw lots to decide who should be killed and eaten to keep the others alive. The short straw went to Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard’s teenage cousin and Ramsdell’s boyhood friend. Captain Pollard offered to take his place, but Owen Coffin quietly accepted the luck of the draw and allowed Ramsdell to shoot him.
Week 14: On February 23rd, 1821, the whaleship Dauphin came alongside a drifting boat with two skeletal men inside, gnawing on bone fragments. George Pollard and Charles Ramsdell were too delusional to recognize that they had been rescued at first, stuffing their pockets full of their shipmates’ bones and refusing to give them up.
They were taken to Valparaiso to recover with the rest of the survivors, where they told their caretakers about 3 shipmates still stranded on the tiny island.
Week 20: The search party eventually found three nearly dead castaways on April 9th. The one freshwater spring on the island had been submerged under the tide line since the day after the other survivors had left, and the men had survived by drinking the blood of birds they had killed.
Astonishingly, every one of the 8 survivors of the Essex disaster eventually went back to sea. Thomas Nickerson & Charles Ramsdell went back out with Captain George Pollard in an impressive vote of confidence (or possibly teenage naiveté). Unfortunately, the ship crashed on a reef in Hawaii and they all got set adrift again. Fortunately it was Hawaii so there were people around and they got picked up by a ship after only one night. One very, very bad night. After that Pollard took the hint and stopped going to sea. He became Nantucket’s night watchman; every year on the anniversary of the disaster, he locked himself in a room and fasted in honor of his lost crew.
Thomas Nickerson eventually gave up whaling and became captain of a merchant ship. When he wrote his account of The Essex, he was a middle-aged man, living in Brooklyn with his wife. An editor had plans to publish Nickerson’s story but life happened and the book never came out. The manuscript was not discovered until 1960.
Owen Chase wrote & published his story of The Essex shortly after his return to Nantucket. He became a well-respected whaling captain, but he suffered headaches & nightmares for the rest of his life; when he began hiding food in the attic in his old age, he was deemed insane and committed to an asylum.
As it happened Owen Chase’s son was also a sailor; on a whaling voyage in 1841 he met a young sailor on the ship Acushnet and loaned him a copy of his father’s book. The young sailor was Herman Melville, who would go on to model parts of his novel Moby Dick after the tale of The Essex.
Melville drew heavily on Chase’s description of the whale attack. See if this line from Moby Dick sounds familiar at all: “He bore down upon the advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam.”
But Herman Melville didn’t just take the story of The Essex and dress it up in prettier language. He created something bigger than that, something that still resonates today, this vast tale about the fascination of the sea, and our hubris, and how very small we are in the face of these enormous forces of nature.
I have to admit, I really didn’t like Moby Dick, I read it and it annoyed me. But I asked friends who liked it what the appeal was for them, and they said the sense of infinity and hugeness and awe the novel conveyed. The majesty of nature.
To me, Moby Dick seemed like two books wrapped around each other. One was a melodrama about unpleasant dudes on a ship, which wasn’t my style. But the other, the one about the history of whaling, and the science of whales, and the way the ocean works: that book was great. Moby Dick is as much about the natural world, and the sheer magnitude and astonishment of whales, as it is about Captain Ahab and that whole story.
Maybe that’s why Moby Dick still endures; there’s the dramatic story for some people and the history and science for others. It still conveys this sense of reverence & wonder about the sea that’s equally as exotic to me sitting on my couch in 2022 as it would have been to farmers in Ohio in 1851. (I mean, if anybody had actually read the book back then- it was a total flop when it came out, until it got rediscovered in the 1920s. Anyway.) Herman Melville manages to convey the realness and hugeness and smell of whales and the ocean in a way that didn’t really exist until nature documentaries became a thing.
Because of course, The Essex was not Melville’s only inspiration for the book. An account of a notorious but real white whale called Mocha Dick had been published in 1839. Mocha Dick, who lived in the waters off South America, was reported to have been 80 feet long. He had a habit of turning on the whaleboats that were trying to harpoon him and biting or crushing them to pieces. He had been hunted for nearly 30 years before he was killed, and when he died he was reported to have 19 harpoons stuck in him.
Although The Essex was the first ship to be sunk by a whale, it would not be the last. Shortly after Moby Dick was published in 1852, the whaleship Ann Alexander was a few hundred miles from the site of The Essex disaster when she was attacked and sunk by a large male sperm whale. On hearing of the attack, Melville wrote: “Ye Gods! I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.”
The obvious moral of our story today is don’t mess with Mother Nature: don’t go attacking sperm whales because they might attack you back. You don’t know what forces of nature you may be messing with. But more than that, I think the takeaway is: tread a little lightly as you go through this world. Don’t catch the albatross. Don’t steal the tortoise. Don’t pick on the seemingly harmless creatures or coworkers or people that you see, just because you think they can’t fight back. Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing, you know?
CREDITS: This episode was written and performed by Kelly Jensen, and recorded by Mig Miner in Oakland, California. The Odd Salon Podcast is produced by Annetta Black and Tre Balchowsky.
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