A whale with a vengeance. A horrifying shipwreck. Men fighting for survival for months on end in the open ocean.
It sounds like the plot for a blockbuster movie, or a piece of popular literature, but certainly too fantastic for real life. However, on November 20th, 1820, the whaling ship Essex came across a furious whale, and 20 men found themselves living this exact nightmare.
Booming Demand for Whale Oil
While whaling has been practiced for thousands of years, it reached its peak in the mid-1800s in the form of a booming multi-million dollar industry. Increased demand for whale oil to fuel lamps and lubricate new industrial machines pushed the industry to a global scale.
Nearly a century earlier in the mid-1700s, much of the Atlantic had already been overfished and whales were hard to come by. Seeking a new territory to keep up with increasing demand, 19th-century whalers turned their sights to the relatively untapped Pacific Ocean, hoping for more fertile whaling grounds.
Whaling was a difficult and dangerous job. Large whaling ships would venture hundreds of miles from shore, then deploy smaller whaleboats to hunt whale pods. These whaleboats, often only about 20 feet in length, could hold a few crewmen who would row out after the whales and harpoon them, before dragging them back to the ship for harvesting. Oftentimes, these whales were about the size of the ships, and willing to put up a fight.
The “Lucky” Ship Sets Sail
On August 12, 1819, the whaling ship Essex set sail from the small New England island of Nantucket, destined for a two-and-a-half-year voyage to the South Pacific. Her crew consisted of 28-year-old Captain George Pollard Jr, 23-year-old first mate Owen Chase, 26-year-old second mate Matthew Joy and a crew of 18 men.
Young Captain Pollard had been successful so far in his career and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming one of the youngest whaling ship captains at the time. The 87-foot-long, 238-ton Essex was about 20 years old and had been on many successful journeys before. Some even considered her “lucky”.
Despite the capable crew and reputable ship, the ill-fated expedition immediately ran into trouble. On August 14, only two days out of port, the Essex nearly sank in a storm. Suffering minor damage, the crew patched her up and continued their voyage south to Cape Horn.
Upon reaching the Pacific coast of South America, the crew found few whales to hunt. Rumors from other whalers told of fertile new ground far from shore, about 2,000 miles west of Ecuador. While the crew was hesitant to go so far into unchartered waters, they ultimately decided to venture out.
Mishaps in the Galapagos
The Essex stopped at Charles Island, a small island in the Galapagos archipelago, to restock. A common practice at the time was for sailors to collect Galapagos tortoises to bring onboard, which could be used as easy food sources as ships got further from land. The Essex crew collected an estimated 60 tortoises weighing about 100 pounds each.
While on Charles Island, a crewmember later identified to be helmsman Thomas Chapple, started a fire on the island. Reportedly, it was an accident or a prank that went wrong, but regardless of the cause, the outcome was catastrophic. The flames quickly took hold of the dry island and grew out of control.
The crew barely escaped with their lives, but the island’s flora and fauna were less fortunate. Years later, Charles Island was reported to still be a wasteland. This fire is suspected to be the cause of the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
The furious Captain Pollard swore vengeance on the culprit, but unsurprisingly, no one stepped forward to receive their punishment.
A Whale with a Vendetta
Upon reaching the allegedly fertile hunting ground they were told of, the crew began searching for whales. Initially, few were found, but soon, just as they were told there would be, pods of whales began appearing.
On November 20th, 1820, a large pod of sperm whales was encountered. The captain and crew deployed all four whaling boats and rushed out in pursuit. Soon into the hunt, a whale surfaced right below First Mate Owen Chase’s boat, damaging the little whaleboat and forcing him to return to the Essex for repairs. Small whaleboats being damaged by whales was not uncommon, and the three other boats continued their hunt.
While repairing his boat, Chase happened to notice a large male whale off in the distance. He estimated it to be about 85 feet long and weigh about 80 tons. What was odd was not its large size, but the fact that it was separate from the rest of the herd, and seemed to be sitting still, facing directly toward the Essex.
Suddenly, the whale blew a huge plume of water from its spout and began charging right for the Essex. Chase estimated that it was traveling at twice a whale’s normal speed. With little time to brace themselves, the crew was caught off guard and nearly knocked over by the force of the impact. The whale then disappeared beneath the ship.
The crew ran to inspect the damage, a sizeable hole in the hull, and quickly began repairs and pumping the incoming seawater.
Suddenly, someone yelled, “Here he is — he is making for us again!”
Chase quickly turned around to find the whale rushing the ship again, faster this time, before slamming the ship with even greater force. This time, it disappeared for good.
With this second strike, the Essex began tilting to its side and rapidly taking on water. The crew rushed to gather as many supplies as possible and load them into the returning whaleboats.
Captain Pollard rushed back to his ship and cried, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”
Chase could only reply, “We have been stove by a whale”.
Into the Whaleboats
The 20 men piled into three whaleboats, one led by Captain Pollard, one led by First Mate Chase, and the third by Second Mate Matthew Joy. Each boat held 6 or 7 men and a roughly even distribution of supplies.
Using the navigation equipment, Captain Pollard estimated that the closest land they would find was the Polynesian Marquesas Islands, about 1,200 to 1,500 miles west. The crew was hesitant.
Rumors of cannibals in the Polynesian Islands frightened them, and they argued that their best chance for survival was to head southeast to South America. This was more than 2,000 miles away and they would be going against the wind and currents, but the crew convinced the Captain to take this route.
Supplies were rationed out: about 6 ounces of bread and 8 ounces of water per day per man. The bread quickly became soggy with seawater in the leaky boats, but the men ate them anyway, only worsening their dehydration.
Surviving in the whaleboats was a miserable situation for the crew. Open to the elements, the men faced the blistering rays of the sun, the treacherous ocean currents, and dangers they could not anticipate. One day Captain Pollard’s boat was even attacked by an orca.
On December 20th, a month after the Essex sunk, they came upon Henderson Island, a small and uninhabited island in the chain of Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. While initially overjoyed to find land, it quickly became apparent to the crew that the island was mostly barren. They found some fresh water and were able to eat fish and bird eggs, but knew this wouldn’t last.
After a week, the crew restocked the whaleboats and were ready to continue. Three men, Thomas Chapple, Seth Weeks, and William Wright, decided they’d rather take their chances on land and stayed behind. The rest of the crew surely didn’t mind having fewer men to share rations with.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
In early January 1821, Second Mate Joy passed away. The crew buried him at sea, which young cabin boy Thomas Nickerson later recalled that they did so “as decently as our wretched circumstances would admit of”.
A few days later, another man passed but was less fortunate in the treatment of his remains. By now, rations were almost gone, and with no other resources, the crew opted to eat what they could of the body. Before burying him at sea, they cut off what they could and roasted the flesh and organs on a stone.
In the next week, three more men met the same fate.
One night, the men piloting Second Mate Joy’s boat disappeared into the darkness, and soon after, Chase and Pollard’s boats were separated as well.
On Pollard’s boat, 4 men remained. On February 6th, one young crewmember, Charles Ramsdell, proposed that the survivors draw lots, and the loser be sacrificed for food. In these desperate circumstances, the men agreed.
Captain Pollard’s young cousin, 16-year-old Owen Coffin, ultimately lost the draw.
Pollard had promised his aunt that he’d take care of the boy, and intended to keep that promise. He swore he’d kill any man that touched him, and even offered to take his place if he didn’t like the lot he drew. Coffin replied that his lot was fair and that he liked it “as well as any other” man.
The men again drew lots to determine who would kill Coffin. Ramsdell, who was close friends with Coffin, was unfortunately chosen. He put his gun to his friend’s head and hesitated for a long time before finally pulling the trigger.
An End to their Ordeal
On Chase’s boat, 3 men remained. On February 18th, 1821, after 90 days of fighting to survive, they saw a ship’s sail in the distance. Mustering what strength they had left, the men rowed after the English merchant ship the Indian and were rescued.
5 days later, on February 23rd, about 300 miles south of where Chase’s boat was rescued, the American whaling ship the Dauphin came upon a lone whaleboat. Upon closer inspection, they found two men inside, Pollard and Ramsdell, delirious and desperately grasping the bones of their last companion.
Upon being brought aboard, Pollard told the story of their harrowing ordeal to the Dauphin’s captain, who immediately wrote down everything he was told.
On April 9th, 141 days after the sinking of the Essex, the crew of the Australian ship the Surrey was passing by Henderson Island. To their surprise, they saw three men living on what was supposed to be an uninhabited island. These men were none other than Thomas Chapple, Seth Weeks, and William Wright, who had survived the past several months on shellfish and eggs.
It wouldn’t be until several years later that Joy’s boat was found, washed ashore on Ducie Island in the Pitcairn Islands. The skeletons of its crew confirmed that there were no survivors.
In all, 8 members of the Essex’s crew of 20 survived: Captain Pollard, First Mate Chase, cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, and crew members Benjamin Lawrence, Charles Ramsdell, Thomas Chapple, Seth Weeks, and William Wright.
Survivors Return to Society
News of their ordeal quickly spread as the incredible story was told and retold. The rest of the sea-faring community did not judge the survivors for cannibalism. It was an unspoken but understood custom that sailors lost at sea may need to do unthinkable things to survive.
Captain Pollard, however, was judged more severely than the rest of his crew, only for having eaten his cousin. It was said that Coffin’s mother refused to be in Pollard’s presence after the incident.
Shockingly, many of the survivors chose to continue their maritime careers, sailing or captaining other ships for years after the loss of the Essex. Soon after, Pollard went on to captain another whaling ship, Two Brothers, which sunk on a coral reef northwest of Hawaii. This was the nail in the coffin for his career.
Considered unlucky now, no one would hire him and he resorted to working as a watchman on land in Nantucket.
The survivors never forgot their time lost at sea after the sinking of the Essex. Thomas Nickerson went on to publish his account of the ordeal. Chase reportedly became insane later in life, before passing away nearly 50 years later.
It was said that on November 20th of each year, Captain Pollard would lock himself in his room and fast in remembrance of his crew.
Legacy of the Essex
For more than 200 years, the unbelievable story of the sinking of the Essex has captured the imagination. A ship wrecked by a vengeful whale sounds more like a work of fiction than real life.
Oddly enough, one novel inspired by the sinking of the Essex has grown in popularity, becoming one of the most famous pieces of literature from the 19th century. While many may not have heard of the whaleship Essex, its legacy is cemented for future generations in Herman Melville’s famous 1851 novel, “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale”.
- Barthelmess, K. (2022, February 24). The Earliest Picture of the Essex Disaster. Nantucket Historical Association. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://nha.org/research/nantucket-history/history-topics/the-earliest-picture-of-the-essex-disaster/
- Cox, C. (2021, December 8). The Harrowing Ordeal of the Essex, the Ship That Was Sunk by a Whale. explorethearchive.com. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://explorethearchive.com/essex-ship
- Haas, K. (2015, November 20). The Sad Tale of the Whaleship Essex. The Rosenbach. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://rosenbach.org/blog/the-sad-tale-of-whaleship-essex/
- King, G. (2013, March 1). The True-Life Horror That Inspired ‘Moby-Dick.’ Smithsonian.com. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-true-life-horror-that-inspired-moby-dick-17576/
- Nantucket Historical Association. (2020, November 16). The Whaleship Essex. Nantucket Historical Association Digital Exhibitions. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://essex.nha.org/the-whaleship-essex/
- National Geographic Society. (2022, May 20). Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/tragedy-whaleship-essex/
- Thornton, S., & Marrero, M. E. (2020, May 13). Big Fish: A Brief History of Whaling. National Geographic. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/big-fish-history-whaling/
Originally published on Medium’s Lessons from History publication on March 22, 2023.