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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The Essex Crew Feared Cannibals…

On 20 November 1820, 40 miles from the equator in the South Pacific, most of the twenty Essex crew were in boats, harpooning a shoal of whales. But one sperm whale of 85-90 feet had moved away, then headed toward the ship, and attacked it not once but twice. What? "The supposedly gentle whale turning intelligently violent?" No record of this having ever happened.


Over the next two days, with the Essex slowly sinking, the crew stocked three whale boats with hard bread, kegs of water, and necessary navigational equipment. They also modified the boats with sails and higher sides. Weeks later in rough weather, one boat disappeared and was not seen again. Of the two surviving boats, Captain James Pollard commanded one, first mate Owen Chase the other. And Chase kept notes, which became the basis of his written account of the Essex tragedy.

In the beginning, the three small whale boats did not sail toward the easily reached Marquesas. Why? Fear of being eaten by savages. Instead, the plan was to sail south about 1500 miles to latitude 26, then ride the breezes to Chile or Peru. Cabin boy Nickerson, one of eight survivors, later wrote of this fatal error: "How many warm hearts ceased to beat in consequence of it?"

Ah, life. Head in the wrong direction and pay for it. Fateful misinformation. A dreadful irony, too. The five men survive in two boats by partaking in cannibalism, which they had feared and why the wrong direction was chosen.

This is the tragedy of the Essex. Well known, though not to me until I began exploring Moby-Dick for a book I am writing. Unlike school children in the 19th century who read about the Essex, I did not read in school about the Donner Party (ironic word). Yet after reading the Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex, I better understand the cannibalism in the High Sierras during the Gold Rush.


Owen Chase's account in plain & stoic prose (presumed to have been written by a hired literary hack) lets a reader imagine desperate hunger & thirst, sail in rough seas in a flimsy boat, and even to partake of human flesh. His account raises many questions about humans and survival. Would you have stayed on an island which lacked food and water, to get out of a flimsy boat at sea? (three of the crew did). Would you have sacrificed yourself to keep your shipmates alive? (Pollard's nephew, Owen Coffin, did). Would you have lain in the bottom of the boat and given up, as several men did?

Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex also has two short accounts by Captain Pollard and Englishman Thomas Chapple. At the end are Herman Melville's notes on Owen Chase. How all of this this relates to Melville and Moby-Dick, I will write about next week.


Today, I offer a page of Melville's notes, which made me reflect on Lizzie Shaw Melville, Herman's wife and scribe. Imagine having to decipher these penciled words? Who transcribed Melville's memoranda? I do not know. But the volume containing his memoranda is housed in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.


"Since writing the foregoing I--sometime about 1850…saw Capt. Pollard on the island of Nantucket, and exchanged (?) some words (?) with him. To the islanders he was a nobody--to me, the most impressive man…


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