When the whaleship Essex left Nantucket on August 12, 1819, the twenty-one men on board had no idea that they would soon become part of one of the most harrowing survival tales of the 19th century. Not to mention inspiring a great literary classic.
Though sailing under a new captain, George Pollard, the Essex was a reliable three-master that successfully completed decades of whaling voyages. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Nantucket was the centre of the world's whaling industry and whaling products were the mainstay of the island's economy. Many of the Essex's crewmembers belonged to old whaling families that had been hunting whales for generations.
The whaling scene was slowly changing though. Even by the beginning of the 19th century, whales were becoming rare around Nantucket's waters and expeditions often required ships to be out for two years or more to catch enough whales to make the voyage profitable. A recent economic downturn also led the owners of the Essex to cut costs wherever possible. Not only did this lead to the ship having fewer provisions than usual, but there was also a delay in gathering the required crew members. Since many non-Nantucket sailors avoided serving on whalers due to the long voyages and low pay, signing on was usually an act of desperation for sailors who were unable to find any other ship.
Despite the setbacks, Captain Pollard got the Essex underway with the help of his first mate, Owen Chase. The two men had known each other for years and had served together on previous Essex voyages before they were both promoted to their new positions. Chase had risen in the ranks and had hopes of becoming a captain himself in time if all went well. As for Pollard, he was anxious to succeed in his first command but he was also somewhat torn as he was leaving his wife for the first time since their wedding two months before.
Not that the captain and crew had any real concerns, mind you. The Essex had a reputation as a "lucky ship" that regularly returned from its voyages. The previous captain had been promoted to commanding an even larger vessel, the Aurora, and Captain Pollard fully expected to do the same in time. Although some crewmembers claimed to have seen a comet in the night sky while the Essex was being outfitted (always an unlucky sign), nobody took them seriously. Still, the owners of the Essex had serious concerns whether the old ship would have many more voyages considering the long distances that whaling ships needed to cover. Not surprisingly, one crew member deserted at the first opportunity and it was a wonder that none of the others did the same.
Despite rough weather, the Essex made good time and actually pulled ahead of several other whalers that had left port earlier. Confident in his ship, Captain Pollard took a foolish chance when they tried outrunning a sudden storm which left the Essex damaged and also cost them one of their spare boats. While Pollard wanted to return to Nantucket for repairs, Owen Chase and the second mate, Matthew Joy, argued that they should continue on and purchase spare whaleboats in the Azores. Eventually, Captain Pollard decided to take their advice and continue on course. This made Chase and Joy extremely unpopular with the rest of the crew who had been left shaken by their disastrous encounter with the storm.
Despite purchasing fresh provisions in the Azores, the Essex was still dangerously low on whaleboats and no new ones could be found. Considering the dangers associated with whaling, to be left with only four whaleboats (and one of those in poor condition) seemed like a bad idea. While they continued on their voyage, the Essex experienced mishap after mishap. Not only did an encounter with a rogue whale cost them one of their remaining lifeboats but the expedition was taking far longer than they had planned. The crew became increasingly mutinous as food rations grew smaller (it didn't help that the Essex had fewer provisions than usual in the first place thanks to the cheapness of the owners). Although Pollard was able to maintain order, their luck showed no sign of improving. A disastrous fire on one of the Galapagos Islands where they had stopped for provisions left the entire island blackened and their plight more desperate than ever.
Finally they had an unbelievable stroke of luck. Trying for another catch, they discovered an enormous whale. More than eighty-five feet long and weighing approximately eighty tons, it must have seemed like a gift from Heaven. Although the whalers approached their quarry carefully, the captain and crew were struck by the fact that it didn't act like other whales they had hunted. With no sign of the usual panic, the whale suddenly dove and surfaced less than thirty-five yards from their ship. Unbelievably, the whale suddenly rammed the ship. The astonished crew had never seen anything like it before. Although whaling ships had been sunk through accidental collisions with whales, a deliberate attack was completely unprecedented.
Although the bull whale had been stunned by the collision, it recovered quickly. After retreating, the whale suddenly turned and attacked the ship again. In describing the oncoming whale, Owen Chase would later say that it was "a vision of fury and vengeance". The Essex began taking on water and the whale turned and disappeared. With no time to lose, Captain Pollard ordered the crew into the remaining whaleboats and the crew of the Essex simply watched as their ship sank for the last time. Less than twenty minutes had passed between the whale's final attack and their abandoning ship.
No lives had been lost but all twenty men were faced with a grim reality. They were trapped in three small boats on open water, thousands of miles from the nearest known source of food and water. While one quick-thinking crew member had managed to save their navigational instruments, there was little else that they could savage from that part of the ship's hull that was still above water. The crew members had all of the Galapagos turtles that could be safely carried (turtles were often captured alive and stacked like logs of wood on ships for food) but little else. Reluctant to part from the wrecked ship, which had been their home for more than a year, they eventually manufactured sails for their boats from the Essex's sails and built up the walls of their boats with planks taken from the wreck. After two miserable nights on the open sea, they watched their boat finally sink below the water.
Captain Pollard then announced his plan to sail towards the Society Islands, more than 2000 miles away. There were closer points but rumours of unfriendly natives made them decide on a potentially safer destination. Owen Chase and Matthew Joy balked at this plan and suggested an alternate course which would take them to South America in a month. After much indecision, Pollard gave in.
It would be a fatal mistake. As cabin boy Tom Nickerson would later write, "how many warm hearts have ceased to beat in consequence of it?". Had they sailed towards nearer islands, most of them would have likely survived since rumours of cannibalism in native tribes were greatly exaggerated. Instead, they chose a course on the open sea that dramatically reduced their chances for survival.
And the worst was yet to come...