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February 23, 1821

Like a giant bird of prey, the whaleship moved lazily up the western coast of South America, zigging and zagging across a living sea of oil. For that was the Pacific Ocean in 1821, a vast field of warm-blooded oil deposits known as sperm whales.

Harvesting sperm whales—the largest toothed whales in existence—was no easy matter. Six men would set out from the ship in a small boat, row up to their quarry, harpoon it, then attempt to stab it to death with a lance. The sixty-ton creature could destroy the whaleboat with a flick of its tail, throwing the men into the cold ocean water, often miles from the ship.

Then came the prodigious task of transforming a dead whale into oil: ripping off its blubber, chopping it up, and boiling it into the high-grade oil that lit the streets and lubricated the machines of the Industrial Age. That all of this was conducted on the limitless Pacific Ocean meant that the whalemen of the early nineteenth century were not merely seagoing hunters and factory workers but also explorers, pushing out farther and farther into a scarcely charted wilderness larger than all the earth’s landmasses combined.

For more than a century, the headquarters of this global oil business had been a little island called Nantucket, twenty-four miles off the coast of southern New England. One of the defining paradoxes of Nantucket’s whalemen was that many of them were Quakers, a religious sect stoically dedicated to pacifism, at least when it came to the human race. Combining rigid self-control with an almost holy sense of mission, these were what Herman Melville would call “Quakers with a vengeance.”

It was a Nantucket whaleship, the Dauphin, just a few months into what would be a three-year voyage, that was making her way up the Chilean coast. And on that February morning in 1821, the lookout saw something unusual—a boat, impossibly small for the open sea, bobbing on the swells. The ship’s captain, the thirty-seven-year-old Zimri Coffin, trained his spyglass on the mysterious craft with keen curiosity.

He soon realized that it was a whaleboat—double-ended and about twenty-five feet long—but a whaleboat unlike any he had ever seen. The boat’s sides had been built up by about half a foot. Two makeshift masts had been rigged, transforming the rowing vessel into a rudimentary schooner. The sails—stiff with salt and bleached by the sun—had clearly pulled the boat along for many, many miles. Coffin could see no one at the steering oar. He turned to the man at the Dauphin’s wheel and ordered, “Hard up the helm.”

Under Coffin’s watchful eye, the helmsman brought the ship as close as possible to the derelict craft. Even though their momentum quickly swept them past it, the brief seconds during which the ship loomed over the open boat presented a sight that would stay with the crew the rest of their lives.

First they saw bones—human bones—littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates.

Instead of greeting their rescuers with smiles of relief, the survivors—too delirious with thirst and hunger to speak—were disturbed, even frightened. They jealously clutched the splintered and gnawed-over bones with a desperate, almost feral intensity, refusing to give them up, like two starving dogs found trapped in a pit.

Later, once the survivors had been given some food and water (and had finally surrendered the bones), one of them found the strength to tell his story. It was a tale made of a whaleman’s worst nightmares: of being in a boat far from land with nothing left to eat or drink and—perhaps worst of all—of a whale with the vindictiveness and guile of a man

Even though it is little remembered today, the sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged sperm whale was one of the most well-known marine disasters of the nineteenth century. Nearly every child in America read about it in school. It was the event that inspired the climactic scene of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

But the point at which Melville’s novel ends—the sinking of the ship—was merely the starting point for the story of the real-life Essex disaster. The sinking seemed to mark the beginning of a kind of terrible laboratory experiment devised to see just how far the human animal could go in its battle against the savage sea. Of the twenty men who escaped the whale-crushed ship, only eight survived. The two men rescued by the Dauphin had sailed almost 4,500 nautical miles across the Pacific—farther by at least 500 miles than Captain William Bligh’s epic voyage in an open boat after being abandoned by the Bounty mutineers and more than five times farther than Sir Ernest Shackleton’s equally famous passage to South Georgia Island.

For nearly 180 years, most of what was known about the calamity came from the 128-page Narrative of the Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, written by Owen Chase, the ship’s first mate. Fragmentary accounts from other survivors existed, but these lacked the authority and scope of Chase’s narrative, which was published with the help of a ghostwriter only nine months after the first mate’s rescue. Then, around 1960, an old notebook was found in the attic of a home in Penn Yan, New York. Not until twenty years later, in 1980, when the notebook reached the hands of the Nantucket whaling expert Edouard Stackpole, was it realized that its original owner, Thomas Nickerson, had been the Essex’s cabin boy. Late in life, Nickerson, then the proprietor of a boardinghouse on Nantucket, had been urged to write an account of the disaster by a professional writer named Leon Lewis, who may have been one of Nickerson’s guests. Nickerson sent Lewis the notebook containing his only draft of the narrative in 1876. For whatever reason, Lewis never prepared the manuscript for publication and eventually gave the notebook to a neighbor, who died with it still in his possession. Nickerson’s account was finally published as a limited-edition monograph by the Nantucket Historical Association in 1984.

In terms of literary quality, Nickerson’s narrative cannot compare to Chase’s polished account. Ragged and meandering, the manuscript is the work of an amateur, but an amateur who was there, at the helm of the Essex when she was struck by the whale. At fourteen, Nickerson had been the youngest member of the ship’s crew, and his account remains that of a wide-eyed child on the verge of manhood, of an orphan (he lost both his parents before he was two) looking for a home. He was seventy-one when he finally put pen to paper, but Thomas Nickerson could look back to that distant time as if it were yesterday, his memories bolstered by information he’d learned in conversations with other survivors. In the account that follows, Chase will get his due, but for the first time his version of events is challenged by that of his cabin boy, whose testimony can now be heard 180 years after the sinking of the Essex.

When I was a child, my father, Thomas Philbrick, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and author of several books about American sea fiction, often put my brother and me to bed with the story of the whale that attacked a ship. My uncle, the late Charles Philbrick, winner of the Wallace Stevens Poetry Prize in 1958, wrote a five-hundred-line poem about the Essex, “A Travail Past,” published posthumously in 1976. It powerfully evoked what he called “a past we forget that we need to know.” Ten years later, as it happened, in 1986, I moved with my wife and two children to the Essex’s home port, Nantucket Island.

I soon discovered that Owen Chase, Herman Melville, Thomas Nickerson, and Uncle Charlie were not the only ones to have written about the Essex. There was Nantucket’s distinguished historian Edouard Stackpole, who died in 1993, just as my own research was beginning. There was Thomas Heffernan, author of Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex (1981), an indispensable work of scholarship that was completed just before the discovery of the Nickerson manuscript. Finally, there was Henry Carlisle’s compelling novel The Jonah Man (1984), which tells the story of the Essex from the viewpoint of the ship’s captain, George Pollard.

Even after I’d read these accounts of the disaster, I wanted to know more. I wondered why the whale had acted as it did, how starvation and dehydration had affected the men’s judgment; what had happened out there? I immersed myself in the documented experiences of other whalemen from the era; I read about cannibalism, survival at sea, the psychology and physiology of starvation, navigation, oceanography, the behavior of sperm whales, the construction of ships—anything that might help me better understand what these men experienced on the wide and unforgiving Pacific Ocean.

I came to realize that the Essex disaster had provided Melville with much more than an ending to one of the greatest American novels ever written. It had spoken to the same issues of class, race, leadership, and man’s relationship to nature that would occupy him throughout Moby-Dick. It had also given Melville an archetypal but real place from which to launch the imaginary voyage of the Pequod: a tiny island that had once commanded the attention of the world. Relentlessly acquisitive, technologically advanced, with a religious sense of its own destiny, Nantucket was, in 1821, what America would become. No one dreamed that in a little more than a generation the island would founder—done in, like the Essex, by a too-close association with the whale.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Nathaniel Philbrick