Here’s the true story of the incident that inspired Moby Dick. It involves: whales seeking revenge, animal extinctions, huge fires, castaways, death, and, of course, cannibalism. (and because it contains ALL THAT it is a touch longer than my usual threads, but please, join me.)
In 1819 the whaling ship Essex set off from Nantucket, set for the South Pacific. The seas to the West of South America were, at the time, very popular whale hunting grounds, and many whaling ships made the same trip from Nantucket that year. The Essex was one of the smallest.
Some basic info for you: Upon her departure in August, The Essex was 20 years old, held five small whaleboats (easily manoeuvrable open sided boats used for hunting a whale at a bit of a distance from the main ship), and a crew of 21 men.
(here’s a whale boat pic for you)
So, the Essex was old, but due to many successful voyages she was seen as lucky, and her captain for the (disastrous) 1819 voyage was first-time ships captain George Pollard, who, at only 29 was one of the youngest people to ever captain a whaling ship.
This lucky reputation was called into question only two days into the voyage, when a storm destroyed two of her whaleboats, damaged a third, and tore away her topgallant sail.
But that’s just a very small problem compared to what lay ahead...
Their journey to the South Pacific took far longer than usual, and in September a sailor left The Essex in South America, making the crew a round 20. What that 20 found, when they finally reached their destination was a problem. A disastrous lack of whales.
They heard a rumour from other whaling ships they encountered that nearly 5000km to the West, in the unfamiliar seas near the Equator, there were enough whales to sate their era-appropriate appetite for commercial whale hunting. So they decided that was where they were headed.
But first, they needed provisions. So they headed to the Galapagos islands to repair the ship and stock up on food, as they’d be about as far from land as you can get. Provisions, meant around 300 live giant tortoises which they caught and placed on board to eat later.
You may think this point in the story is where the animal extinction comes in, and it IS, but it wasn’t the capturing of 300 tortoises that did it, oh no... One of the sailors decided to set a fire on the island, in the middle of dry season, you know, as a prank. As you do.
Unsurprisingly the whole island burned down because it was the DRY SEASON, and it’s this fire that decimated the population of the Floreana Island Tortoise, leading to their extinction 15 years later (and decimated the population of the now endangered Floreana Island Mockingbird)
So, having burned down a whole island in the Galapagos, paved the way for the extinction of some animals, and kidnapped around 300 rare giant tortoises, the crew of The Essex set off to hunt and kill some whales. Ah, the 1800’s, so animal friendly.
By this point it was November 1820, and The Essex finally arrived in the new hunting grounds, to find another lack of whales. And this is where the story really gets good.
After a few days they finally saw some whales and got to hunting, but one smashed one of their whaleboats by surfacing directly under it, and soon after, as the crew were on board The Essex, trying to fix the whaleboat, when a very big male Sperm Whale surfaced nearby.
The whale charged The Essex, ramming the side of the ship, and causing it to rock dangerously. Then it swam a short distance away, picked up speed again, and smashed its head through the bow of the ship, shattering it to pieces. Finally, it swam off, never to be seen again.
The crew acted quickly, salvaging navigational equipment and small amounts of food and water from the wreck, before boarding the three remaining whale boats. However, being nearly 4,000km from South America, they knew they hadn’t got nearly enough supplies for the journey.
The closest known land was the Marquesa islands 2,000km to the West. Captain Pollard wanted to head for them, but the crew had heard rumours of cannibals on the islands in the Pacific, so they insisted they head for South America, and the Captain, being inexperienced, gave in.
In order to capture the winds they needed, the ships first began to head 1000km south, towards the Pitcairn Islands, which they reached in their open boats a month after The Essex sank, having eaten most of their supplies, and having had to drink their own urine on the journey.
They found a small spring on uninhabited Henderson island and foraged for food for about a week before deciding to set sail again in their open boats. But three of the men (including the one who'd started the fire) decided to stay behind on the island, letting all three boats go.
So, here we are, nearly in 1821, with 3 sailors on an uninhabited island, and 17 sailors in three badly built open boats in the middle of the Pacific, with very little food or water, trying to travel thousands of kilometres to shore.
On Jan 10th, 1821, the 1st man died. They buried him at sea.
On the 11th, one of the ships was separated in a storm.
On the 18th on the lost ship the 2nd man died. They buried him at sea.
On February 8th on the lost ship the 3rd man died. They had a discussion. Then ate his body.
Meanwhile, in the other two boats, they’d resorted to cannibalism days earlier, on January 21st.
The sailors fear of travelling to unknown islands due to rumours of cannibals, led them to, in two separate instances of decision making, resort to cannibalism themselves.
In these other two boats, the men were dying off quickly, and when there were only three men left alive in one of them, it drifted off. Years later a whaleboat with three skeletons in it was found washed up on a nearby island.
So by February all three whaleboats had separated. On February 1st, on board the Captain's boat, they drew lots to decide who would be killed to feed the others, and who would do the killing. Captain Pollard’s cousin drew the black spot, and was shot and eaten.
On February the 18th, after 89 days at sea, the three men left alive in the first whaleboat to be separated from the group were rescued. The Captain’s boat was finally rescued days later on February 23rd.
On the day it was rescued, after 93 days at sea, there were only two survivors left in Captain Pollard’s whaleboat. They were found delirious, lying on a pile of sun bleached human bones with obvious gnaw marks on them.
They informed the authorities of the three men who chose to stay behind on the island. All three were rescued, having not had to resort to cannibalism, unlike the others.
And that was how, in the true story of The Essex, the disaster that inspired Moby Dick:
8 men survived.
12 men died.
7 men were eaten.
1 island burned down.
1 whale smashed 1 whaling boat to pieces.
And all 8 surviving men went back to sea soon after they returned home.
It was a truly ironic disaster, with a whale destroying a whaling ship, and a fear of cannibals leading to cannibalism.
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(there is more nautical cannibalism, (and just cannibalism in general), and also shipwrecks in general, in the thread of threads - if you were wondering)
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