The story of the Essex and the lengths to which its crew went in order to
survive is part of maritime lore and the subject of a new BBC film,
dramatising the real-life voyage that inspired Herman Melville to write his
Starring Jonas Armstrong, best known for playing Robin Hood
in the BBC series of the same name, The Whale promises to be both an
action-packed drama and a disturbing portrayal of the human response to
Ever since 1712, when they had first set out from Nantucket, Yankee whalers
had supplied the Western world with whale oil.
The streets of London, New
York, Berlin and Paris were lit by it; the mills and machinery of the
Industrial Revolution ran on the same stuff.
Whaleships were the equivalent
of modern oil tankers, earning millions of dollars for the new republic and
exporting its influence around the world.
It was this heroic, filthy, abusive and highly lucrative (for its shipowners)
business that Melville recorded in Moby-Dick.
Published in 1851, his
was wildly digressive; 135 chapters filled with everything he
knew about whales and whaling – a result of his own whaling voyages in the
But much more than that, Moby-Dick
became a kind of modern American myth
, woven around the legendary
battle between man and whale, incarnate in the figure of Captain Ahab
monomaniacal commander of the Pequod
goes in search of the fantastical White
Whale which had “dismasted” him, biting off his leg.
Now Ahab scours the
South Seas, seeking revenge on the gigantic creature.
To land-bound readers
of Moby-Dick, it must have seemed a far-fetched, if thrilling, tale.
whale really attack and sink a great ship, as Moby Dick does in the final,
apocalyptic chapters of Melville’s book?
The astonishing answer was yes.
not only that, the gruesome details of the true story exceeded any fictional
The Whale: Trailer
Indeed, such is its resonant power, that the BBC drama is to be followed by
another film version, In
the Heart of the Sea
, directed by Ron Howard and
based on the book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick
now, the story seems unbelievable. But for a first-hand account of those
events, we can turn to the words of the men who lived through them – and
survived to tell the tale.
On August 12 1819, the Essex, an 87ft, 238-ton whaleship, set sail from
The captain was George Pollard
, a man whose subsequent
experiences were destined to haunt him as much as his fictional counterpart
Ahab, while his first mate, Owen Chase
, became the role model for Ahab’s
first mate, Starbuck (although better known now for the global chain of
coffee shops named after him).
By November 1820, the Essex had reached the Pacific equator, 2,000 miles from
the South American coast.
The voyage had been uneventful – until now.
morning, November 20, the weather was fine and clear.
A pod of whales was
sighted by the lookout.
The men set to with gusto – whales meant dollars,
The slender, fast, clinker-built whaleboats, built to ride high
in the water, were lowered from the sides of the ship, and the hunters set
off in pursuit of their prey.
The Voyage of the Pequod from the book Moby Dick by Herman Melville; one of a series of 12 literary maps based on British and American literature, produced by the Harris-Seybold Company of Cleveland between 1953 and 1964.
The sperm whale is no mean adversary.
It is the largest predator that ever
lived, and although modern sperm whales grow to only 65ft, Melville and his
fellow whalers recorded whales 80 or even 100ft long.
intensive hunting in the 19th century reduced the number of very large bull
sperm whales, thereby affecting the overall size of the population,
genetically. Hunting has also reduced the world population from 1.6 million
to fewer than 360,000.)
Armed with a lower jaw studded with 42 teeth, it’s a formidable opponent if
driven to defend itself. Its tail, as broad as a house, could dash a flimsy
whaleboat to smithereens, and often did.
The sperm whale is also the only
cetacean that can swallow a human being, and, again, has done so, albeit by
accident, in the melee of a hunt.
(It’s not a nice way to go: its gastric
juices are so acidic that sailors cut out of whales have been bleached white
by the process.)
Modern Moby Dick : Documentary on White Sperm Whales
Yet this mammal is also highly social, sentient and communicative – it
posseses the largest brain in nature.
And despite its size and power, it is
extraordinarily placid, timid, even.
I’ve made a special study of the whale,
in the writing of my books, Leviathan
and The Sea Inside
, and can attest to
its overwhelmingly pacific nature.
But then, I’ve never come at one with a
The crew of the Essex set upon the pod.
Owen Chase, at the prow of the
whaleboat, threw his weapon into a whale.
“Feeling the harpoon in him, he
threw himself, in agony, over towards the boat and, giving a severe blow
with his tail, struck the boat,” Chase wrote in an account published in
Realising that if he didn’t act quickly, the whale might drag them
down, Chase took an axe and cut the line.
At the same time, Captain Pollard
was in his whaleboat, attempting to harpoon another large whale.
to his amazement, Chase saw, much closer in, “a very large spermaceti whale
about 85ft in length” heading directly at their mother ship, “as if fired
with revenge” for the sufferings of its fellow whales.
Chase watched, horrified, as the whale “came down upon us at full speed, and
struck the ship with his head, just forward of the fore-chains; he gave us
such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.
The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock,
and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf.
”Even the whale appeared to have
been dazed by the blow.
It lay motionless, briefly, before making off to
But then it “started off with great velocity”, Chase reported,
“coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and with tenfold fury
and vengeance in his aspect”.
Its jaws were snapping together, and the surf
flew as it thrashed the water with its tail.
I’ve seen sperm whales snap their jaws this way – it’s usually a sign of
I’ve also been warned off from getting too close by the thundering
slap of their muscular tails, usually because they were protecting a young
Indeed, contemporary whale scientist Prof Hal Whitehead
that the whale that attacked the Essex was defending its own young – it was
a characteristic, cruel tactic of whalers to harpoon calves, in order to
bring the more valuable adults within range.
Having said this, there are few
incidents of sperm whales attacking ships; one of the only other recorded
incidents was the one on the
whaleship Ann Alexander in 1851
, 31 years after the attack on the
Whatever the motive of this seeming monster, it rammed the ship with its head
for a second time. This sickening blow was fatal for the vessel – with the
sea gushing in its side, it was clear that the Essex was sinking.
who had now returned to his stricken vessel, cried, “My God, Mr Chase, what
is the matter?” “We have been stove by a whale,” came the answer.
Hurriedly, the crew, all 20 of them, took to the three remaining whaleboats.
As the Essex sank, they rescued what they could: 6lb of hard bread; three
casks of water; a musket, powder, tools; “and a few turtles”.
managed to salvage his sea chest – and with it, precious paper and pencil
with which he would record their ordeal.
They also saved navigational materials – but it was in using these that
Pollard and Chase made their great mistake.
They found that the nearest
inhabited islands were the Marquesas
, to the west.
But they feared that
their natives were cannibals, and so decided to try the longer route,
eastwards, to Chile.
It was a terrible irony, given what happened next.
Having fashioned sails, they set off in three boats.
They were at the mercy of
currents and winds; often they drifted, lost on the infinite sea.
calculated that their food would last 60 days – but the bread got soaked
and, once dried, its saltiness merely increased the men’s thirst.
the boats would drift apart in the darkness, desperately signalling to each
other with lanterns.
Suddenly, on December 20, a month after they had been
wrecked, they sighted land, “a blessed vision like a basking paradise before
our longing eyes”, as Chase put it.
But Henderson Island
was no tropical paradise.
It contained little fresh water
and they had soon killed all the birds they found, so on December 26 they
decided to try to reach South America – now 3,000 miles distant.
decided to stay on the island and take their chances there.
Illustration (1902) of the final chase of Moby-Dick
Their fellow sailors were soon far out at sea.
Burnt by the blazing sun during
the day, at night sharks swam about the boat, snapping as if to “devour the
With only three days’ food left, extreme hunger was depriving
the men of their “speech and reason”, wrote Chase.
themselves to the inevitable.
“The black man, Richard Paterson, was
perfectly ready to die.”
He did so of his own accord: six of the Essex’s
crew were African-American, and none would survive.
But as Paterson’s body was committed to the deep, Chase realised that they
couldn’t afford to jettison such a source of sustenance again.
As the next
man, Isaac Cole, succumbed to madness and death – dying “in the most
horrible and frightful convulsions I have ever witnessed” – the decision was
made to eat him.
Cole’s body was dismembered, the flesh cut from his bones.
They sliced open his trunk and took out his heart.
“We now commenced to satisfy the immediate cravings of nature from the heart,
which we eagerly devoured, and then ate sparingly of a few pieces of the
flesh,” Chase wrote.
The rest they cut into strips and hung up to dry for
They even roasted their victim’s organs on a fire made
on a stone at the bottom of the boat.
Chase and the remaining crew had been
reduced to savages, ironically more than any Pacific islander they had
sought to avoid.
Their boat had become a charnel house: “We knew not then to
whose lot it would fall next, either to die or be shot, and eaten like the
poor wretch we had just dispatched.”
With morbid practicality, Chase worked
out a gruesome formula: three men could live for seven days off one human
By now, the three boats had become separated.
One drifted off and was never
heard of again.
In Captain Pollard’s boat three men died; all were eaten;
all were black.
After this, the white men began drawing lots and Pollard was
forced to watch as his own young nephew, Owen Coffin, drew the black dot.
Bowing to his fate, Coffin lay down his head on the gunwale, was shot, and
Cannibalism had saved the Essex’s survivors.
But at a price.
On February 18,
after almost three months at sea, Chase’s boat sighted a sail – a London
brig, the Indian.
Their rescuers were shocked at what they found, said
Chase: “Our cadaverous countenances...with the ragged remains of clothes
stuck about our sun-burnt bodies, must have produced an appearance affecting
and revolting in the highest degree.”
Five days later, Pollard and the only other survivor in his boat, Charles
Ramsdale, were rescued by the Nantucket whaleship the Dauphin.
claimed they were, “found sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which
they were loath to part with”.
They too were taken back to Valparaiso, from
where a ship was sent to rescue the three men from Henderson Island.
managed to survive on the scant water they’d found, fish, and a few birds.
Just eight of the Essex’s crew had survived.
All went back to sea but,
amazingly, Pollard was shipwrecked a second time and never took command of
another ship, “for all will say I am an unlucky man”.
Instead, he became a
nightwatchman in Nantucket, wandering the island, haunted by his ordeal.
When a writer asked him about his experiences, Pollard replied, “I can tell
you no more – my head is on fire at the recollection.”
(A more macabre story
also went around: that when asked if he’d known Owen Coffin, Pollard would
answer, “Know him? Why, I et [sic] him!”)
Chase too was a guilt-ridden man.
His ghostwritten account was published in an
attempt to capitalise on the story – or, perhaps, to set aright the more
Later, Thomas Nickerson, the 14-year-old cabin boy,
produced his own account, claiming they had not eaten Cole.
sought to erase the memory by denial.
Chase could not forget, however.
As he aged, he stored supplies of food in his
attic, as if he believed he might once more face starvation – and that
Plagued by headaches, he would cry, “Oh my head, my head”,
and by the time he died in 1869 he had been declared insane.
Today the island of Nantucket is a quiet, reserved place.
The whalers have
long since left its cobbled streets, though the mansions that the shipowners
built from their bloody profits still stand.
Their blank, silent windows
look out to sea, testament to the extraordinary horrors that those men of
the Essex suffered, out on the infinite deep.