On November 20, 1820, an enraged sperm whale rammed and sank the Nantucket whaleship Essex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles from the nearest land. Twenty sailors survived the attack and quickly outfitted their three small whaleboats to make a journey to safety. They had limited food and water, and could only hope that their supplies would last them as they slowly sailed for land across miles of open water.
Three months later, five emaciated survivors were picked up by passing ships, three more remained stranded on a deserted island, and twelve men were dead—seven of them eaten in desperation by their starving shipmates. Their tale of choices, survival, and leadership would stun the maritime community, eventually serving as part of the inspiration for Moby-Dick.
To learn more, explore the materials listed below that can be found in the NHA archives and collections and at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
Banner image by Essex seaman and survivor, Thomas Nickerson (1805–83), pencil drawing from his first-hand manuscript diary of the Essex disaster, 1876. Learn more about the NHA Collection of Thomas Nickerson Material (MS106).