Moby-Dick and Nantucket’s Moby-Dick: The Attack on the Essex

Like many another Nantucket story, the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex would probably have enjoyed some enduring popularity even if Herman Melville had not taken it as the model for the tumultuous concluding chapters of Moby-Dick. As it is, Melville’s use of the Essex story has practically turned Melville into a Nantucketer in the popular imagination. Melville probably would not have minded the misconception too much, but misconception it is, for Melville, as far as anyone knows, had not even been to Nan­tucket when he wrote Moby-Dick. For a good account of Melville’s relation to the island one can refer to Susan Beegel’s article in this issue.

It would be interesting to know if Melville would have dared use so extravagantly dra­matic an event as the ramming and sinking of a ship by a whale-even in a novel that was extravagant in so many other ways-if the story of the Essex had not been in circulation. Why? Because whales just did not do that kind of thing. Were it not forthe Essex, a ship sunk by a whale would have come across as a facetious seaman’s yam. Whales stove boats all the time, but ships? Never. The story of the whaleship Union had been floating around since 1807 when it went down after some kind of contact with a whale, but the details of that event are so vague that there is reason to believe that the ship ran into the whale, not vice versa.

The Essex’s great adventure began fifteen months out of its home port. The ship, which had left Nantucket August 12, 1819, and had enjoyed rather typical success in its hunt for whales, arrived by November 20, 1820, at a point a fewminutes south ofthe equator, 119 degrees wast longitude.  At eight o’clock that morning whales were sighted and the boats were ordered lowered. The first mate, Owen Chase, whose boat had been splintered by a whale, was forced to return to the ship for repairs. While on deck he noticed a large whale bearing down on the ship and ordered the helmsman to come about to avoid it.” The words were scarcely out of my mouth,” Chase wrote, ” before he came down upon us with 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.”

While the men on board struggled to set pumps-which they knew was wasted effort-the whale struck again and finished off the ship. “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” Captain George Pollard, Jr., said when his boat, which had been too far off to see the attack, came up to the wreck of the ship. “We have been stove by a whale,” the mate answered.

The unimaginable had happened; now began an adventure of classic proportions for the twenty seaman suddenly afloat in three frail boats in one of the most remote parts of the Pacific. The adventure, which is one of the world’s great triumphs of survival, has been recorded in an account of stunning vividness, First Mate Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex, of Nantuchet. The Chase Narrative was until the early 1980s the sole primary source of the Essex story; the discov­ery at that time of an account by Thomas Nickerson, one of the Essex crewmen, and its publication as The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats added a second and, as it happens, very complementary source. (The Chase Nar­rative is in Thomas Farel Heffeman’s Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, pub­lished by the University Press of New En­gland; the Nickerson diary, edited by Helen Winslow Chase and Edouard A. Stackpole, is published by the Nantucket Historical Asso­ciation.)

The actors in the Essex drama were the ship’s captain, George Pollard,Jr., First Mate Chase, Second Mate Matthew P. Joy, and a complement of seamen bringing the total on board to twenty-one, one of whom would leave the ship in the South American port of Tecamus before the disaster. Both Captain Pollard and First Mate Chase had served on the Essex on an 1817 cruise, each in lower positions. The officers and crew of the 238-ton ship were as typical a Nantucket collec­tion as could be imagined-they were not the Pequod’s “Anacharsis Clootz deputation” as Melville called his fictional crew in chapter 2 7 of Moby-Dick.

For an account of the cruise before the whale’s attack we tum to the Nickerson diary. Owen Chase says little about those days, and Nickerson, relative to Chase, says less about the sufferings of the crew after the wreck. The accounts beg to be read together. With engaging detail and in a witty tone, Nickerson describes not merely shipboard events but the life of the Essex’s people in port. We hear, in dialogue that Melville would have loved-and possibly bor­rowed-Captain Pollard dressing down the crew for complaining about the shipboard food. And we read of Captain Pollard’s hunting trip ashore in Tecamus with an- other whaling captain; three hours into the bush the two captains be-gan to hear a loud, dismal, unex- plained howling, which brought both of them to a stop but neither would admit his fear . With evident amusement Nickerson recounts their face-saving complaint of the heat as an excuse for turning back and adds that it was later discovered that the sound came from a harmless bird the size of a hummingbird.

The survivors’ lives after the shipwreck, however, are the big story. What were they to do, where head? The Marquesas Islands would probably be the choice today and after them the Tuamotu archi­pelago, but those places were omi­nous in the 1820s with stories of cannibalism and just plain native hostility accepted as true in the ab­sence of any extensive explorers’ reports.

The survivors’ lives after the shipwreck, however, are the big story. What were they to do, where head? The Marquesas Islands would probably be the choice today and after them the Tuamotu archipelago, but those places were omi­nous in the 1820s with stories of cannibalism and just plain native hostility accepted as true in the ab­sence of any extensive explorers’ reports.

The decision was to head south to 25 or 26 degrees south latitude, pick up the variable winds, and head for the coast of South America.

Having taken as much from the sinking Essex as they could to supply the boats, the survi­vors started out, seven in each of two boats and six in the other. Bread and water were severely rationed (a pound and three ounces of bread and a half-pint of water per day) and were to become even more stringently allotted as the days passed until rations seemed almost microscopic. Some tortoises picked up by the ship earlier were carried and when killed were regarded as a feast. Small clams found clinging to the outside of the boat provided one meal; the men who were overboard collecting them were so weak that they could not get back in the boat by their own power but had to be pulled in by their com­panions. When the men attempted to catch rainwater in a sail they found it as salty as seawater from the salt that had dried in the sail. Nature seemed to be mocking their ef­forts.

On December 20, after a month in the boats, “while we were sitting dispirited, si­lent, and dejected, in our boats, one of our companions suddenly and loudly called out, ‘there is land!’ It was Henderson Island ( which the men in the boats mistakenly assumed to be the nearby Ducie Island), one of the Pitcairn Island group. Here the survivors found, al­though not without a good deal of searching, water. The food found on the island, how­ever, was not extensive and, except for three men who chose to stay, the survivors deter­mined to set out again for the coast of South America. This they did on December 27.

Now began the harshest part of the trip. On January 10, Second Mate Matthew Joy died and was given a sea burial. Before long the desperate survivors would look upon the dead in a different light and instead of burial the dying could look forward to becoming part of the diet of their companions. Probably more than any other detail of the Essex sur­vival, the cannibalism, was that which oc­curred when the four men in Captain Pollard’s boat decided not to wait fort he next death but to draw lots to see who would be shot for food for the others. The lot fell on the captain’s cousin, young Owen Coffin, who was shot by Charles Ramsdell, who had drawn the executioner’s lot.

The misfortunes of the men in the boats multiplied. They missed Easter Island, passing to the south of it. The three boats separated, first Owen Chase’s from the other twoand then Cap­tain Pollard’s from the third, which was lost without a trace. One can judge the state of body and mind of the men left in the boats from a description of their rescue contained in a report of Commodore Charles Goodwin Ridgely, the U.S. officer who came to their assistance when they were brought ashore in Valparaiso: “They were ninety-two days in the boat &:. were in a most wretched state, they were unable to move when found sucking the bones of t heir dead Mess mates, which they were loth to part with.” Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence, and Thomas Nickerson were rescued February 18 by the brig Indian, Captain William Cro­zier of London. On February 23 Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell were rescued by the Nantucket ship Dauphin, Captain Zimri Coffin. Word of the three men left on the island was relayed to Captain Thomas Raine of the Surry, which was about to sail for Australia.and Captain Raine man­aged to rescue all three despite his having been directed to Ducie, the wrong island. Eight of the twenty men on the Essex were left to tell the tale.

In annotations made in a copy of Owen Chase’s Narrative, which he had acquired shortly before writing Moby-Dick, Melville tells us when he learned the tale for the first time. “When I was on board the ship Acushnet of Fairhaven, on the passage to the Pacific cruising-grounds, among other matters of forecastle conversation at times was the story of the Essex.” This was during Melville’s service on his first whaler; the Acushnet had left Fairhaven in January 1841 and Melville was to be aboard it until he jumped ship in the Marquesas in July 1842. Melville’s annota­tions continue with an erroneous account of his seeing Owen Chase on board a ship the Acushnet had gammed-it’s unclear who it was that he had mistaken for Chase-and then an account of another gam, very likely with the whaler Lima: “In the forecastle I made the acquaintance of a fine lad of sixteen or thereabouts, a son of Owen Chase. I ques­tioned him concerning his father’s adventure; and when I left his ship to return again the next morning (for the two vessels were to sail in company for a few days) he went to his chest and handed me a complete copy (same edition as this one) of the Narrative.

. . . The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea,&: close to the very latitude of the very lati­tude of the shipwreck had a surpris­ing effect upon me.”

Indeed it must have. When, in 1852, Melville finally visited Nan­tucket, he met Captain Pollard, whom he called quite simply, “the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble-that I ever encountered.” In his long narra­tive poem, Clarel, Melville uses the character Nehemiah as hook on which to hang Pollard’s story (and includes the story of the wreck of the ship on which Pollard had his next command); Melville analyzes the Pollard character as a kind of benign Ahab, confident in the power of his own will and in God’s support of it.

It’s an engrossing reading of the “most im­pressive man.”

If anyone doubts how intensely taken Melville was with the stories he was borrow­ing from the Essex people, he can consider Melville’s reaction to another ship stove by a whale. Moby-Dick was published in England October 18, 1851, and in the United States November 14, 1851, and the New Bedford ship Ann Alexander was sunk by a whale; Melville got word of the event around No­vember 8 and wrote: ” … Crash! comes Moby Dick himself … &: reminds me of the last year or two. It is really &: truly a surprising coincidence-to say the least. I make no doubt it is Moby-Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod about fourteen years ago.-Ye Gods! what a Commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short &: pithy &: very much to the point. I won­der if my evil art has raised this monster.”

Well, grant that it did. Moby-Dick has raised enough monsters in the minds of its more philosophical readers to make the emergence of a real flesh and blood leviathan tame work. But Owen Chase’s whale was first; it raised all the mon­sters; it was a consciousness­raising whale, an assertive, whale’s rights, affirmative-ac­t ion whale. It was even Promethean. In some “Far Side ” world where annual conferences on the literature of the sea are attended by whales and sharks and por­poises, the question of whether the Essex whale was hubristic is probably perennial. Even humans-who can’t understand these things–can wonder.


This article is from the Fall 1991 issue of Historic Nantucket. 

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

> >