The gruesome fate of the Nantucket whaleship Essex forms the core of the most dramatic episode in American whaling. The story of a sperm whale ramming and sinking the Essex on 20 November 1820, some two thousand nautical miles west of present-day Ecuador, and of the ensuing ordeals—with only eight of twenty men surviving to be rescued after trials lasting between eighty-nine and a hundred and thirty-nine days, and the trauma of having to resort to cannibalism—has been told and retold. It is chiseled indelibly into the lore and historiography of whaling.
In international-shipping intelligence, reports of the disaster set in soon after the British merchantman Indian, the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin, and the British Australiaman Surrey had picked up three groups of Essex survivors in February and April 1821. Owen Chase’s influential, book-length eyewitness account also appeared that same year in New York. On 9 June 1821, the Australian Sydney Gazette published a lengthy article on the Essex, based mostly, besides other sources, on an interview with Thomas Raine, master of the Surrey, the trading vessel that had rescued the last group of survivors from Henderson Island. Through the negligence of the anonymous journalist putting the piece together with a quick quill, there is some confusion of facts, such as two discrepant dates of the disaster, 13 and 20 November.
Contemporary imagery of the dramatic incident did not keep pace with the rapid and widespread press coverage. Newspapers of the day were not illustrated. Illustrated broadsides and pamphlets—the European and American precursors of newspapers since the late 1400s—had gone out of fashion. And the years of the illustrated magazine—relying on the marketing effect of the image—were yet to come. Breaking news in maritime intelligence could do, and had to do, without interesting but costly and slow-to-produce pictures. Thus, even in the country of registry of the Essex, the first images of the disaster did not appear until fourteen and fifteen years after the event, in two issues of the Mariner’s Chronicle, New Haven, 1834, and Boston, 1835.
But abroad, in Old Europe, the worldwide coverage of the unprecedented drama tickled the fancy of an enterprising lithographer. Cyprien Gaulon, born in 1777, had set up his print shop in the French maritime port of Bordeaux in 1815. In 1824–25, he would gain perennial fame by supervising Francisco deGoya in perfecting the Spanish artist’s skills in the novel art of lithography, and by seeing through his press one of Goya’s famous series of bullfighting lithographs. Gaulon’s print shop also pioneered the mass printing of Bordeaux wine-bottle labels—ephemera highly coveted by connoisseurs and collectors today.
Three years before Gaulon’s fruitful cooperation with Goya, the Essex disaster was covered in two articles in the French geographical and maritime monthly Journal des voyages découvertes et navigations modernes: ou archives géographiques et statistiques du 19. siècle, edited by the Paris Society of French and Foreign Geographers. The September issue of 1821 had a short, twenty-line news piece on the loss of two vessels, i.a. the Essex (Vol. 11,No. 35, pp. 371–72).Three months later, in December 1821, there was a detailed four-column report on the disaster (Vol. 12,No. 38, p. 372), based on the article in the Sydney Gazette of 9 June 1821. It yielded all the drama of the horrific human ordeal. The French translation, however, only compounded the Sydney journalist’s careless reporting. Thus, the hapless Nantucket whaleship’s name appears as Sussex, doubtless a blend of the English county and the ship’s name, Surrey—one of the rescue vessels—and the whale-wrecked Essex. The date on which the whaleship met her doom is given as 13, not 20, November 1820, and the longitude as 20° West instead of circa 120° West.
Lacking a prototype to copy, Cyprien Gaulon employed artistic license when he illustrated the reportage with a gripping image that he hoped would find an eager clientele in the market for ephemera prints. The ship technically is not a whaleship, and the whale ramming the ship is not a sperm whale, but a bowhead. It is copied from one of the numerous images in the influential iconographic tradition of Friedrich Martens, a German shipboard surgeon who had joined Hamburg whalers on their voyage to the Arctic in 1671 and published a widely circulated book in 1675, illustrated with etchings based on his own remarkable and fairly realistic drawings. Gaulon’s whale is also far too large in comparison to the vessel.
Gaulon’s zoological confusion can be explained linguistically. The generic French term “baleine” is used for the zoological order of cetacea, or whales in general, but also to distinguish “baleen whales”— such as bowheads and right whales, or rorquals—from the “sperm whale, ”which in French is called “cachalot” (from old Provençal and Catalan words like “catxalot” or variant spellings, which all point to an etymology having to do with “big tooth”).The French translator never bothered to verify which whale species the Australian journalist had in mind when referring to “whale,” and just used the generic term “baleine.” The four-line French caption of Gaulon’s lithograph carries over the factual inaccuracies that had accumulated in the text on its long transmission from Sydney via Paris to Bordeaux.
Time being of the essence in ephemera publishing, the speed with which print shops turned out decorative broadsheets on current events was often quite amazing. Thus, the print may have been published either in December 1821, the month the Journal des Voyages published the report, or early in 1822 at the latest.
In spite of the artistic license and its resulting flaws, the colorful broadsheet is the earliest pictorial representation of the famous disaster that befell the Nantucket whaleship Essex, predating the first American print versions of it by more than a dozen years. By a similar lapse of time it also precedes the first indigenous American whaling prints showing identified vessels, viz the two aquatints printed in 1835 and 1838 by John Hill after sketches by Cornelius B. Hulsart. Gaulon’s lithograph astounded the public a generation prior to Benjamin Russell’s imaginative Essex disaster scene in the 1848 Russell– Purrington Panorama (New Bedford Whaling Museum). Finally, it predates the only recorded depictions made by an eyewitness and survivor of the drama, Thomas Nickerson, by more than fifty years.
Further to these comparative “firsts,” it is one of the rarest whaling prints of all. Besides the one in the author’s whaling collection, which led to the research presented here, so far only a second copy has become known, in a library in Geneva, Switzerland.
Klaus Barthelmess, of Cologne, Germany, is a whaling and sealing historian, museum and media consultant, and collector of whaling- and sealing-related art. He earned his degrees from the University of Cologne, has authored and coauthored several books and numerous scholarly articles on whaling and sealing history, the history of cetology, whale-related fine arts, historical whale distribution and stranding records and the whaling debate, and serves on the editorial boards of several specialized international periodicals.