The Tragedy of the Essex

Framed small piece of twine with attribution to Benjamin Lawrence.
Piece of twine on display in the Overlook Gallery. This small length of twine was made by twenty-one-year-old boatsteerer Benjamin Lawrence (1799-1879). It is the sole surviving artifact from the wreck of the Essex.

In November 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.

Coming in 2020, an expanded exhibition in the Whaling Museum about the Essex in recognition of the 200th anniversary of the fatal attack and sinking.

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.

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