It’s strange how tales that once were part of the common fabric of historical record have disappeared from today’s world; namely, the story of the Essex, stove by a whale, sunk, its men scattered in whaleboats in the middle of an unfrequented patch of the Pacific, trapped for 93(ish) days with little food/water, gradually making their way back to the coast of Chile. Philbrick makes it all relevant again, bringing facts and stories from Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson’s accounts, interspersed with quips from other whaling accounts.
I’m suffering a little personal embarrassment from not having read this before, given my obsession with Moby Dick. The story of the Essex, of course, was the underlying story Melville took and elevated to art form. This shipwreck story gripped an entire nation in the 19th century, how could Melville fail to use it as inspiration. Interestingly, Moby Dick leads us only up until the ship sinking, where the true story of the Essex only begins there. The story of starvation, cannibalism, discovery of an island then abandonment of island, the wandering of the whaleboats across the large expanse of the Pacific (2500 miles).
Melville received a copy of Owen Chase’s account of the Essex from his son, William Henry Chase, in a gam in the Pacific (a meeting between ships). Melville read the account in the midst of the Pacific and remembered: “The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect on me.”
Philbrick’s account has Captain Pollard, on his first captain assignment, bowing to the wishes of his first mate Chase too often (post-knockout Pollard wanted to go back to Nantucket for repairs, post-sinking Pollard wanted to sail for the Society Islands where the wind would be at their backs helping them along– his mates convinced him to head back for South America instead). Chase was painted as a tyrant while still on the ship, but his leadership in the whaleboat was what saved the three men in his boat, while only two men survived the other two boats (along with the three that were rescued from Henderson Island). Chase was particularly credited with the discipline to instill severe rationing of their hardtack and water, which allowed them to get so far without cannibalism. Ultimately, they did eat the last person to die in the whaleboat, but they never resorted to drawing lots and killing each other as in Pollard’s boat, where Pollard ended up eating his own young cousin.
Beyond the horror of the men’s experience, this story is also littered with horror of a different sort– explicit details on killing huge whales and Galapagos tortoises, nearly to extinction.
sub=The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essexhttp://www.loomings.com/cgi-bin/mt3/mt.cgi?__mode=view&_type=entry&blog_id=1