Books · Pop Culture · Ships · United States · Whale

November 20, 1820 – Essex Sunk by Sperm Whale

I love when two of my favorite subjects are combined in one article. This happens to do just that–it combines shipwrecks and literature, and cannibalism thrown in for fun!

I have to admit, I have not read Moby Dick. It is on my Kindle, and as soon as I finish the book I am reading now, I am going to read it next.

Nantucket Island
Nantucket Island
Image Source: Wikipedia

Between 1750 and 1850, Nantucket Island was the global headquarters for oil. Whale oil! This tiny little island –105 square miles (one tenth the size of long island)–25 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, was home to the best. Nantucket Whalers were considered the best in the world at hunting sperm whales.

Sperm whales are deep diving whales, diving as deep as 1,000 meters while hunting for squids. These massive mammals can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes on a dive like that.

Size Relative to a school bus
Image Source: National Geographic

These whales had to be what swallowed Jonah.

They consume about a thousand fish and squid every day.

Sperm whales and giant squid may be mortal enemies. Many stories of deadly battles between these two massive animals exist, and sperm whales have even been seen with suction cup-shaped wounds and remnants of giant squid in their stomachs.

Sperm whales have massive, rounded foreheads. They have the largest brains of any creature on Earth. Their heads hold large amounts of spermaceti. It was originally thought that it was the whale’s sperm. This oily substance hardens into an amazing wax-like substance. Scientists think that the purpose of this massive amount of fluid in their skull is for buoyancy on their deep dives.

Candlepower –which has been replaced by lumens– was the measurement that was used to explain how bright something was in the past. The Metropolitian Gas Act 0f 1860 defined candlepower as “the light produced by a pure spermaceti candle weighing 76 grams, burning at a rate of 7.8 grams per hour.”

If you were super lucky, the whale you killed would contain ambergris in the intestines. Ambergris in the 1800s was worth its weight in gold. It is still used by high-end French perfume manufactures to help scent adhere to human skin. Scientist do not know the purpose of ambergris. They believe that when a squid beak gets stuck in the throat or stomach of a whale, the ambergris forms around it to help it pass.

It can still be found floating in the ocean or washing up on a beach like it did for this kid in England.

The Nantucket Whalers were so good at their jobs that whales became harder to find. They had to go further away from land, and further away from Nantucket.

These ships had a Try-Works on board. A Try-Works was a brick furnace on the deck with two very large kettles. It was called a try-works, because they were trying-out the whale’s blubber. By turning the whale into oil –rather than having a rotting whale on the boat– they were able to stay away from Nantucket for years.

With long voyages, a furnace on a wooden ship, and trying to harpoon whales from a rowboat, many sailors did not return home. It was said that there were a fair number of fatherless boys on Nantucket, and that 1/3 of the women over 29 were widows.

Most Nantucket men preferred to sail with other Nantucket men, but the “whaling capital of the world” could no longer support that. Captains began to recruit “coofs”– men from the mainland hoping to learn the trade during the voyage. Many of the men that were hired were black men, hoping for more equal treatment at sea.

Encounter with a whale
Image Source: Whaling Museum

On August 12, 1819, Captain George Pollard Jr (28-years-old) left Nantucket aboard the Essex with a 20 man crew. The men set forth for a two- to three-year whaling expedition. When they left, they were told that the whaling areas around South America were dried up. It was suggested that they try areas west of South America as they had not been fished much.

Trouble for the Essex started 2 days into the voyage. The ship was hit with a storm that no one was prepared for. As a result of the storm, they lost the top gallant sail (the top most sail of a ship) and two of the five whaling boats, almost losing the Essex in the process.

Sailors are traditionally superstitious folks, and this particular crew was no exception. They saw this loss as a bad omen, but Captain Pollard sailed on. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Essex stopped at Charles Island for a resupply.

The men collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. –I have never thought of, or wanted to eat a turtle!– As the men were ashore hunting tortoises, boasteerer Thomas Chappel decided to start a fire. Since it was October and dry in the southern hemisphere, the fire spread quickly. The crew narrowly escaped the raging flames and got off the island. The men claimed that smoke was still visible two days out to sea. Most of the island was burned.

A crewman returned many years later, and the island was still charred and burned. It is thought that the fire caused the extinction of both the Florena Tortoise and the Florena Mockingbird –

On November 20, 1820, the Essex was far to the west of any land, having been pulled toward the horizon by harpooned whales. The men called this a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” Can you even imagine what it would be like being in a harpoon boat? This thing was probably 20 feet long and made of wood.

A Nantucket sleighride was a term used by Nantucket whalemen to describe what occurs immediately following the harpooning of a whale. The whale, distressed by the harpoon, attempts to flee and thus drags the boat along with it. The speed of the “sleigh ride” would vary depending on the species of the whale, with certain species (e.g. humpbacks) giving faster rides. The sperm whale was the whale that caused the longest drag events, reaching speeds of 23 mph (37 km/h).[1] The length of the drag for the sailors would last as long as the whale could swim before it became exhausted. Once the whale expended its energy, the sailors would kill it and harvest its oil.


On this day, the majority of the crew was out in the smaller whaling boats. On board the Essex was 23-year-old First Mate Owen Chase. Mr. Chase was the first one to spot a lone, very large whale. This whale was 85-feet-long and weighed approximately 80 tons.

This monster of a whale did something no one had ever seen or imagined. The unprovoked bull whale charged the Essex. Mr. Chase would recall “coming down for us at great celerity.”The whale smashed into the broadside of the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces”.

The whale passed under the ship. Mr Chase testified, “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury.”  The whale disappeared, and the crew on board frantically tried to plug the hole.

The monster returned and rammed the Essex directly in the bow and then left the area.

Water rushed in the holes so fast that the crew could not save her. They lowered the remaining boat. They piled on navigational equipment, food and water, and watched the Essex roll onto her side.

As the captain and the other boat returned, no one could understand what had happened. The three small boats piled with 21 men and rations for 60 days–if they stretched them–were in bad shape.

In what has to be the most ironic of maritime decisions, the crew convinced the captain to sail south. The captain had wanted to make for Marquesas and Society Islands which were 1200 miles west.

The crew was convinced that these islands were peopled by cannibals and if they sailed south they would run into other whalers.

Saltwater saturated the bread that the crew was eating, causing them to dehydrate as they ate.

They spotted a barren island –Henderson Island– two weeks into their peril. After another week and with supplies running out, three of the men decided they would take their chance on land and stayed behind.

The small boats began to take on water sometime in mid-December. By January, their rations were gone.

On the First Mate’s boat, a man stood up, demanded a dinner napkin and water and died.

“Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.”  They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them. –
Read more 

Over the next couple of weeks, three more sailors died and were eaten.

One boat simply vanished one night and the captain’s and first mate’s boats drifted apart.

In case you were wondering, eating the flesh of another human is bad! Not just morally, but physically too. The body needs lean protein and starving people generally don’t have that.

BUT! If you are inclined to consider some rump jerky, here are a couple of links you should check out.

So, now that we know that eating people is bad, it should come as no surprise to you that these men became weaker the more they ate.

The four men on the captain’s boat figured that without food, they would die. On February 6, 1821, they decided to draw straws to see who would die next so they could eat.

The lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s cousin. The captain reasoned with the lad, saying that if he did not want to die, he would protect him.  Owen was killed by his friend Charles Ramsdell and eaten.

After 89 days at sea, First Mate Chase and two other men were rescued by the English ship Indian.

Meanwhile, three hundred miles away, Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell were obsessing over the bones of their last meal. They had smashed them on the floor of the boat in an attempt to get to the marrow.

About a week after Chase and crew were rescued, the American ship Daupin rescued Pollard and Ramsdell. Instead of rejoicing, the two men scrambled to the bottom of the boat, gathered the  bones, and stuffed them into pockets. (I am surprised they had pockets left.)

Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.” –

The five surviving crewmen were taken to Valparaiso –in what is now Chile– to recover before sailing back to Nantucket.

The three men that remained on Henderson Island survived for four months on bird eggs and shell fish. (Reminds me of Cast Away.) They were eventually rescued by an Australian ship. And, several years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island with three skeletons aboard.

After the five survivors returned to Nantucket, they were mostly given a pass for the cannibalism. With the exception of Pollard–he was not forgiven for his “gastronomic incest.”

Pollard captained another doomed ship, the Two Brothers, which was wrecked on a coral reef two years later. He returned to Nantucket, considered a bad luck captain, and lived the remainder of his life as the night watchman.

Herman Melville
Herman Melville
Image Source:

As a young man, Herman Melville sailed on the whaling ship Acushnet where he learned of the tale of the Essex firsthand. And, in 1842, jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands. (You remember–the ones that were supposed to be filled with cannibals?)

In 1851, he wrote a failure of a novel –which was the only one I knew of until today– Moby Dick, with its wonderfully magical first line. “Call me Ishmael.”

In July of 1852, hoping to increase sales of his dying book Melville visited Nantucket where he met his Captain Ahab. The now 60-year old broken man of George Pollard Jr.

Years later, Melville will write about Pollard in his poem Clarel: A poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

A night patrolman on the quay

Watching the bales till morning hour

Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;

Call him, and he would come; not sour

In spirit, but meek and reconciled:

Patient he was, he none withstood;

Oft on some secret thing would brood.

I really hope that I have done a good job relaying this story.

It was a tragic one!


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3 thoughts on “November 20, 1820 – Essex Sunk by Sperm Whale

  1. Hi there! I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this blog post of yours! It was so amazing. I just checked out your blog because of this and I couldn’t help but press follow immediately because your blog is both amazing and beautiful! I am so happy I came across your blog. Can’t wait to read more from you, keep it up (:


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