The True Story of the Essex, the Inspiration for "Moby Dick"
Gregory Peck in a scene from the 1956 movie “Moby Dick'' Source: (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
In 1851, Herman Melville published his novel, Moby Dick, which wasn’t a huge bestseller in Melville’s day but went on to become a classic of American literature. The novel tells the story of a whaling boat captain who is obsessed with hunting down the whale that was responsible for his severed leg and the whale that seemed equally determined to finish off the captain once and for all. Melville’s account of the disastrous whaling venture was not entirely fictional. He based his story on the sinking of the Essex that took place three decades earlier. The story of the Essex shows us that truth is stranger than fiction.
The Essex Set Sail in 1819
When the Essex left Nantucket in 1819, it was embarking on a two and a half year whaling venture. They rounded Cape Horn and looked for whales off the western coast of South America, but came up empty-handed. They headed further into the South Pacific, after restocking their supplies in the Galapagos. The whalers were far from land, but successful in their whale hunts, until a fateful encounter with one very large, very angry whale.
A Large Whale is Sighted
On a day in November of 1820, the captain of the Essex, 29-year old George Pollard, Jr, joined the whaling crew on the long boats. The ship’s first mate, 23-year old Owen Chase, remained on the Essex to work on some repairs. In the distance, Chase spied a huge whale. The animal was at the surface of the water facing the Essex. Chase estimated it was at least 85 feet in length, a monster whale. The whale seemed to be waiting and watching, then suddenly, as Chase looked out, the massive whale barreled towards the Essex, smashing into the ship head-on.
The Attack Was On
The giant whale seemed unfazed by the strike, which made a large hole in the ship and tossed crew members about and swam underneath the Essex. There, he churned up the water with his tail until the ship was lurching from side to side. The crew barely had time to get to their feet and assess the damage when one of them spotted the whale speeding toward them again…at an even greater speed. This time, the damage was too much for the Essex. Chase and his men had just enough time to grab a few supplies, water, and navigation equipment and lower themselves into one of the whaling boats before the Essex rolled onto her side.
Captain Pollard Watch the Attack From Afar
Out in the whaling boats, Captain Pollard and the whalers watched in horror as the Essex flipped onto her side. When Chase and his men reached Pollard and the two whaling boats, they 20 men discussed their options. Pollard wanted to head for the nearest land, the Marquesas Islands, but the others were convinced that the islands were inhabited by cannibals. Against Pollards better judgment, the men elected to sail south in hopes of crossing paths with another whaling ship.
The Men Feared Cannibals, but They Became Cannibals Themselves
After weeks on the boats, with food and water running low and dehydration setting in, the situation was becoming desperate. One crew member went insane and died in a fit of seizures. Out of choices, Chase and the others cut the man’s flesh from his bones and roasted them on a flat stone and ate him. Three more crew members died in the next several days, and they, too, were cannibalized. More weeks at seas passed and the men decided to draw lots to decide who would be the next person eaten. The unfortunate man was the young cousin of Captain Pollard’s. The distraught captain promised to protect the boy, but he insisted that he fulfill his lot.
The Men Are Rescued
One of the three whaling boats disappeared one night and, later, Chase’s boat and Pollard’s boat drifted away from each other. After nearly three months adrift at sea, the remaining men on Chase’s boat finally spotted a ship in the distance. It was an English ship. About a week later, Pollard and the only remaining crew member in his boat were rescued by an American ship. Many years later, the third boat was found on a remote island with three skeletons on board.
The Men Returned to Nantucket
When the surviving crew members returned to Nantucket and told their incredible story, they were not looked at in horror. A custom of the sea dictates that cannibalism is accepted if faced with dire situations. The only person to shun Captain Pollard was the mother of his cousin, who could never forgive him for eating her son.
Tags: Herman Melville, Moby Dick, sinking of the essex boat, books, book inspiration, literature, 1800s, C
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