By the time of her final voyage in 1819, the Nantucket whaler Essex was an aged lady, but a very successful one. That was about to change. Her captain was George Pollard, a first mate from the previous voyage. On 12 August 1819 the Essex set sail for a 2 year (or more) whaling voyage. Once at sea cabin boy Thomas Nickerson found out for himself what a demanding person First Mate Owen Chase was. But it was too late to turn back now and Nickerson had 2 years of Chase’s company to look forward to. Pollard, although not overly-confident, was for the most part quite the opposite of Chase. Three days out, the Essex voyage was beginning to show the bad luck her voyage would be plagued with. A squall knocked the whaler on her beams end. She was eventually righted, but not before giving the crew a proper scare. A fair amount of damage had been inflicted on the vessel and not to mention had put a superstitious crew ill at ease. The Essex had lost two needed whaleboats in the accident, one of which Pollard was able to replace. The time it took to round the notorious Cape Horn proved extremely long (5 weeks) as well as exhausting.
November 20 found the crew hunting at the whale grounds. Chase’s whaleboat was damaged while preparing to harpoon a whale. This was the second time this had happened. Chase and his crew returned to the Essex to repair the boat, while Pollard and Second Mate Matthew Joy continued on the hunt. Back on the ship the crew noted a large whale headed towards the ship. It picked up speed. Before Chase could take any action the whale slammed into the Essex. It emerged, dazed. Chase moved to harpoon it, but decided against this when he noticed its tail was next to the rudder and could easily damage it. The whale swam away…then turned around and raced back to the Essex. This time the collision was too much. Apparently satisfied, the whale swam off leaving the Essex to sink.
Before abandoning the quickly filling ship, Chase and the crew filled the whaleboat with items, particularly navigational tools. They got away from the Essex right before she capsized. From their whaleboats, Pollard and Joy were oblivious to what had happened. Only when a sailor pointed out the capsized ship did they notice. Pollard had to be shocked by Chase’s answer to his question of what had happened. “We have been stoved by a whale”.
Before setting out for the more than 2,000 mile journey to South America, the three whaleboat collected as much water and food as the could safely carry in their cramped boats. They also built-up the sides of the whaleboats with wood from the Essex. So why sail for South America when there were much nearer islands (e.g. Society Islands)? Chase and Joy were under the impression the islands were inhabited by cannibals. They left the floating wreck on November 22. The trip ahead of them would take at least 2 months. Rationing was immediately applied. Chase would at sometime be forced to cut hardtack ration down to 1 ½ ounces. Along the way the men would be faced with the task of keeping their boats afloat, battling damages (Chase’s boat was the worse off of the three), riding out storms, being cooked by the sun and ignoring a ravenous hunger and thirst.
By November 29 the trio had traveled 500 miles, but they still weren‘t any closer to South America. Twice the boats were separated but managed to meet back up. In addition to their rations the men in Chase’s boat ate gooseneck barnacles, which had been accidentally discovered on the bottom of their boat. They exhausted that food source the first day. It’s worth noting that Chase’s attitude had changed and he was a good source of encouragement to his crew.
December 19, the survivors were at their lowest ebb. They were hungry, thirsty and so very far away from their destination thanks to contrary weather. That same day they sighted Henderson Island (Pollard thought it was Ducie Island). They landed and began a search for food and water. After a week on the island the boats set sail on December 27. Three men made the decision to stay behind. Pollard promised that if they made it to civilization he would send help back.
On 10 January 1821, consumptive Joy died and was buried at sea. He was the first casualty. Obed Hendricks was transferred to Joy’s boat to take command.
On the night of December 11, Chase’s boat was separated from the other two. It was, perhaps, a blessing in disguise. On January 20, one of Chase’s sailors died. He was buried at sea. Back in Hendricks’ boat a sailor also died, but unlike Chase they didn’t bury him. Hendricks and Pollard had just about exhausted their supply of food. Desperate they resorted to cannibalism. The same happened each time a man died. On the 29th, Hendricks’ boat was separated. In Pollard’s boat lots were drawn to see who should be killed for food. Owen Coffin was the sad victim. Pollard offered to trade places with his cousin, but 17-year-old Coffin would have none of it. The task of shooting Coffin fell to his friend Charles Ramsdell. A few days later another man died.
In Chase’s boat things hadn’t gotten quite as gruesome, but gruesome nonetheless. Chase had upped the hardtack rations, knowing everyone was dying. A sailor went mad and died on February 8. The next day while preparing to bury him, Chase broached the subject of cannibalism. No one objected. There were only three crewmen left in the boat: Chase, Nickerson and Benjamin Lawrence.
On February 18, Lawrence sighted a sail. In their weakened conditions the three-man crew made for the ship as best as the could. The survivors were helped aboard the India and taken to Valparaiso where they arrived on February 25th. They had been castaways for 91 days. Pollard and Ramsdell, the last two survivors in their boat, were found by the Dauphin on February 23. They lay in the bottom of their boat clutching bones, unaware of the Dauphin’s presence until the last minute. Once aboard Pollard told of the ordeal and informed the captain of the three men left behind on ‘Ducie Island’. Later, the captain of the Surry agreed to stop off on Ducie to rescue the men. When he didn’t find them there he sailed to Henderson thinking perhaps Pollard had misidentified the island. Sure enough, there they were. All three were taken aboard the ship. The ordeal was finally over. Out of 20 men, only 8 had come away alive.