“We Have Been Stoved By a Whale” : Whaler Essex

The Essex and the whale by Thomas Nickerson (Courtesy Wikipedia)

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.

Owen Chase in later life (Courtesy Wikipedia)

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.

Henderson Island (Courtesy Wikipedia)

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.

Chase had sighted Masafuera a few days before Lawrence sighted the sail (Courtesy Wikipedia)

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.

Source: Philbrick, Nathaniel. Into the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex


42 thoughts on ““We Have Been Stoved By a Whale” : Whaler Essex

    • Let’s hope we never have to find out! Can you imagine how degrading some of the survivors had to feel afterwards? Especially Pollard since Coffin had been placed in his care and the boy ends up eaten. Thanks for your comment.


  1. Another fine job! It’s a sad story but also a uplifting one. Those men that sailed away from their homes were a very brave group. One never knew if rescue would ever come if desaster struck. Many a man was never heard of again nor remembered. Kind of sounds like the story of “Moby Dick”. I’m not sure of the date. Which came first the chicken or the egg?..;o)


    • The Essex disaster came before Moby Dick. But the Essex was Herman Melville’s inspiration for the classic.

      Indeed they could’ve met theur end many tmes while aboard those whaleboats. Pollard’s was damaged by an orca a few days out and a shark harrassed Chase’s boat on another occasion. Thanks for your comment!1


    • Whaling was such a dangerous (and very nasty) job. I’d be right alongside of you protesting too! Can we skip the bonnet though? I have an 1850s Prairie style one and it isn’t very comfortable! Thanks for your comment.


    • Yes, at least not everyone lost their lives. Pollard’s bad luck didn’t end there. He lost his next ship too. It was the Two Brothers which was in the news recently. Thanks for your comment!


  2. To me, nothing illustrates how different the world of the 19th century is from ours today is than the fact that there were sea cabin boys like Thomas Nickerson aboard such ships. These boys were usually anywhere from 12 to 15 years of age, I believe, if not younger sometimes.

    As someone who has a son who is now 16, I can’t imagine him lasting a couple of hours under any sea captain, no matter how benevolent, and I think that applies to most teens today, and to teens for much of the past 40 years, for that matter.

    Of course, I’m not sure I would want my son, or any other child today to have to endure such an experience.

    Excellent read, J.G., as always.


    • Nickerson was 15 at the start of the voyage, the youngest aboard. A hardy lad to have survived as long as he did, although by the time Chase had sighted Masafuera Nickerson had already given up. Help came just in time.

      Yep, I agree wholeheartedly. Homesickness would have killed me when I was 15 or 16 and away at sea. Either the homesickness or witnessing a whale taken apart. But then that was something Nantucketers were groomed for and for the most part their goal in life.

      Thank you for your comment.


  3. Very good story and excellent blog: glad I stumbled upon it.
    Last Summer I have visited the whaling museum on Nantucket (very interesting place, by the way) and there was quite a lot of material and information about the last voyage of the Essex, the collision with the huge sperm whale and how this all inspired the writing of Moby Dick.


    • The capt and I went to Nantucket last year and he toured the whaling museum whilst I sat outside and “wailed” for the poor hunted whales. He said it was good I didn’t go in, that’s not the kind of thing I like to see. I was much more excited when we found a dumpster full of scallop shells and I packed a suitcase full to bring home! I wish we had taken pix of that!


    • Ha ha ha ha! I’m gonna send your comment to DIL Yes, I’ve become a real sponge. Or maybe I was part of the aristocracy in another lifetime. I’m working on another UK SPK…that’s my defense! My husband had to literally pull me away from the dumpster. He said I had enough and it was raining and I was bordering the line of crazy and I told him enough meant I had them ALL and the dumpster would be empty. I’m still sad I didn’t get the rest of them. Hope you find them on a visit someday? I’ll try to remember where it was.


    • It’s a relatively harmless obsession, right? I could be on that hoarder show, but I’m a compulsively clean hoarder. a slightly OCD hoarder. Wait til you see the pix of my completed bathroom project. That’ll be tomorrow. Blimey!
      Actually, now I’m going to want to go back to that dumpster myself…there must be more…


  4. Hard to imagine a whale hunting a bost isn’t it? What a dreadful end those poor sailors suffered, I can’t imagine being driven to cannibalism but people will do anything to survive.
    Was admitting to the cannibalism a problem when they returned to civilization or was it glossed over?


    • For Pollard it proved problematic. It was made worse because the victim had been his cousin. A nasty rumor floated around after he took a shore-based job. People said Pollard was the chosen victim but Coffin offered to take his place which the captain agreed to. You think after what Pollard had been through those who had not even been there would have given him a break.


    • People sitting in their comfy homes are always quick to judge aren’t they? To survive such a thing and then have to live it down would probably make you wonder why you tried so hard to survive.

      I would like to think I would never do something like that but when push came to shove and it was the only thing between me and certain death…. well, many people have taken that path in the past, haven’t they?


    • Yep, it’s something I try hard to avoid doing.

      On land and sea desperate people have resorted to cannibalism. Just look at the Jamestown, Virginia settlers during the “Starving Time” (fodder for a future post). I should pray very much that should I ever find myself in such a situation I would never have to resort to such a thing.


    • Throughout history other cultures have seen cannibalism as a normal part of life, generally they ate their enemies and not their friends though!

      We see it through our modernised eyes and abhor it, I wonder what those primitive people would think of our squeamish attitude. Either way, homo sapien is off the menu for me thanks!


    • What’s ironic about the whole thing is the fact that they hadn’t landed on nearer islands because of the cannibal threat (of which they were misinformed).

      You’re thoughts make me wonder. Are there still people who practice cannibalism today? 😯


    • I am not sure, but sometimes there are reports of it in Papua New Guinea. Who knows the truth of them though? I expect that there are some primitive societies who do keep that part of their culture going but, that if things like that do go on the ones who practice it would keep it quiet once they find out the attitudes of the rest of the world.

      Even though it is something that I find horrible I think that one society pushing their beliefs on to others is wrong. If they want to practice it, and have for thousands of years, who are we to tell them to stop? It just means those of us who don’t want to eat, or be eaten, should keep that place off our holiday wish list!

      Funny how these shipwreck survivors avoided the islands because of the supposed cannibals and then ended up doing it themselves. I wonder if the thought of that fate preyed on their mind and was what planted the seed when the first victim died?


    • I imagine so and add to that the fact they were at death’s door themselves. Surely if they had stopped off on one of the islands more, if not all, of the castaways would have survived the ordeal.


    • Oh, I wonder if you’re related to this particular Chase!

      My research usually takes a few days. I read a book and then find other resources online and put a post together. 😀

      Thanks for reading and for your comment!


  5. This story of the Essex astounds me. While reading through the story you wrote here, I was first amazed at the prospect of the whale ramming into the ship, causing the sailors to flee into their smaller boats. Upon reading further, I was utterly shocked at the cannibalism they were led to resort to. My, my, my.

    Anyways, I also wanted to respond to your comments on my blog. I’m quite happy that both of us are writing a story that takes place on a sinking Edwardian ship. (We have quite a bit in common right there!) I spent so much time researching the Titanic this year, I didn’t want it all to go to waste, and that’s why I decided to take on writing a fictional novel about it. You’re ahead of me on word count if you have more than 13,000 already! I’m at 10,000. I’ll look forward to hearing how far you made it by the end of the month!


    • Bit of a horror story, this one.

      At the moment my word count has grown to 17,685 and I’m still behind! I owe this to a late start and procrastination which is a bad combination if a person wants to get anything done. 😆 To get caught up, I’ll have to pound out 2,400 words a day. Once you’ve finished your story, do you plan to try and get it published? I’d love to see what you do with the Titanic disaster! Good luck on your writing.


    • Good luck with your story! 2,400 words a day, whew! If, when I get to the end of the story (and after I’ve done a LOT of editing which I know it needs)… it would be fun to see about getting published. Or at least self-published. I’ve done a lot of writing in the past years, but this is the first one that “feels right”. Any thoughts about published for you?


    • Yes, I think after months of editing I should be able to get my story published. But for now editing will have to be put on hold for the coming months. And I feel the same about my story (“feels right”), I’m happier with the way it is turning out compared with past stories. It’s very rough and flawed at the moment but that can be remedied later.


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