The year was 1819 and the soon-to-be-cabin-boy, Thomas Nickerson, was 14 years old. His father had perished at sea and his mother died shortly afterward, leaving him parentless–and worse yet, idle. He was one of three orphans who would board the whaleship Essex that day. As a first-time sailor, he had to clean out the 20-year-old ship, which was beginning to show serious structural deterioration, before they sailed off.
Their captain, George Pollard Jr., was settling into this role for the first time, as was Chase, the young cocksure first mate. The crew was divided into two watches, which would compete for glory in the killing of the sperm whales later in the voyage. They made their way to the Azores and Cape Verde Islands for extra provisions at a much discounted price when a squall (sea-storm) hit the ship. Pollard tried to sail through the storm, but he realized too late that the storm was stronger than the ship. He ordered the crew to shorten sail and turn the ship to face with the wind, but the lateness of this decision cost them greatly as the ship was at the worst possible angle when the storm finally hit. They lost all but one of their whaleboats and several sails were shredded by the time the squall passed.
They made it to the Azores and picked up provisions, but couldn’t get any whaleboats until they arrived at Cape Verdes. They managed to pick up one rickety whaleboat from a wrecked ship on the shore. When they got back to the sea, the lookout spotted the first whale. They rowed out to the whale, harpooned it, killed it with a lance, and brought it back to the deck. There, they dissected it, removed the prized oil in the form of spermaceti, and searched for ambergris, a priceless substance in the intestines that could be turned into perfume. Days later, the crew was exhausted and rejected their small provision of meat, to which the captain responded with indignant authority. Their roles aboard the Essex were no longer to be confused.
They had filled over 450 barrels of oil, or about 11 whales’ worth, and had landed at the southern tip of South America after passing Cape Horn, an incredibly dangerous passage for any ship. The men finally had the chance to receive and read letters from home, though others had to find their satisfaction with newspapers. They sailed to a nearby island and hunted the tortoise population, which they would keep on board as a source of extra sustenance so they could live for more than a year without food or water. On that same island, Thomas Chappel played a prank on the men and accidentally set fire to the entire island. Nickerson estimated that thousands of creatures had died that day.
Back at sea, Benjamin Lawrence failed to harpoon a whale and Chase chastised him for it, taking on the duty himself and leaving Lawrence to break down to tears. They brought the whale back to the deck, and Nickerson saw something very strange. A massive male sperm whale about 85 feet long was swimming quietly near the ship, which was extraordinary behavior (they usually swam far away as fast as possible). The whale started for the ship headfirst, and before they knew it, it had crashed into them, knocking the men to their feet. Chase instinctively picked up a lance, but fearing that the whale would knock out the steering rudder, which they would need to make the 1000+ mile journey to the coast, he hesitated. To their dismay the whale did not swim away, but rather turned around and took another headlong shot at the ship, this time at twice its original speed. The Essex began to sink and the whale swam off, never to be seen again. They pulled out as much food and freshwater as possible as they boarded the whaleboats and bid their ship goodbye. They were about as far from land as was possible anywhere on the planet. Chase would not sleep for three days after the incident.
They built makeshift masts and sails from the ship’s remains and made a plan to head to the South American coast, despite their proximity to the Society Islands. They had heard rumors of cannibalism on these islands and decided it was best not to risk it, even though the wind favored that direction heavily. Pollard equipped Chase and Matthew Joy with pistols as they led their boats.
The boats bounced incessantly and the men developed sores from the salt spray of the ocean. While Pollard’s boat was being attacked by a killer whale, Joy’s was drifting from sight, and Chase’s crew began suffering from hypernatremia, an excess of sodium in the body that causes convulsions. They ate one of the tortoises that had swum to their boat in the aftermath of the wreckage. They spent much time and energy searching for Joy’s boat; once they reunited, they determined that it was not worth their efforts to find each other if the situation should arise again.
After 23 days at sea, it became clear that they would not reach the coast of South America by the 60th day as they had planned. They had to cut provisions of hardtack in half. They ate goose barnacles from the side of the boat and caught flying fish as they passed by, yet their hunger pangs were ever-present. They were now entering what is called the “desolate region," in which there are little-to-no forms of life in sea or air. Just as hopes were dying and thirst was overtaking their minds, William Wright declared that he saw land.
Although they thought they had arrived at Ducie Island, it was actually Henderson Island. There was a bounty of tropic birds and crabs to eat and they remained for several days. Without a source of water, though, they would not last. Again, their collective stamina was at an all-time low when a few of the men found a spring of water. Each of the boat crews filled up their reservoirs and went back out to sea, determining that their only chance at survival was to keep moving. Chappel, Wright, and Weeks thought otherwise and stayed on the island.
Matthew Joy was the first to die, though he had been sick before the shipwreck and showed no sign of recovery on the island. They gave him a proper sea funeral and dropped his body into the ocean with a stone tied to his feet. The men were losing their strength and terrific gales began attacked them daily. When a shark attacked Chase’s boat, he did not even have the strength to dent its skin with his killing lance. Peterson was the next to die and joined Joy at the bottom of the sea.
When Lawson Thomas died, there was barely a pound of tack left and they finally succumbed to what was on all of their minds: cannibalism. They removed the most obvious forms of humanity from the body like the head, hands, feet, and skin, and committed the un-committable. Over in Pollard’s boat, nobody had died of natural causes, so they resorted to casting lots. Pollard’s young cousin, Owen Coffin, drew the unlucky lot; his best friend, Ramsdell, drew the second unluckiest lot to kill Coffin with the pistol.
By this point, their bodies didn’t have enough fat to digest the meat anyway and their only hope of survival was in the sliver of a chance that a ship saw them. More men died and it was down to five men in the boats collectively: our narrators, Lawrence, and Ramsdell. Five days from the shore with only three days of a quarter of the necessary food to live, the men’s fate seemed sealed. Just then, Lawrence spotted a sail. Chase’s boat was saved. Meanwhile in Pollard’s boat, they would resort to cracking open the human bones to suck out the marrow and survived for a full five days longer before being discovered in state of extreme hallucination. The ship captain gave them tapioca and heard Pollard’s story. In all, they had spent over four months traveling over 4500 miles in their 18-foot whaleboats.
Back in Nantucket, they received Pollard’s letter describing the tragic fate of the Essex and awaited their return. Another captain made arrangements for the rescue of Chappel and his comrades while the sailors recovered in Valparaiso, Chile. At any other time, the city would have been aroused by the news of the Essex, but they were awaiting news of revolution, and political tensions were extremely high. When the men finally made their way back to Nantucket, the news did not appear in Obed Macy’s historical journal or any of the local newspapers. Apparently Nantucket did not want to be known for this travesty. Chase wrote down his story and continued to whale, while Pollard’s career as a captain fell off abruptly after his second voyage also ended in the ship’s sinking. Nickerson opened a fine boarding house for tourists, and his account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex was published 163 years later.
Benjamin Lawrence donated a piece of twine that he had created from a frayed rope on his whaleboat to the Nantucket Historical Society, and a chest was found near the shipwreck the following year. This is all that remains of the whaleship Essex.