A Real Life ‘Moby Dick’: Sperm Whale Sinks Ship
A real-life Moby Dick, a huge 85-foot sperm whale, attacked and sank the Nantucket whaling ship Essex on Nov. 20, 1820, in the South Pacific—leading to an unimaginably horrible ordeal as Captain Pollard and his 19 men struggled to survive. The account of the whale’s attack inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, but what happened to the men after their ship sank was too gruesome for Melville to put into his book.
Captain George Pollard, Jr., and his men took what provisions they could from the sinking Essex and set off in three whaleboats to try to reach the west coast of South America 2,000 miles away. The boats became separated and one was never seen again. Each of the other two were eventually rescued separately, but only after the men endured three months of horror on the open sea, reduced to drinking their own urine and eating the flesh of their dead comrades to stay alive.
It was only after the eight survivors were rescued (five from the two whaleboats, three from an island where they had remained behind) that the world learned of the fate of the Essex and its crew. This was the account published by the New-York Gazette & General Advertiser (New York, New York) on June 13, 1821:
The following distressing particulars of the loss of the ship Essex, of Nantucket, were received yesterday from our Boston Correspondent.
By the sloop Ocean, from Sag Harbor, via Nantucket, we learn that a letter had been received at the latter place from Capt. Pollard, of the ship Essex, of Nantucket, communicating the melancholy particulars of the loss of that ship. The facts as near as I can learn are as follows. The ship was in the Pacific Ocean on “whaling ground,” and was run foul of by a whale with great force, which stove in her bow; she filled very fast, and capsized, but on the masts being cut away she righted. At the time the accident happened, two boats were absent from the ship in pursuit of whales, and a signal was immediately made for their return. They had but a short time to save a few articles of provisions, before the ship was entirely filled with water (she could not sink having a considerable quantity of oil on board). The officers and crew were then divided as nearly as possible into three whale boats, and they left the ship, in hopes of shortly falling in with some other whalemen; but in this they were disappointed. A few days after, a gale separated them, and two of the boats have not since been heard of [when he wrote his letter, Pollard was not aware that three men had been rescued in the second whaleboat–ed.]. The boat in which the captain was, continued to buffet the waves without falling in with a vessel, and had consumed what little provision they had saved from the ship, till at length, being famished with hunger, several of them died; on their bodies the survivors subsisted as long as they lasted, and when consumed, seeing no prospect of speedy relief, they were reduced to the awful extremity of proposing that one should die to preserve the lives of the others, in the hope that they would eventually be taken up by some vessels cruising in those seas; accordingly they cast lots which should fall, and the one on which it fell was killed, and by so doing, the lives of the others (Capt. P. and a boy) were saved, who, after being in the boat ninety days, were providentially taken up by a vessel, the name of which I have not learned.
Further details were supplied by a letter the Boston Commercial Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts) published on the front page of its June 14, 1821, issue. Note the letter writer, like Melville later, found the details of the survivors cannibalizing their fallen comrades “too distressing to be detailed”:
Extract of a letter from Nantucket, June 7.
Sch. Harmony, Ray, arrived here yesterday from N. S. Shetland, with 4500 skins. In lat. 18, N. lon. 54, W. spoke ship Triton, Wood, from the Pacific Ocean, for N. Bedford, with 2000 bbls. oil. From Capt. W. he learnt the loss of ship Essex, Pollard. The Essex was whaling in lat. 00, 44, S. lon. 120, W. While the boats were out, the ship was attacked by a whale, which struck her first against the starboard fore chains, and next on the larboard bow, and so disabled her that she immediately filled with water and overset. They cut away her masts and she righted. The captain and crew remained by the ship four days—when, having taken in provisions, they all left her, in three boats, and proceeded on the wind to the southward. This disaster took place in Nov. 1820. They first landed on a small island called Ducier’s [Ducie, though in actuality it was Henderson Island–ed.], in lat. 24, S. lon. 124, W.
After staying on the island 6 days, they left it, and left there one man from each boat. The boats kept company for some considerable time. The 2d mate, Mr. Joy, who commanded one boat, being sick, was taken on board the captain’s boat, and soon afterwards died. The captain’s boat separated from one, and shortly after from the other boat. In Feb. 1821, they fell in with the ships Dauphin, Coffin, of Nantucket, and Diana, Paddock, of N. York, then in lat. 38, about 50 miles from the coast of Chili. The only survivors then were the captain and Charles Ramsdell, a lad. The account of their sufferings, and the circumstances which attended them, as reported, is too distressing to be detailed.
The Diana and Dauphin fell in with the ship Two Brothers, Worth, and put the two men on board, as she was bound home.