The Essex Disaster

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FOR THE WHALING MEN OF NANTUCKET , the year 1819 looked to be an especially promising one. The island’s famed whaling fleet, ravaged by the 1812 war, now numbered sixty-one stout vessels, and fresh fishing grounds had just been discovered in the equatorial waters of the central Pacific. The new grounds lay 17,000 sailing miles away in ill-charted seas, but Nantucketers routinely made voyages whose immense length only a handfulof great explorers could match. Reaching the grounds usually meant rounding Cape Horn, but Nantucketers had been doubling the dreaded Cape since 1792. Their quarry was the sperm whale, whose peerless oil lit the ballrooms of Europe. Of the thirty vessels leaving Nantucket in 1819, fifteen were bound for the new grounds. One of them, the whaleship Independence II , would discover an entire new atoll in the central Pacific. Another, the Maro , would sail beyond the new grounds and hit upon still richer grounds off Japan, thereby inaugurating Nantucket’s palmiest days. And then there was the whaleship Essex , which embarked from Nantucket on August 12,1819, and sailed into the most harrowing nightmare in the disaster-rich annals of whaling.

The doomed bear no marks of distinction. When the Essex sailed for the southern seas, it was just a typical Nantucket whaler with a typical whaling crew. The ship was a tubby, 238-ton three-master, provisioned for a two-and-a-half year cruise, which meant quite literally that it could sail for two-and-a-half years without putting into port. Nantucket’s self-reliant whaling men disliked depending on the land, of which they were often remarkably ignorant. The two chief officers of the Essex were well-tested Nantucket whalemen. George Pollard, recently first mate of the Essex , was now, at age thirty, its captain. His comparative youth was typical; whaling was a young man’s occupation. Owen Chase, recently boatsteerer on the Essex , was now, at twenty-three, its first mate. Outlanders in the twenty-man crew included one Englishman, one Portuguese, two Cape Codders from Barnstable, and six black men. Their presence, too, was quite commonplace. Nantucket’s ship owners, half of them Quakers, cared nothing about race. “Uncommonly heedful of what manner of men they shipped,” as Herman Melville was to put it, they wanted strong character, firm minds, and high courage in their crews. Hunting the mighty sperm whale, whose twenty-foot flukes could smash a whaleboat to smithereens, was too dangerous and exacting for anything less. There was no poltroonery aboard the Essex , only relative degrees of valor.

For the first fifteen months of the voyage, nothing out of the ordinary occurred. There were storms, spills, bruises and smashed whaleboats—the routine hazards of the hunt. By January 1820 the Essex had doubled the Horn in the teeth of gales so fierce and seas so mountainous it had taken five weeks to make the brief passage. For several months thereafter the ship had hunted whales off the Chilean coast—the familiar “on-shore grounds”—and taken eight. Heading north off the Peruvian coast it had taken several more. The cruise was already proving successful. In October the Essex had put into the uninhabited Galápagos Islands (which a young naturalist named Charles Darwin was to visit fourteen years later aboard H.M.S. Beagle ) in order to repair a leak and stock up on the island’s huge turtles before plunging westward along the equator to the new whaling grounds.