- Historic Sites
The Essex Disaster
She was the first whaleship ever sunk by her prey. But that’s not why she’s remembered.
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
For the next two days, the ragged, ravenous men foraged for food while continuing at each low tide to fill up their water kegs. On legs too weak to climb hills, however, their foraging range was severely restricted, and twenty hungry men were depleting its resources with considerable speed. On Christmas Day—their fifth on the island—not a single fresh morsel of food could be found. On that day, at a general council, the survivors of the Essex made a hard decision. It would have been easy enough to sail the boats to another part of the island and begin foraging afresh from there. Perhaps in due time a whaling ship might rescue them. After the suffering they had already endured in their boats, anything might seem preferable to returning to the sea and its terrors. The illusion of safety, however, did not seduce them. The island’s eighteen square miles simply could not feed twenty men indefinitely. They decided to leave as soon as their water kegs were filled and their leaky boats repaired. Only three men demurred: William Wright and Seth Weeks of Barnstable and Thomas Chappie of Plymouth, England. To the certain perils of the ocean they preferred the passive misery of the semi-barren islet. What lay in store for castaways on Henderson’s Island they were soon to discover in a cave: it held the skeletons of eight shipwrecked mariners.
For the second and final leg of their voyage, Pollard and Chase now sketched out a confident course. Instead of making blindly for the remote South American coast, they intended to set a course south-southeast for Easter Island, 900 miles from Ducie and 1,100 miles from their real location. If they missed that speck in the sea, 2,000 agonizing miles would still separate them from the South American coast. With that prospect of failure in mind, perhaps, Captain Pollard wrote a brief account of the shipwreck of the Essex , put it in a tin box, and nailed the box to a tree; men hate oblivion as much as they fear death. At 10:00 A.M. on the morning of December 27, seventeen emaciated survivors once again took to their whaleboats. The three who chose land did not see their comrades off. The castaways could not bear the painful wrench of parting from those whose sufferings they had shared for so long.
The first man to die was the second mate, Matthew Joy. He had been somewhat sickly, the others recalled, ever since leaving Nantucket. His ailment had probably been minor, but after fifty days on a starvation diet, the smallest bodily frailty becomes as deadly as the deadliest disease. At dawn on the eleventh of January 1821 the mortal remains of the second mate were sewn up in his clothes, weighted with a stone, and “consigned, ” said Chase, “in solemn manner to the ocean. ” Only one other stricken man of the seventeen was to be granted that final dignity.
Two nights later, with a fierce gale blowing, Chase, at the rudder, peered through the gloom and the spray to see how the other two boats were faring. They were nowhere in sight. Heading his own boat into the wind, Chase drifted anxiously for an hour hoping to come upon them, but they had vanished completely. The men in his boat were now utterly alone, in the immensity of the Pacific. “We had lost the cheering of each other’s faces, that which, strange as it is, we so much required in both our mental and bodily distresses. ” According to Chase’s January 14 calculations, they had sailed only 900 miles eastward since leaving the island. At that rate it would take five weeks to reach Juan Fernandez. Chase, the relentless realist, refused to live by false hopes. Once again he cut the food rations, this time drastically. Henceforth, five starving men would each have to survive on one and a half ounces of ship’s bread a day.
“The poor emaciated boy hesitated for a moment, then, quietly, laying his head down upon the gunwale of the boat, he said, ‘I like my lot as well as any other.’”
The men were approaching a state of unbearable, excruciating misery. Painful boils broke out on their wasted flesh. The griping cramps of empty bowels tormented their waking hours, while dreams of food continued to torment their sleeping ones. From each such dream Chase himself awoke with a craving for food so frenzied that he ripped off a piece of cowhide from one of the oars and tried vainly to chew it. Too weak to stand up—standing brought on blinding vertigo—Chase and his comrades scarcely had strength left to set sails and to steer. On January 15, when a hungry shark began champing at the boat, someone grabbed a lance—a deadly weapon that had ended the lives of countless sperm whales—in order to kill it and make a lifesaving feast of its flesh. He was too weak even to pierce the shark’s skin. In the end the five men were relieved just to drive it away from the boat.