The Essex Disaster

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The fickle wind, too, unnerved them. It was as variable as the navigation manual had indicated. It would blow favorably for a day, reviving hope, and then turn dead against them for two days more, dashing hope again. Worst by far were the brutal days when the wind failed entirely, and all they could do was strip the sails from the masts and lie under them from dawn until dusk, abandoning the boat to the mercy of the waves. Their minds, said Chase, were now “dark, gloomy and confused.” One night, when they came upon a shoal of whales, the men cowered for hours in the bottom of the boat, terrified of what a few months before they had hunted in that very craft. Yet Chase refused to let his men give up. Again and again he pleaded with them to trust their own efforts, keep faith in God’s providence, and fight against despair. These pleadings probably helped, for by now all that kept the men alive was a vestige of the will not to die.

Proof of that came on January 20 when Richard Peterson, a black man, quietly told Chase that he would henceforth forgo his rations. He had, said Chase, “made up his mind to die rather than endure further misery.” After assuring Chase that he had made his peace with himself and his Maker, Peterson, a quiet, religious man, calmly lay back in the boat. “In a few minutes he became speechless. The breath appeared to be leaving his body without producing the least pain, and at four o’clock he was gone. ” The will not to live had brought death within hours. The next day Peterson’s four comrades buried him at sea. They were now, according to Chase’s reckoning, 1,300 miles from Juan Fernandez, 1,600 miles from Chile, in 35° south latitude.

On the strength of one and a half ounces of daily bread and the fortitude of a twenty-three-year-old leader, the will to live remained intact for several days more in Chase’s boat, although it was not until January 28 that a favoring wind at last began to blow strong and steadily. It had come, it seemed, too late. On the morning of February 7, Chase’s men had but three days of food left—twelve mouthfuls of bread—and several hundred miles still to go. “Our sufferings were now drawing to a close; a terrible death appeared shortly to await us. ” That morning Isaac Cole told Chase that all was “dark” in his mind, “not a single ray of hope was left for him to dwell upon. ” Chase, as always, tried to buoy him up, although what it was that still buoyed Chase, “God alone knows,” as he himself put it. Once again, however, the wish not to live brought a sentence of death. On the morning of February 8, Cole went mad, called wildly for a napkin and water, and then fell back senseless into the bottom of the boat. Seven hours later, after suffering hideous convulsions, Cole passed away. The next morning, when his mates began preparing his body for sea burial, Chase told his two remaining men the decision he had reached in the night. The mortal remains of Isaac Cole must not be consigned to the sea. It was the food that might yet save them. There was no argument. At once the three men cut the wasted limbs from Cole’s body and the stilled heart from his chest. Some of the raw flesh they ate at once. The rest they cooked on a flat rock that they had taken with them from Henderson’s Island. “In this manner did we dispose of our fellow-sufferer.” Dark thoughts now preyed on the minds of the three survivors. “We knew not then to whose lot it would fall next, either to die or be shot and eaten like the poor wretch we had just dispatched.” The fate they so dreaded when they had turned their backs on Tahiti was now threatening each of them.

The third man aboard suddenly cried out, “There’s a sail!” Chase struggled to his feet to gaze, he wrote, “in a state of ecstasy upon the blessed vision of a vessel.”

THE VERY WORST THAT CHASE FEARED , however, had already befallen the comrades from whom he had been separated by the storm of January 12. As early as January 14, the five men left on the second mate’s boat had run out of food entirely and had been kept alive by the scant provisions still left on Captain Pollard’s boat. That sharing was itself an extraordinary act of love and loyalty, for how easy it would have been—how tempting it must have been—for six starving men to sail away from their improvident comrades and save what they had for themselves. For Captain Pollard’s sublime act of charity, however, the price was quickly exacted. On January 21 not a single ounce of bread was left on the captain’s boat. After two days without a scrap of food, starvation brought death to one Lawson Thomas on the second mate’s boat. His surviving boat mates shared his flesh. Between the twenty-fifth and twenty-eighth of January three more men died, and their flesh, too, was shared between the boats. Then, on the night of January 28, a storm separated Captain Pollard’s group from the three men still alive in the other boat. They were never heard from again. In the captain’s boat there were now four starving men: the captain, a young cabin boy named Owen Coffin, bearer of one of Nantucket’s most illustrious names, a Portuguese named Barzillai Ray, and a third Nantucket man, Charles Ramsdell. On February 1 they reached the ultimate possibility. The flesh of their stricken comrades, their sole source of food, was all gone. What happened next was related a few years later by Captain Pollard to two English missionaries after he was shipwrecked a second time in the South Pacific. The story the two startled missionaries heard and recorded was the pent-up outpouring of a grief-stricken heart.