The Essex Disaster


With the flesh of their comrades all eaten, said Pollard, “we looked at each other with horrid thoughts in our minds, but we held our tongues.… I am sure we loved one another as brothers all the time; yet our looks told plainly what must be done. ” By lot, a victim would be chosen and shot for his flesh. By lot, his executioner, too, would be chosen. Ramsdell drew the executioner’s straw. When the little cabin boy drew the victim’s, “I started forward and cried out, ‘My lad, my lad, if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.’ The poor, emaciated boy hesitated for a moment or two, then, quietly laying his head down upon the gunwale of the boat, he said, ‘I like it as well as any other.’ He was soon dispatched and nothing of him left.” To his clerical listeners Pollard then cried out in a passion: “I can tell you no more. My head is on fire at the recollection. I hardly know what I say.”


That was February 1 on Captain Pollard’s whaleboat. On February 11 Ray succumbed to starvation, and his flesh, too, prolonged the lives of his two survivors, Pollard and Ramsdell. By now the two horror-haunted whaleboats of the Essex —the captain’s and the first mate’s—were sailing on a perfectly parallel course, with Chase’s boat some 300 miles farther north. On both boats the suffering and the horrors appeared to have been borne in vain. On February 18 three men were still alive on Owen Chase’s boat, but all their carefully hoarded food was gone, and Chile was still 300 miles away. That morning Chase was dozing at the rudder while seventeen-year-old Thomas Nicholson lay in the bottom of the boat covered with a canvas and praying for death. It would have come to him swiftly enough had not the third man aboard suddenly cried out: “There’s a sail!” Instantly awake, Chase struggled to his feet to gaze “in a state of abstraction and ecstasy upon the blessed vision of a vessel seven miles off.” It was the brig Indian out of London. A few more miles of tense sailing and the hideous ordeal was over for Chase and his comrades. They had been eighty-three days at sea and had voyaged an incredible 4,500 miles in an open boat. Moreover, in a superb feat of navigation, Chase had brought his men from Henderson’s Island to within a few miles of Juan Fernandez. Five days later, Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell, too, were rescued at sea, 100 miles from the Chilean coast.

In later years Chase became prey to a harmless compulsion. Every time he came home from a voyage, he would go up to his attic and stow away bits of food.

SUCH WAS THE “WONDROUS STORY” OF the whaleship Essex that had such a “surprising effect” on Herman Melville. Of the seventeen men who had pushed off from Henderson’s Island on December 27,1820, only five had survived, all of them from Nantucket. Because they did, the three castaways on Henderson’s Island were to survive as well. A British ship, informed in Chile of their plight, picked them up on April 2, after 102 wretched days of living on birds, berries, and rainwater. By the end of 1821 all five survivors were back home on Nantucket Island, health and strength completely restored. All of them returned swiftly to the sea and to whaling. In time, all four of Captain Pollard’s surviving crewmen were to command whaleships of their own, enjoy prosperity, and live long lives. Of their brutal ordeal they gave few outward signs, although Chase in later years became prey to a harmless compulsion. Every time he returned to Nantucket, he would go up to the attic of his house and stow away crackers and bits of food. Only Captain Pollard himself was dogged by misfortune. When he returned to Nantucket in 1825, after his second ship was wrecked on a Pacific reef, the spirit that had sustained him throughout the ordeal of the Essex seemed to have been snuffed out forever. Retiring from the sea, he became at age thirty-six a humble nightwatchman on the island—meek, mute, yet strangely at peace. After his anguished lapse before the two English missionaries, George Pollard never again spoke about his Essex ordeal. Nor did the people of Nantucket care to hear of it. In that tight-knit community, where ties of kinship bound so many whaling families together, the fate of the Essex and its men touched too many lives too intimately to bear repeating. The veil of silence was still intact some eighty years later when a young Nantucket girl asked the aged daughter of an Essex survivor some questions about what had happened so long ago and so far away. The old woman rose to her feet and said with quiet firmness, “Miss Molly, here we never mention the Essex .”