- 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
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.