The Essex was a normal whaling ship of the early 1800’s. It was 87 feet long (26 m). It had three masts and a hold full of barrels. It carried five smaller whaling boats, a pile of muscle-powered harpoons, and a crew of 20. Its task was to generally wander around the world for 2 to 3 years, hunting sperm whales, filling their barrels with precious whale oil and then returning, and sharing out the profit according to rank. Normal in every aspect.

But let us set the scene.

In the 1800’s whaling was the principle industry on Nantucket, and Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. The demand for whale oil was huge (for lamps and lubrication), and for Sperm Whale Oil, known as spermacetti, in particular because of it’s high quality and pleasant odour. The whale industry on Nantucket was starting to peak in 1819 when the Essex set forth on its fateful journey, but the high demand and the expanding industry made two noticeable changes:

Firstly, Nantucketers had a reputation as the best and toughest whaling men, but demand led them to hire more and more inexperienced men to man the ships. Interestingly, many black men were joining crews to enjoy the greater (but by no means complete) freedom it allowed. Similar perhaps to the system that existed on pirate ships.

Secondly, and more significantly, overfishing had led to shortages in the normal whaling grounds. The whaling grounds in the Pacific had slowly receded. An adventurous captain in 1818 discovered the ‘Offshore Ground’, a new rich ground but far far from the safety of the shore. This is where the Essex was headed.

The Essex set sail in August, 1819, and had a rather boring 15 months, except for losing two of its whale boats in a storm. They sighted few sperm whales, but things were looking up around November, by which time they had sailed close to 2000 miles from the coast into almost unchartered waters. On November 20th most of the crew set off in the whale boats, chasing the sperm whale’s distinctive forward pointing spout. Two of the boats had gotten lucky and were tied up to the floating corpses, when a sperm whale crushed the side of the third boat with it’s tail. They limped back to the mothership to repair. It may have been the thumping of the hammers or it may have been pure vengeance that led the massive bull sperm whale to the ship.

A sperm whale is a big big animal. A large bull can grow up to 20 metres.
It is the largest hunter in the sea, and possibly the largest that ever lived. Unlike other whales of its size it doesn’t filter feed, but it uses its massive teeth to chew up prey like fish and squid. Scientists suspect sperm whales hunt by using sound as a weapon. In the head of the whale is an organ called the spermaceti, which contains the valuable oil. The whale can use this as a kind of “sound lens” in order to focus an intense beam of sound energy on a specific target. The explosive “crack” sound is enough to stun or kill the animal. They can dive to a depth of 3 kilometres. Their only natural enemy is the giant squid, and they often fight to the death.

To hunt one of these in the early 19th Century required team of men to row the small whaling boat up to the whale. Then the harpooner would throw his razor sharp harpoon as deep into the whale as they could. If it landed, the harpoon would be tied to the main rope which stretched from where it was coiled in the aft to a notch in the prow. This rope would feed out at an incredible speed as the panicked whale dove. The boat would be dragged along behind it, until the whale got exhausted and surfaced. Then smaller hand harpoons would be pushed into it’s vital organs till blood came out of its blow-hole. Any part of this hunt was incredibly dangerous, and many men were crushed, drowned or worse left behind if they fell out of the boat pulled by the speeding whale.

It was a massive bull whale that lined itself up with the Essex. It raised its head out of the water and swam straight into the prow. It wallowed for a moment, stunned, while the crew rushed to the pumps. The whale then swam off to gain some distance, pulled its head out and aimed for the more vulnerable port side, which snapped into little splinters. According to the First Mate Owen Chase, the whale crashed into it at them at a speed of 6 knots. The Essex began to sink.

“The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock and trembled for a few minutes like a leaf,” recalled Chase. “We looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech.”

The whale boats, seeing the distressed ship, cut themselves free of the corpses, and rowed back to the others ship. Captain Pollard quickly organised the three boats, and tried to load in food and water before all was lost.

The three little boats were in as much trouble as it is possible to be in at sea. They were in the middle of the sea. They had little food, and little water. The closest land was the Marquesas, 1200 miles west. But the islands were thought to be inhabited by cannibals, so they set off south, hoping that breezes would carry them the 1800 miles to Chile. If severely rationed they had enough food for 60 days. The Captain estimated the journey at 56 days. But the weather turned bad. Storms drove them off course and threatened to sink the boats.

As weeks wore on, the men began to suffer from hunger. Constantly exposed to the wind and sun, their thirst drove them to distraction. When their hard tack bread became soaked with salty seawater, they had to choose between feeding their starving bodies or increasing their thirst. A month into the voyage, they happened upon an unpopulated island called Henderson in the Pitcairn archipelago. It was a small and barren place, but they found a small spring and some sea birds. Three men chose to remain on the island rather than face the open sea again.

The boats sailed on. A storm separated the three boats. The first to die was a sailor who was probably sick beforehand. Then the black sailors who were less well nourished started to die of starvation. The first few were sewn up in their clothes and pushed overboard. Then the crew decided, that rather than face starvation they would eat the bodies of the dead.

Later, the situation on Captain Pollard’s boat became desperate. The four remaining men drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed for the survival of the crew. A young man named Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard’s young cousin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot. Lots were drawn again to determine who would be Coffin’s executioner. His young friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot. Ramsdell shot Coffin, cut off his head and threw it over board and his remains were consumed by Pollard, Barzillai Ray, and Charles Ramsdell. Some time later, Ray also died. For the remainder of their journey, Pollard and Ramsdell survived by gnawing on the bones of Coffin and Ray and sucking out the marrow. They were rescued by the Nantucket whaling ship Dauphin 95 days after the Essex sank. Both men by that time were so completely dissociative that they did not even notice the Dauphin alongside them. The two of them had hoarded more than a few bones, and were reluctant to give them up even when they knew they were saved.

The boat guided by First Mate Owen Chase was rescued by the British ship The Indian after 93 days at sea, with two other men aboard, the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson and Benjamin Lawrence. The third boat was never seen again.

Pollard, Chase, Ramsdell, Lawrence, and Nickerson were reunited in the port of Valparaiso, where they informed officials there of their three shipmates stranded on Henderson Island. A ship destined on a trans-Pacific passage was ordered to look for the men on Henderson. The three men were eventually rescued, although they were nearly dead.

By the time the last of the eight survivors were rescued on April 5, 1821, seven sailors had been eaten.

Chase was plagued by nightmares, and in later life hid food in his attic. He wrote an account of the voyage called Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

In the 1960s an account by the Cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, was found called The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats. The drawing on the top of this page comes from his notebook, and reads, “Here lay our beautiful ship, a floating and dismal wreck”

The Black Spot | 2009 | True History | Tags: , , , , , | Comments (1)

One Response to “The Black Spot”

  1. carol says:

    Interesting !!

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