On December 22, 2013, the BBC will run a documentary on some of the true whaling stories behind the book Moby Dick. An expert on the subject, Philip Hoare, wrote an essay for Seven Magazine, in the Telegraph of 8.12.13, which makes a marvellous piece of Reading For Boys. You can read the whole thing at
Meanwhile, an edited taster follows, below the splendid illustration, by James Edwin McConnell (1903-1995) – thanks to the Bridgeman Art Library. Philip Hoare has written a book about whales and whaling, Leviathan, and one about the wonders of the oceans, The Sea Inside.
Two thousand miles from the nearest land, the crew of the Essex watched in horror as the enormous bull whale headed for their mother ship. Marooned in small, open boats the 20 men stood, powerless, as the creature struck their vessel at full speed.
Wood splintered, the whole structure of the ship shook. Then, after swimming off to leeward, the whale gathered its strength and came thundering towards the Essex again, even faster than before.
The story of the Essex and the lengths to which its crew went in order to survive is part of maritime lore and the subject of a new BBC film, dramatising the real-life voyage that inspired Herman Melville to write his novel Moby Dick.
In the early 19th century, whaling was probably the most unpleasant, dangerous and least rewarded of all occupations. A whaler’s life was mired in blood and blubber, stalled by immense periods of boredom and often abruptly curtailed by violent death. Signing on for a whaling voyage could mean up to five years away from home, and a journey to the other end of the Earth, in order to do battle with the great leviathan of the seas – the sperm whale.
Ever since 1712, when they had first set out from Nantucket, Yankee whalers had supplied the Western world with whale oil. The streets of London, New York, Berlin and Paris were lit by it; the mills and machinery of the Industrial Revolution ran on the same stuff. Whaleships were the equivalent of modern oil tankers.
It was this heroic, filthy, abusive and highly lucrative (for ship-owners) business that Melville recorded in Moby-Dick, published in 1851.
Could a whale really attack and sink a great ship, as Moby Dick does in the final? The astonishing answer was yes. And the gruesome details of the true story exceeded any fictional account.
On August 12 1819, the Essex set sail from Nantucket. The captain was George Pollard. He was the model for Melville’s Captain Ahab and his first mate, Owen Chase, was the model for Ahab’s first mate, Starbuck. The global chain of coffee shops is named after the Starbuck in Moby Dick.
By November 1820, the Essex had reached the Pacific equator, 2,000 miles from the South American coast. That morning, November 20, the weather was fine and clear. A pod of whales was sighted by the lookout. The men set to with gusto – whales meant dollars! The slender, fast, clinker-built whaleboats, built to ride high in the water, were lowered from the sides of the ship, and the hunters set off.
The sperm whale is the largest predator that ever lived, and although modern sperm whales grow to only 65ft, Melville and his fellow whalers recorded whales 80 or even 100ft long.
Armed with a lower jaw studded with 42 teeth, it’s a formidable opponent if driven to defend itself. Its tail, as broad as a house, could dash a flimsy whaleboat to smithereens, and often did. The sperm whale is also the only cetacean that can swallow a human being, and has done so, in the melee of a hunt. (It’s not a nice way to go: its gastric juices are so acidic that sailors cut out of whales have been bleached white by the process.)
This mammal posesses the largest brain in nature. And despite its size and power, I can attest to its overwhelmingly pacific nature. But then, I’ve never come at one with a harpoon.
Owen Chase, at the prow of the whaleboat, threw his weapon into a whale.
“Feeling the harpoon in him, he threw himself, in agony, over towards the boat and, giving a severe blow with his tail, struck the boat,” Chase wrote in an account published in 1821. Realising that if he didn’t act quickly, the whale might drag them down, Chase took an axe and cut the line. At the same time, Captain Pollard was in his whaleboat, attempting to harpoon another large whale. But then, to his amazement, Chase saw, much closer in, “a very large spermaceti whale about 85ft in length” heading directly at their mother ship, “as if fired with revenge” for the sufferings of its fellow whales.
Chase watched, horrified, as the whale “came down upon us at full speed, and struck the ship with his head, just forward of the fore-chains; he gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces. The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf.” Even the whale appeared to have been dazed by the blow. It lay motionless, briefly, before making off to leeward. But then it “started off with great velocity”, Chase reported, “coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect”. Its jaws were snapping together, and the surf flew as it thrashed the water with its tail.
It rammed the ship with its head for a second time. This sickening blow was fatal for the vessel – with the sea gushing in its side, it was clear that the Essex was sinking. Pollard, who had now returned to his stricken vessel, cried, “My God, Mr Chase, what is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” came the answer.
The crew, all 20 of them, took to the three remaining whaleboats. As the Essex sank, they rescued what they could: 6lb of hard bread; three casks of water; a musket, powder, tools; “and a few turtles”. Chase also managed to salvage his sea chest – and with it, precious paper and pencil with which he would record their ordeal.
They also saved navigational materials – but it was in using these that Pollard and Chase made their great mistake. They found that the nearest inhabited islands were the Marquesas, to the west. But they feared that their natives were cannibals, and so decided to try the longer route, eastwards, to Chile. It was a terrible irony, given what happened next.
Having fashioned sails, they set off in three boats. They were at the mercy of currents and winds; often they drifted, lost on the infinite sea. Chase calculated that their food would last 60 days – but the bread got soaked and, once dried, its saltiness merely increased the men’s thirst. At night the boats would drift apart in the darkness, desperately signalling to each other with lanterns. Suddenly, on December 20, a month after they had been wrecked, they sighted land, “a blessed vision like a basking paradise before our longing eyes”, as Chase put it.
But Henderson Island was no tropical paradise. It contained little fresh water and they had soon killed all the birds they found, so on December 26 they decided to try to reach South America – now 3,000 miles distant. Three men decided to stay on the island and take their chances there.
Their fellow sailors were soon far out at sea. Burnt by the blazing sun during the day, at night sharks swam about the boat, snapping as if to “devour the very wood”. With only three days’ food left, extreme hunger was depriving the men of their “speech and reason”, wrote Chase.
When the first body was committed to the deep, Chase realised that they couldn’t afford to jettison such a source of sustenance again. As the next man succumbed to madness and death, the decision was made to eat him.
“We now commenced to satisfy the immediate cravings of nature from the heart, which we eagerly devoured, and then ate sparingly of a few pieces of the flesh,” Chase wrote. The rest they cut into strips and hung up to dry for future consumption. They even roasted their victim’s organs on a fire made on a stone at the bottom of the boat. Chase and the remaining crew had been reduced to savages, ironically more than any Pacific islander they had sought to avoid. Chase worked out three men could live for seven days off one human corpse.
By now, the three boats had become separated. One drifted off and was never heard of again. In Captain Pollard’s boat three men died; all were eaten. After this, the men began drawing lots and Pollard was forced to watch as his own young nephew, Owen Coffin, drew the black dot. Bowing to his fate, Coffin lay down his head on the gunwale, was shot, and consumed.
On February 18, after almost three months at sea, Chase’s boat sighted a sail – a London brig, the Indian. Their rescuers were shocked at what they found, said Chase: “Our cadaverous countenances…with the ragged remains of clothes stuck about our sun-burnt bodies, must have produced an appearance affecting and revolting in the highest degree.”
Five days later, Pollard and the only other survivor in his boat, Charles Ramsdale, were rescued by the Nantucket whaleship the Dauphin. It was claimed they were, “found sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with”.
Just eight of the Essex’s crew had survived. All went back to sea but Pollard was shipwrecked a second time and became a night watchman ashore. Chase was forever haunted by guilty memories and by the time he died, in 1869, he had been declared insane.