The Yarn Of The “Essex,” Whaler by Cyrus Townsend Brady

Story type: Literature

Among marine disasters there is none more extraordinary in character or more appalling in consequence, than the loss of the whaleship Essex.

The Essex was a well-found whaler of two hundred and thirty-eight tons. James Pollard was her captain, with Owen Chase and Matthew Joy as mates. Six of her complement of twenty were Negroes. Thoroughly overhauled and provisioned for two and one-half years, on the 17th of August, 1819, she took her departure from Nantucket. On the 17th of January, 1820, she reached St. Mary’s Island, off the coast of Chili, near Conception, a noted whaling ground.

They cruised off these coasts for some time, being lucky enough to take several large whales, and finally, the season being over, having about one thousand barrels of oil in the hold, they struck boldly westward. On the 16th of November, being a few minutes south of the line in Long. 118 degrees W., a school of sperm whales was sighted, and three boats were lowered in chase.

Chase, the mate–the first mate is always the mate par excellence–soon got fast to a huge bull-whale who, when he felt the deadly harpoon in his vitals, swiftly turned and struck the whale-boat a terrific blow with his tail, smashing it into kindling wood and hurling the men in every direction. After that splendid exhibition of power, he got away scot-free save for the rankling iron and the dangling line which he took with him. The boat’s crew were picked up, no one being much the worse for the encounter, strange to say, and were brought back to the ship by the other boats.

On the 20th of November, being then just about 40 minutes south of the equator, and in Long. 119 degrees W., at eight o’clock in the morning the lookout at the masthead shouted the welcome signal:

“There she blows!”

It was evident that they were in the presence of a large school. The ship was headed toward them, and when within half a mile the mainyard was backed, and three boats, under the charge of the captain and the first and second mates, respectively, were lowered. Their only other boat was a spare one, lashed amidships on chocks.

Arriving at the spot where they had been sighted at the ship, the men discovered that the whales had sounded and vanished. The boats, thereupon, separated widely, and the men lay on their oars and waited. Presently a great bull rose lazily, spouting in front of the mate’s boat, and lay idly wallowing in the tumbling sea. Approaching cautiously, the harpooneer drove in the terrible weapon.

In his agony, the great cetacean, instead of sounding, threw himself blindly toward the boat. So close were they, and so unexpected was the whale’s movement in spite of his vast bulk, that, although the order, “Stern all!” had been promptly given, they were unable to win clear of him. The tip of his massive tail, as he thrashed about in his rage, struck the side of the light, clinker-built boat and smashed a hole in it. Then the whale started to run, towing the boat, which immediately began to fill with water under the terrible drag to which it was subjected. There was nothing to do but cut the line. Two or three jackets were stuffed into the aperture, and while some bailed, the others rowed back to the ship. The captain’s and second mate’s boats, meanwhile, were seeking the school, which had risen and was swimming away from the ship.

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As soon as the wrecked boat was run up to the davits, the mate swung the mainyard and got under way, following the other boats. He first determined to break out the spare boat, but after investigating the damaged boat, he concluded that he could save time by nailing a patch of canvas over the broken place, which would serve temporarily to keep out the water, in case they went in search of another whale in her. While he was about this, an immense sperm-whale, about eighty-five feet long, “breached”–that is, coming from a great depth, he shot out of the water his whole length and then fell back with a tremendous splash–about fifty fathoms from the ship. After he fell back, he spouted three or four times, sounded, and once more appeared, this time about a ship’s length off the weather bow of the Essex. Evidently, it was the whale they had just struck. He was angry, and he meant business, for as soon as he came to the surface he started for the ship.

Under the light air the vessel was making about three knots. The whale was going at the same speed. The mate saw at once that if he did not change his course, the whale would strike his ship. Dropping the hammer, he shouted to the boy at the helm to put it hard up, and himself sprang across the deck to reenforce his order. The unwieldy ship paid off slowly, and before her head had been fairly turned to leeward the whale deliberately rammed her right under the forechains.

The concussion was terrible. The ship came to a dead stop, as if she had run upon a rock, while the whale bumped along under the keel. Some of those aboard were thrown to the deck. The masts quivered and buckled under the shock, but fortunately nothing was carried away. The onset was so unexpected that the men were dazed for a moment. When the mate recovered his wits, he immediately sounded the well, and found that the ship was leaking badly. He then ordered the men to the pumps, and set signals for the recall of the boats, each of which had got fast to a whale.

“Here he is!” he shouted. “He’s making for us again.”

The great cachalot was now directly ahead, about two hundred fathoms away, and coming down upon them with twice his ordinary speed. The surf flew in all directions about him. “His course was marked by a white foam a rod in width which he made with the continual thrashing of this tail.” His huge head, boneless but almost as solid and as hard as the inside of a horse’s hoof, most admirably designed for a battering-ram, was almost half out of the water. The mate made one desperate attempt to get out of his way. Again the helm was put up and the men ran to the braces, but the water-laden ship, already well down by the head, and more sluggish than ever, had fallen off only one point when the whale leaped upon her with demoniac energy, and–so it appeared to the seamen–rammed her with maleficent passion.

This time he struck the ship just under the weather cathead. He was going not less than six knots an hour to the ship’s three, and the force of the blow completely stove in the bows of the Essex. Those on board could feel the huge bulk scraping along beneath the keel a second time, and then, having done all the damage he could, he went hurtling off to windward. He had exacted a complete revenge for their attack upon him.

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Working with the energy of despair, for the ship seemed literally sinking under their feet, the men succeeded in clearing away the spare boat and launching it. The steward saved two quadrants, two Bowditch’s “Practical Navigators,” the captain’s chest and that of the first mate, with two compasses which the mate had snatched from the binnacle. They shoved off, but had scarcely made two lengths from the ship when she fell over to windward and settled low in the water on her beam-ends, a total wreck.

The captain and second mate, seeing the signal for the recall of the boats flying, had cut loose from their whales and were rowing toward the ship. They knew something had happened, but what it was, they could not tell. The captain’s boat was the first to reach the mate’s. He stopped close by, so completely overpowered that for a space he could not utter a syllable.

“My God! Mr. Chase,” he gasped out at last; “what is the matter?”

“We have been stove in by a whale, sir,” said the mate, telling the whole appalling story.

By the captain’s direction, the boats rowed to the sinking ship, and with their hatchets the men managed to cut away the masts, whereupon she rose two-thirds of the way to an even keel. They scuttled the deck–chopped holes through her, that is–and succeeded in coming at some six hundred pounds of unspoiled hard bread, which they divided among the three boats, and sufficient fresh water to give each boat sixty-five gallons in small breakers–being all they dared to take in each one. They also procured a musket, two pistols, some powder and bullets, some tools and six live turtles. From the light spars of the ship they rigged two masts for each boat and with the light canvas provided each one with two spritsails and a jib. They also got some light cedar planking used to repair the boats, and with it built the gunwales up six inches all around.

On the 22nd of November, being then in 120 W. Long., and just north of the equator, the officers took counsel together as to what to do. The nearest lands were the Marquesas Islands, fifteen hundred miles away; the Society Islands, twenty-four hundred miles away, and the Sandwich Islands, three thousand miles away. They knew little about the first two groups, save that they were inhabited by fierce and treacherous savages from whom they had as much to fear as from the perils of the sea. The Sandwich Islands were too far away, and they would be apt to meet hurricanes, prevalent at that season, should they attempt to reach them. After a long deliberation they decided to take advantage of the southeast trades by sailing by the wind until they reached the twenty-fifth parallel of south latitude. Then falling in with westerly and variable winds, they could turn east and run for the coast of Chili or Peru. This course involved the longest voyage, but it also promised the greatest chance for success.

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Sometimes they made good progress with favorable winds. At other times they lay immobile in the blazing tropic sunlight which was almost unbearable. Often they were buffeted by fierce squalls or wild storms, especially as they left the equator. Only the important incidents of their unparalleled voyage can be dwelt upon. Most of the events mentioned happened in the mate’s boat, but the experience of the boat epitomes that of the others.

The mate’s boat was the smallest. He was allotted five men. The other two boats each contained one more man. The men were put on an allowance of one sea-biscuit, weighing about one pound and a quarter, and a pint of water a day. In the mate’s boat the provisions were kept in his chest, which he locked. The men behaved in the most exemplary manner. In only one instance did any one ever attempt to steal provisions. They ran into a storm on the 24th, which wet some of their biscuit, and as it was necessary to get rid of the damaged bread as soon as possible, the daily allowance was taken from the spoiled portion exclusively. The soaked biscuit were very salt and greatly increased their thirst.

During the long and exhausting voyage, a plank started in the mate’s boat, and it was with difficulty that they heeled it over in the water, at the risk of their lives, to get to the place and nail it up. One night the captain’s boat was attacked by a species of fish known as a “killer” (Orca), and its bows were stove in. This also they managed to patch up. On December 3rd, they ate the last of the spoiled salt bread, and their relief when they began on the other was amazing. Their thirst was terrible, especially as it became necessary to cut the allowance of food and water in half. They tried from time to time to catch rain water by means of the sails, but the canvas had been so often drenched by the spray that the water they caught was as salt as the sea.

One day they caught half a dozen flying fish, which they ate raw. Mr. Chase remarks on the delicacy and daintiness of the mouthfuls which these little fish afforded the starving mariners. They fished for dolphins and porpoises, but they never caught any, perhaps because they had nothing with which to bait the hooks. One day, seeking to alleviate the pangs of thirst by wetting their bodies, three of the men dropped into the water alongside and clung to the gunwale. One of them discovered that the boat’s bottom was covered with barnacles. They were ravenously devoured, but proved of little value as food. The men in the water were so weak that had it not been for the efforts of three who had remained in the boat, sceptical as to the utility of the bath, they would never have been able to regain their positions. During all these experiences, discipline was maintained–indeed, it was maintained to the very last.

On the 15th of December, they reached Ducie Island, in Long. 124 degrees 40 minutes W., Lat. 24 degrees 40 minutes S., having come some seventeen hundred miles in twenty-three days in these open boats. They landed on the island and found a few shell-fish, birds, and a species of pepper-grass, but no water. The famished men soon consumed everything eatable they could come at on the island. They hunted high and low, but it was not until the 22nd that they found a spring of water. The island was almost desolate. Nothing was to be gained by remaining there, so the majority concluded to sail for Easter Island, some nine hundred miles southward. Three men decided to stay on the island. They all spent a melancholy Christmas there, repairing their boats and filling their water-breakers, and on the 27th the others took their departure.

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On the 14th of January, 1821, they found that they had been driven to the south of Easter Island, and that it was not practicable to beat up to it. They therefore determined to head for Juan Fernandez–Robinson Crusoe’s Island–some two thousand miles southeastward. On the 10th, the second mate, Matthew Joy, died from exposure, and was buried the next morning. On the 12th in the midst of a terrible storm, the boats separated.

First we will follow the course of the mate’s boat. On the 20th, Peterson, a black man, died and was buried. On the 8th of February, Isaac Cole, a white seaman, died. The men on the boat were by this time in a frightful condition, weak and emaciated to the last degree. Their provisions were almost gone. But two biscuit to a man remained. They were still over a thousand miles from land. They came to a fearful determination. The body of Cole was not buried. They lived on him from the 9th to the 14th. On the 15th and 16th, they consumed the last vestige of their biscuit.

On the 17th, driving along at the mercy of wind and wave, for there was not a man strong enough to do anything, they caught sight of the Island of Massafuera. They were helpless to bring the boat near to the Island. Whale-boats were steered by an oar. There was not a single man able to lift an oar. In addition to starvation, thirst, weakness, mental anguish, their legs began to swell with a sort of scurvy, giving them excessive pain. Their condition can scarcely be imagined. The breath of life was there, nothing more.

However, they had at last reached the end of their sufferings, for on the morning of the 19th of February, 1821, in Lat. 35 degrees 45 minutes S., Long. 81 degrees 03 minutes W., the three surviving men were picked up by the brig Indian, of London, Captain William Crozier. On the 25th of February, they arrived at Valparaiso, ninety-six days and nearly four thousand miles from the sinking of the ship!

The other two boats managed to keep together for a little while after they lost sight of the mate’s boat. On the 14th of February, provisions in the second mate’s boat gave out entirely. On the 15th, Lawson Thomas, a black man, died in that boat and was eaten. The captain’s boat ran out of provisions on the 21st. On the 23rd Charles Shorter, another Negro, died in the second mate’s boat and was shared between the two boats. On the 27th another black man died from the same boat, furnishing a further meal for the survivors. On the 28th, Samuel Reed, the last black man, died in the captain’s boat and was eaten like the rest. Singular that all the Negroes died first!

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On the 29th, in a storm, these two boats separated. When they parted the second mate’s boat had three living white men in her. Nothing was ever heard of her.

It might be inferred from the fact that the surviving men had had something to eat, that they were in fair physical condition. That is far from the truth. The men who had died were nothing but skin and bone, and all that the survivors got from their ghastly meals was the bare prolongation of a life which sank steadily to a lower and lower ebb. We may not judge these people too harshly. Hunger and thirst make men mad. They scarcely realized what they did.

There was worse to come. On the 1st of February, 1821, being without food or drink of any sort, the four men in the captain’s boat cast lots as to which should die for the others. There is something significant of a spirit of fair play and discipline, not without its admirable quality, that under such circumstances, the weaker were not overpowered by the stronger, but that each man had an equal chance for life. The lot fell upon Owen Coffin,[1] the captain’s nephew. He did not repine. He expressed his willingness to abide by the decision. No man desired to be his executioner. They cast lots, as before, to determine who should kill him, and the lot fell upon Charles Ramsdale. By him Coffin was shot.

Thus they eked out a miserable existence until the 11th of February, when Barzilla Ray died. On the 23rd of February, the two remaining men, the captain and Ramsdale, just on the point of casting lots as to which should have the last poor chance for life, were picked up by the Nantucket whaler, Dauphin, Captain Zimri Coffin. They had almost reached St. Mary’s Island, ten miles from the coast of Chili. On the 17th of March, these two survivors joined the three from the mate’s boat in Valparaiso.

In the harbor was the United States frigate, Constellation, Captain Charles G. Ridgeley, U. S. N. As soon as her commander heard of the three left on Ducie Island, he arranged with Captain Thomas Raines, of the British merchant ship, Surrey, to touch at the island on his voyage to Australia and take off the men. Captain Raines found them still alive, but reduced to the last gasp.

Thus of the twenty men, five reached Valparaiso; three were saved on the island, three were lost in the second mate’s boat, two died and were buried; six died and were eaten, and one was shot and eaten.

So ends this strange tragedy of the sea.


[1] A tradition still current in Nantucket has it that the lot fell to the captain, whereupon his nephew, already near death, feeling that he could not survive the afternoon, offered and insisted upon taking his uncle’s place. I doubt this.

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