Whaleship Essex: The Terrifying Story That Inspired Moby Dick

The tragedy of the whaleship Essex left horrifying scars on the minds and bodies of the men who survived but helped weave a tale that would be immortalized in literature.

Sep 12, 2023By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

whaleship essex story moby dick


Chasing the riches promised by the whale hunting industry, the Essex departed Nantucket in 1820. Soon, thanks to remuneration from their prey, the ship’s crew would find themselves stranded in lifeboats and fighting for their lives, forced to make unconscionable decisions.


Chasing the Whale

essex sperm whale
A Sperm Whale, via National Oceanic Atmospheric Association


The American whaling industry was flourishing when the Essex set sail in 1819. Native Americans on both coasts and in Alaska had been hunting whales for centuries, and settlers began hunting whales in the Atlantic not long after arriving. Soon, whale populations in the Atlantic Ocean became depleted, and ships began sailing longer distances to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans in pursuit of game.


Whale products were in high demand throughout the world, including oil that was boiled from whale fat, known as blubber; baleen, which was used for women’s corsets, stays, hoop skirts, and even the bone. This made it a profitable industry, particularly for ship owners, who took the largest cut, but many jobs were available for people from all walks of life.


Whale hunting was a challenging career, with voyages lasting multiple years at a time and many risks involved. Smaller boats would leave the main ship to harpoon and pursue whales, then return the catch to the ship for processing. New England, particularly Massachusetts, was home to many whaling communities, where the majority of men made their living in the whaling industry to some degree. One of these communities, Nantucket, was the home port of the Essex.

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A Capable Ship and Crew

whaleship the essex
An artist’s rendering of The whaleship Essex, via American Heritage


The 1819 trip was not the first that the Essex had made. Its build was completed in 1799, and it had made six previous profitable voyages. The ship, owned by Gideon Folger and Paul Macy, was smaller than many of its contemporaries but had some basic renovations made before its 1819 voyage, including coppering of the hull, which was made of thick oak planks. The ship was 238 tons, 88 feet long, and 25 feet wide.


Like other whaleships of the time, the Essex was essentially a floating whale-processing factory. Once whales were caught, due to voyage duration and the remoteness of the boat’s location, the mammals needed to be refined immediately for their products in order to maximize profits and prevent spoilage. The ship had to be maintained on its long trip, and the crew’s needs met. This required a diverse crew with a variety of skills, including carpentry, butchery, cooking, smithing, and of course, hunting.


When the ship set sail on August 2nd, it had a crew of 21; nine from Nantucket and 12 from “off-island.” Logs note a mixed-race crew of 14 white men and 7 Black. Although slavery was still in effect in the United States, it was not legal in Massachusetts at the time, and whaling crews were often racially diverse. However, it should be noted that Nantucket-born white men almost always owned local ships, captained, and led crews.


The ship was captained by George Pollard, Jr., with 21-year-old Owen Chase at his right hand as first mate. Matthew Joy served as the second mate. While some crew members had years of experience, 14-year-old Thomas Nickerson and 16-year-old Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin, were new to life at sea, though growing up in Nantucket made them no strangers to the whaling industry.


An Abnormal Attack

floreana island today
Floreana Island today, via Adventure Life


The crew headed south, and it wasn’t until two months later that they made their first catch off the coast of Brazil. As they rounded Cape Horn and made their way into the South Pacific in January, there were few whales to be seen – the area was beginning to be “fished out” as the industry boomed. There was some success off the coast of Peru; then Pollard made the decision to head west into more remote waters that had proved quite profitable to recent adventurers.


The crew paused in Ecuador before heading out, where one of the men deserted. Down to twenty on board, the Essex paused once again in the Galapagos Islands for brief repairs, and the men caught nearly 200 tortoises for meat. At another small island known as Charles (now known by its original name, Floreana), the men stopped for more tortoises, and one accidentally set it ablaze, forcing the men to flee. This event is suspected of having caused the extinction of both a tortoise and mockingbird species.


whaleship essex attack
The Attack on the Essex, via Magzter


About a month later, the crew had traveled 1,500 nautical miles, or 2,800 kilometers, away from the Galapagos to the vast emptiness of the west Pacific, an area known as the Offshore Grounds. On the morning of November 20th, whales were spotted, and three whaleboats were launched from the ship. In the pursuit, the boat headed by Chase was damaged, and he and his group brought it back to the Essex for repairs. As they hammered away, Chase happened to look up and noticed that a large male sperm whale floated silently in the water not far from the ship. It was an exceptionally large specimen, estimated at about 85 feet in length, while most male sperm whales average 65.


All of a sudden, the whale began speeding toward the Essex, ramming the left, or port, side of the bow. Sperm whales have a large, bulbous head, and the specimen was estimated to have weighed approximately 80 tons. It swam under the boat, paused, then returned and struck the ship again before disappearing. Chase and the crew members aboard were horrified. Whaling certainly had its dangers, but a full-sized vessel had never been attacked by a whale before.


Chase realized that the damage was catastrophic. The other two small whaleboats soon returned, and Captain Pollard didn’t know what to make of the scene around him. Upon laying eyes on his stunned first mate, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” To which Chase solemnly responded, “We have been stove by a whale.”


A Struggle to Survive

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The ship as it appeared at 9:30 AM on the day of the attack, drawn by crew member Thomas Nickerson, via Nantucket Historical Association.


Within an hour, the boat was tipping at a 45-degree angle, and the mad rush to save what was salvageable was on. The crew worked for two days to prepare as best they could for survival while their mothership sank in front of them. The whaleboats were reinforced with extra cedar planks up their sides, and sails were added using canvas cut from the wreck. Some navigational instruments and provisions were saved, and the group had some decisions to make.


First, they split into three teams, divided among the three whaleboats. The boats were led by the three highest-ranking crewmen, with Pollard, Chase, and Joy each commanding a mini-vessel. Pollard and Chase pulled rank to keep their preferred crewmen with them, and Joy’s companions were all “off islanders” (not from Nantucket), most of them Black men. The provisions were split among the boats. Each crew got 65 gallons of water, some food, and a firearm, though Joy’s boat received no navigational instruments.


Next, the men had to decide where they were sailing. Captain Pollard thought the best course of action would be to sail towards the Society Islands, which he estimated were about 2,000 miles to the west, with the prevailing winds. However, Chase and Joy both argued against this, fearing that the islands were inhabited by cannibals based on rumors that they’d heard. The irony of their irrational fear of cannibals would come to a head only a few weeks later. Instead, they campaigned to head south, then east, back to South America, about a thousand miles further and against the winds. Pollard had no choice but to bend to the wishes of his crew.


whaleship essex owen chase
Owen Chase, later in life, via Nantucket Historical Society


The ships sailed together and traveled about 1,000 miles, subsisting on about a half pint of water and 500 calories a day per man. On December 20th, they made landfall on an uninhabited island, which they believed to be Ducie Island. In fact, it was Henderson Island, the largest of the four Pitcairn Islands. The men did find seabirds, fish, and a small amount of freshwater on the island, so they chose to stay and rest for six days. However, there was no hope for long-term survival on the island, so with a few birds and refilled water barrels in tow, they returned to their sailing. Three of the Nantucketers elected to stay behind and try their luck on the island rather than return to the boats.


Within two weeks of leaving Henderson, the men had to reduce their rations significantly. Simple tasks such as keeping fires and making repairs became incredibly taxing, and sailors started to die. Matthew Joy, second mate, who had a history of health problems, would be the first to die on January 10th, 1821. Just days after his death, more problems ensued when Owen Chase’s boat became separated from the others. Chase and his men were on their own.


The Custom of the Sea


Without Joy’s presence of authority, the men in his boat stopped restricting their rations, and within days, their supplies were significantly diminished. On January 20th, another man in Joy’s boat, Lawson Thomas, passed away. Rather than commit his body to the sea as they had Joy’s, the men decided to partake in his flesh rather than succumb to starvation.


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The “custom of the sea” was not a new tradition, via International Institute for Law of the Sea Studies


What’s even more shocking than Lawson’s friends and crewmates eating his remains is that cannibalism among sailors was not unheard of. Referred to as “the custom of the sea,” cannibalism in a shipwreck situation was generally seen as tragic but acceptable if it was necessary to ensure survival. If crew members didn’t die of natural causes, castaways sometimes admitted to drawing lots to determine who was to die in order to feed the others. Still, more often than not, stories demonstrated that the strong overpowered the weak, rank was pulled, and Black sailors tended to perish before their white crewmates.


As men continued to die in Joy’s boat, they were successively eaten, as was the first man to die in Captain Pollard’s boat. As Chase and his mates drifted aimlessly for 27 days, they buried the first man to die, Richard Peterson, at sea. However, when Isaac Cole died three weeks later, his flesh was consumed. Three men remained in Chase’s boat, four in Pollard’s. However, the third boat drifted away from Pollard’s, never to be seen again.


On day 74, the men in the Captain’s boat decided to draw straws and determine whose life would be given to save the remainder of the group. Pollard’s cousin, 16-year-old Owen Coffin, drew the short straw. Pollard had promised his aunt to care for the boy and told him he didn’t have to do it. However, Coffin resigned to his fate, and one of his friends killed him with the ship’s firearm, and the group consumed him.


Rescued and Reunited

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Rescuer the Dauphin, portrayed in 1823, via Seewesterly


On February 18, 1821, 91 days after they had set sail from the wreck of the Essex, Chase and two others who still survived in his boat were finally rescued. They were retrieved by the Indian, a British ship, in a location about a day’s sail from the coast of Chile. On February 23rd, the captain’s boat was retrieved about three hundred miles away. Only the captain and one other man were still alive, brought aboard the whaleship Dauphin. Not long after, the five were reunited in Chile. They told of the three men left behind on the island, and a ship was dispatched for their rescue. They were found alive on April 9th.


Eight men in total survived from the original group of twenty that remained on the ship after it left South America. Seven men were consumed by their crewmates.


Inspiring a Classic

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The George Pollard house in Nantucket today, via Atlas Obscura


The men returned to their home in Nantucket and were welcomed with open arms. Their community seemed to understand the “custom of the sea” and what the men had been through. The exception was Pollard, whose aunt could not stand to be in the same room with him, unable to forgive her nephew for allowing his cousin, her son, to be killed and partaking in his flesh.


It should be noted that while whaling ships allowed for diversity among the crew, it didn’t mean that outcomes were always fair. None of the African-American sailors on the ship survived, and the first four to be devoured were Black. Authors and historians suggest that these men were treated least favorably in the distribution of resources both before and after the disaster, increasing the likelihood of early death.


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A portrayal of the Essex disaster, via American Heritage


The shocking story of the Essex not only made headlines but also inspired one of the most timeless classics of American literature. Herman Melville was heavily influenced by the story of the Essex while penning his iconic novel about a giant sea monster, Moby Dick. Pollard, in particular, had an impact on Melville. The two met briefly while Melville visited Nantucket, and he is referenced in Moby Dick. Later in life, Melville turned from novels to poetry as his book sales petered out (Moby Dick would not become popular until after Melville’s death), and one of his poems was about Pollard’s own slide into obscurity.


Pollard held his lost crew in his heart and mind for the rest of his life. Every year on the anniversary of the attack on the Essex, he would lock himself in his room and fast.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”