On the 20th of November 1820, an American whaleship called the Essex was following a pod of whales 2,000 nautical miles west of South America. They used three smaller whaleboats to hunt the whales. First Mate Owen Chase returned to the Essex to repair his boat when they were attacked.
While he worked, Chase became aware of a huge whale, of some 85 feet in length, swimming in the water 100 feet away from the Essex. As he and the crew watched in alarm, the whale then proceeded to charge the Essex, and struck the bow of the vessel with sufficient force to knock some of the crew from their feet. The crew watched again in disbelief as the whale charged the ship a second time. This impact was hard enough to put a hole in the Essex below the water line. It is not clear why the whale attacked the Essex at all, though it seems likely that by pure chance, Chase’s hammering on the deck may have sent signals through the hull of the ship to the whale.
The crew abandoned the sinking ship and escaped on the smaller whaleboats. They made it to Henderson Island before they ran out of provisions but they quickly realised there was not enough food on the island to keep them alive. Most of them returned to the boats to search for further islands although three men remained on the island.
One by one, the men of the Essex died. The first were sewn in their clothes and buried at sea, as was the custom. However, with food running out, the men resorted to cannibalism in order to survive, consuming the corpses of their dead shipmates. Towards the end of the ordeal, the situation in Captain Pollard’s boat became quite critical. The 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, 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. 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 first mate, Owen Chase, was rescued on another boat along with two others. They reported that there were three further sailors stranded on Henderson Island, who were rescued as well. In the end, eight sailors survived, and of the thirteen deaths, seven of the sailors had been eaten.
How does this relate to Saturday scenes? Well, some time later, Henry Melville met the son of Owen Chase on the whaler Achushnet and received a copy of the First Mate’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. He has acknowledged that this true story was the inspiration for Moby-Dick.
This just goes to show that the most trivial of incidents can lead to classic inspiration. Isn’t that motivational?
On the 20th of November, 2010, these possibly historically significant photographs were taken:
The more people you follow, the more fun Twitter is. I think you should all follow all of our adventurous photographers all over the world:
Have you got a camera or a smart phone?
You should take a photograph on Saturday. It’s easy to join us!
Simply send a tweet to @SatScenes with the url and the location and all the rest happens automatically!
I’m looking forward to seeing your Saturday Scene in the next edition!