The Whaleship Essex: The True Story Behind Moby Dick

Source: Tom Lytle

The incredible real-life tragedy that inspired one of the greatest American novels ever written.

Herman Melville was born on August 1st, 1819 to a quiet and unassuming New York family. In time, his stories and adventures would become legend and would transform the face of American literature. On August 12th, just eleven days after Melville's birth, something else was happening on the island of Nantucket. At that port, the whaling vessel Essex slipped quietly out of port with little fanfare. It was set for a two-year journey through the whaling grounds of the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Few, other than the families of the crew and the owners of the ship, would have made any note of the Essex's departure. None knew at that moment that the Essex and most of her crew would never return to Nantucket's sandy shore. Yet, the voyage of the whaleship Essex would go on to inspire one of the greatest American stories ever written.

Whaleship Essex Sets Sail

The Essex's long journey took it around the Cape Horn in South America and into the Pacific Ocean whaling grounds west of Galapagos. Her crew was after two prizes. The first was spermaceti, a waxy like substance found in the snouts of sperm whales. When extracted and refined, spermaceti can be turned into oil. In the days before petroleum oils, whale oil was the most important lighting fuel the world over. And the men of Nantucket supplied more of this oil than any others. However, the greatest prize of all was ambergris, a brown substance found in a sperm whale's digestive tract. Ambergris was used in many popular and expensive perfumes, and an ounce of the stuff was worth more than an ounce of gold. Quite literally, this whale fecal matter was worth its weight in gold.

The Essex and the Whale locked in deadly combat. Source: Boston College Digital Library
The Essex and the Whale locked in deadly combat. Source: Boston College Digital Library

The voyage from Nantucket to the Pacific whaling grounds was long and arduous. This was in the era before the Panama Canal, when ships had to sail the long way around South America to reach the Pacific. It took the Essex over a year to complete the trip and begin is whaling mission. Once she arrived, her crew quickly began to fill their holds with the valuable materials. Hunting was good, and the men greedily filled barrel after barrel with oil.

On November 20th, 1820 the Essex came across another pod of several whales. Its boats slipped into the water and the harpooned two of the smaller whales. As they were chasing their catch down, a large bull whale between 80 and 90 feet long suddenly turned back on the whalers. Completely ignoring the small boats, the bull made straight for the Essex which turned port to avoid it. However, the whale struck Essex close to the bow with full force. The whale did considerable damage, splintering the wooden hull and causing extensive flooding, but it wasn’t done. Submerging, the whale swam a few hundred yards away. Once in position, it surfaced and again charged the Essex. Swimming faster than many of the veteran whalers thought possible, the bull crashed into the Essex's bow square on and completely demolished its forward spaces.

Following the second attack, the bull whale swam off, never again to be seen by the crew of the Essex. Shattered and taking on water, the Essex quickly slipped beneath the waves. Those who managed to swim to the small boats were pulled in, but dozens more drowned, either trapped in the ship or unable to make their way to safety.

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A True Tale of Survival

For the survivors of the Essex, their ordeal was just beginning. For weeks the small boats sailed eastward towards safety. But the Essex, which had been fishing far out from shore, sank in one of the most remote parts of the Pacific Ocean. The crew sailed together for days all while making do with the meager provisions and water they had on hand. When these supplies ran out, the sailors had to drink sea water, their own urine, and eat a sea turtle that one boat was able to catch. Making matters worse, the survivors became separated by storms and currents, leaving each to fend for itself.

Sketch of the Essex and the Whale by Thomas Nickerson. Source: Wikipedia
Sketch of the Essex and the Whale by Thomas Nickerson. Source: Wikipedia

As the men fell into comas or died, largely as a result of drinking sea water, each boat made the decision to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. On one of the boats, the survivors drew lots and seventeen-year-old shipmate Owen Coffin was killed to feed the other survivors. Ultimately of the 20 sailors that survived the sinking, eight returned to shore. Of those 12 fatalities, seven were ultimately also the victims of cannibalism. Of the survivors, one boat made it to Galapagos where its crew awaited rescue The other two were eventually rescued by passing ships, one of which was picked up within sight of the South American coast. The experiences of these sailors, especially the account of third mate Owen Chase, were well known to many Americans, especially those on Nantucket.

In 1841, Melville signed on to the Acushnet, a Nantucket based whaler bound for the Pacific whaling grounds. The young Melville dreamed of adventure and a romantic life at sea. However, the majority of his cruise aboard the Acushnet was mostly uneventful. What captivated Melville more than his adventure was the story of a whaling ship which had sailed those very waters two decades before. Its fate was tragic, nearly her whole crew was killed when she was attacked by a whale possessed with "malevolent premeditation" and "intelligent malignity." The story of the Essex and her crew, which by this time had become as much whaler's legend as true fact, was dutifully reported to Melville as it was to every green hand. It was a whaler's ghost story, told in quiet dark hours spent below deck between hunts. In the hands of Melville, the story would be transformed into one of the best, most popular works of American fiction ever written.

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Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.