Friday, April 10, 2009

Aimless Reading: The C's, Part 20 (Owen Chase, et al)

Chase, Owen
Nickerson, Thomas
& Others
The Loss Of The Ship Essex,
Sunk By A Whale:
First Person Accounts

Purchased at the NFOMDBS for $3.00. Owen Chase was the first mate on the Whaleship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. Chase's account was one of the main sources of inspiration for Melville when he wrote Moby Dick. He apparently read the book as a young man working on a whaling ship, then acquired a tattered copy of his own twenty years later while writing the book. I bought it in grad school after reading Call Me Ishmael lead to reading Moby Dick, which in turn led to the purchase of this account. I am not sure I ever actually read it.

I don't feel like typing an excerpt this morning, so here's the Wikipedia version of events

The Essex left Nantucket in 1819 on a two-and-a-half-year voyage to the whaling grounds of the South Pacific. On November 20, 1820, the Essex encountered a sperm whale that was much larger than normal, which rammed the ship twice and sunk it while the men were pursuing and killing other members of the whale's pod. The ship sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of the western coast of South America. The twenty-one sailors set out in three small whaleboats, with wholly inadequate supplies of food and water, and landed on uninhabited Henderson Island, within the modern-day British territory of the Pitcairn Islands.

On Henderson Island, the men gorged on birds, fish, and vegetation. They found a small freshwater spring. However, after one week, they had exhausted the island's natural resources, and concluded the island would not sustain them any longer. Most of the Essex crewmen got back into their whaleboats. Three men, however, opted to stay behind on Henderson.

Excessive sodium in the sailors’ diets and malnutrition led to diarrhea, blackouts, enfeeblement, boils, edema, and magnesium deficiency which caused bizarre and violent behavior. As conditions worsened, the sailors resorted to drinking their own urine and stealing and mismanaging their food. All were smokers and suffered severe tobacco withdrawal once their supply ran out.

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.

Benjamin Lawrence, Owen Chase, and Thomas Nickerson survived through similarly desperate measures, and were rescued by the British merchantman brig Indian 93 days after the Essex sank. Pollard, Chase, Ramsdell, Lawrence, and Nickerson were reunited in the port of Valparaiso, where they informed officials there of their three shipmates stranded on Henderson Island. A ship destined on a trans-Pacific passage was ordered to look for the men on Henderson. The three men were eventually rescued, although they were nearly dead.

By the time the last of the eight survivors were rescued on April 5, 1821, seven sailors had been eaten.

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