Shipwrecks & Survivors

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

Moby DIck illustration
Illustration from Moby Dick, 1930 (p. 81)

Today (20 November) marks the 199th anniversary of a tragic day for the whaling ship Essex. The Essex had sailed from Nantucket, Mass. on 12 August 1819, traveling from the North Atlantic to the South Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and up the west coast of South America. But 15 months into the journey, on 20 November 1820, while hunting in the Pacific Ocean, the ship was rammed by a very angry and very large sperm whale.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because this event served as an inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. But as historian Nathaniel Philbrick explains in his 2000 book In the Heart of the Sea, “the point at which Melville’s novel ends—the sinking of the ship—was merely the starting point for the story of the real-life Essex disaster” (p. xiii). The 20 crew members who fled in the ship’s whaleboats would spend three months stranded at sea, their number eventually dwindling to eight.

Loss of the Essex, Destroyed by a Whale by Robert Bennet Forbes
Pamphlet by R. B. Forbes, 1884

When I searched our catalog for more information, I found that the MHS holds books on this subject published between 1999 and 2016, as well as a pamphlet called Loss of the Essex, Destroyed by a Whale, written in 1884 by Robert Bennet Forbes. Forbes was a merchant, sailor, and scion of a famous Boston family. He started his pamphlet with this eye-catching sentence: “Now that the word ‘cannibalism’ is forced upon our notice so unnecessarily, it seems a good time to make a few notes on the fate of the crew of the Essex.”

Wow, I didn’t see that coming.

Forbes’ pamphlet was clearly published in response to some provocation, but I couldn’t determine what that was. Sixty-four years had passed since the ship’s fateful voyage, and most of its crewmen were dead. (Several writers count Thomas Nickerson as the last survivor, but Seth Weeks died in 1887.) Moreover, the darker parts of the story had never been a secret. First mate Owen Chase had published his version of events in 1821. It was called Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex and included explicit details.

It’s possible that Nickerson’s death in 1883 had revived interest and prompted Forbes’ reply, but I can’t be sure. In any case, Forbes explained, unemotionally, the facts of the matter. Yes, the crew had resorted to cannibalism to survive their three grueling months at sea, but similar incidents had been known to occur throughout history. Forbes’ purpose was evidently to provide context and defend the decisions made by the desperate crew. In fact, the subtitle of his pamphlet is: With an Account of the Sufferings of the Crew, Who Were Driven to Extreme Measures to Sustain Life.

Moby Dick illustration
Illustration from Moby Dick, 1930 (p. 661)

Forbes largely relied on Owen Chase as a source. Other fragmentary versions of the story existed, but Chase got to print first, so his became the dominant one. As first mate, Chase had been responsible for the men in one of the three whaleboats, and he undoubtedly felt the need to defend his actions both during the initial whale hunt and in the months after.

In 1960, a mysterious manuscript was found in an attic in New York. This manuscript was later authenticated as the work of Thomas Nickerson, cabin boy on the Essex, who’d been only 14 when the ship sailed out of Nantucket. In 1876, he wrote down his memories of the voyage and even drew sketches of scenes as he remembered them. (Our friends at the Nantucket Historical Association now hold this manuscript.) Nathaniel Philbrick and others have discussed the ways these two accounts differ.

Some elements of the Essex tragedy are particularly fraught. First, while most of the men who died succumbed to starvation, one did not; 18-year-old Owen Coffin was shot after the drawing of lots. Second, a disproportionate number of the earliest crew members to die were men of color.

All in all, the story of the Essex is a haunting reminder of the dark but undeniable parts of American history.

Moby Dick illustration
Illustration from Moby Dick, 1930 (p. 335)

Speaking of Moby Dick, the MHS collections include a 1930 hardback edition of Melville’s classic novel with beautiful illustrations by Rockwell Kent. I couldn’t resist using Kent’s illustrations in this post, although they depict the Pequod instead of the Essex.

Sources at the MHS:

Dowling, David O. Surviving the Essex: The Afterlife of America’s Most Storied Shipwreck. Hanover, N.H.: ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England, 2016.

Forbes, R. B. Loss of the Essex, Destroyed by a Whale: With an Account of the Sufferings of the Crew, Who Were Driven to Extreme Measures to Sustain Life. Cambridge, Mass.: John Wilson and Son, 1884.

Haverstick, Iola and Betty Shepard, eds. The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex: A Narrative Account by Owen Chase, First Mate. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1999.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, or the Whale. New York: Random House, 1930.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Viking, 2000.