The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, by Owen Chase

Essex cvr

Owen Chase was first mate on a whaler out of the American port of Nantucket, the 240-ton Essex, intent on capturing sperm whales in the Pacific.  They had left in August 1819 on a two-and-a-half year voyage, but when on 20 November 1820 they attempted to harpoon an 80-ton whale it fought back, ramming the ship two or possibly three times and managing to sink it.  The crew of 20 had to take to three light 20-foot clinker-built whaling boats (essentially open rowing boats to which they fixed makeshift masts) with limited provisions and no charts, and cross thousands of miles of open water to reach safety.  The story is one of hardship, extreme thirst and hunger, and finally the choice between certain starvation and cannibalism.  Chase’s narrative of their desperate voyage was published in 1821, and this edition appeared in 1999.

Of the 20, eight men survived out of the two boats which made it, the third being lost.  That included three who were left on a small island unable to support the entire crew and who were rescued after three months (a fact only known after the publication of Chase’s book).  Seven of the complement had been eaten to sustain their comrades.  Chase did particularly well as despite having the worst boat, three of the six in it were rescued alive, plus one who had been left on the island.  Only two survived in the captain’s, including the captain himself.  Chase’s was the first to be rescued, on 18 February 1821, the captain’s a few days later.  The two boats had each covered more than three thousand five hundred miles, a remarkable feat of seamanship.  It is even more remarkable considering how young they all were: when the Essex sank, Chase was only 23, the captain 29.  They were not all grizzled old salts, but despite their youth they had already had a great deal of experience and possessed enormous strength of will.

Chase’s account is grim reading, yet the sneaking suspicion must arise that even so he has sanitised it.  There were seven black seamen on the ship, and Chase notes in a single paragraph the deaths of four of them within a week, but not how they died.  Did they succumb to privation more easily than the white sailors, perhaps because they had had second-class treatment on board the Essex; or were they murdered?  According to Chase only one man was killed for food, by drawing lots, and he met his fate stoically, refusing an offer by the captain, who was his cousin, to take his place.  There could have been other murders, done quietly and unrecorded.  Either way, the blacks died, the whites survived.

While sympathising with the plight of the unfortunate sailors, it is entirely possible more sympathy will be extended to the plight of the whales, hunted to the extent that they were only to be found further and further from the sailors’ home ports, even to the shores of Japan (and we are not told what the Japanese must have thought of such depredations in their waters).  It’s not only the whales suffering either.  Turtles are a handy source of food as they require no maintenance.  You don’t have to feed and water them, you just throw them on the deck or stack them in the hold until you need them; the only thing to watch out for is cold, which they can’t withstand.  The Essex picked up 360 in the Galápagos islands, a scene which must have been repeated by many other ships passing that way.  There’s no sentimentality on display, this is nature’s bounty supplied to meet the wants of Man.  The book is a conservationist’s nightmare.

An introduction by Gary Kinder essentially recounts elements of the story, but following Chase’s narrative there is a list of the individuals in the three boats with their fates, a postscript on the lives of the survivors after they were rescued, a little of the history of the Essex, the story of Nantucket’s rise and decline as a whaling port, the influence of the Essex’s story on Moby Dick, and a useful glossary. A reference to the Mignonette, after the sinking of which the cabin boy Richard Parker was famously killed and eaten, is completely inaccurate.  The pedestrian nature of Kimber’s contribution is offset by the elegance of Chase’s prose.  The 200-page length of the book is misleading as there are large gaps between the lines, and this is a fairly brisk read.  Christopher Frayling is quoted on the cover declaring The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex to be ‘This year’s equivalent of The Perfect Storm’ – Sebastian Junger’s book had been published in 1997 – suggesting Frayling hadn’t read Chase’s book before he made such a ridiculous remark.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: