Finding the Way

Latitude 0º 40′ south, longitude 119º 0′ west: the remote site where the whale attacked the Essex. Google Earth map with images from IBCAO and Landsat, and data from SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, and GEBCO
DAY 3, November 22, 1820

“We knew that we were at no great distance from Tahiti, but were so ignorant of the state and temperament of the inhabitants that we feared we should be devoured by cannibals, if we cast ourselves on their mercy.”—Captain George Pollard Jr.

Finding the Way

Captain Pollard had no charts of the remote waters through which his boats sailed. His only guide was Nathaniel Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator, the standard navigational reference carried aboard American ships. He had one copy in his boat; Chase had a second copy. Weighing where to head from the wreck, Pollard, Chase, and Joy consulted Bowditch’s table entitled “Friendly and other Islands in the Pacific Ocean.” It had not been updated in 10 years. The men made none of the listed islands their goal, but if they chanced upon land along their way, the book would tell them where they were.

“It was decided that we should go up the coast as they term’d it. Fatal error. How many warm hearts has ceased to beat in consequence of it?”—Thomas Nickerson

DAY 6, November 25, 1820

“This evening we had prayers and a few hymns sung by a pious old colourd man named Richard Peterson.”—Thomas Nickerson

DAY 14, December 3, 1820

“There was a desperate instinct that bound us together.”—Owen Chase

DAY 19, December 8, 1820

“The sky was blackened past conception . . . . The constant and vivid lightning seemed to envelope us in a fearful blaze, and the awful thunder of an angry element threatened every moment our final extermination.”—Thomas Nickerson

DAY 20, December 9, 1820
Ship’s hard bread, or hardtack, reproduction loaned by Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden Ltd.
Famine and Thirst

Each boat carried 200 pounds of hard bread, 65 gallons of fresh water, and two Galapagos tortoises. Two boats also sailed with one hog each. This was as much food as the boats could safely carry alongside their human cargo. It amounted to half a pint of water and six ounces of hard bread per man per day, strictly controlled by Pollard and the mates. At 500 calories a day, the men’s starvation was assured, and, every day, their unquenchable thirst grew worse.

“The violence of raving thirst has no parallel in the catalogue of human calamities.”—Owen Chase

DAY 25, December 14, 1820

“Our sufferings during these calm days almost exceeded human belief. The hot rays of the sun beat down upon us.”—Owen Chase

DAY 31, December 20, 1820

“It was an island . . . with a very high, rugged shore, and surrounded by rocks; the sides of the mountains were bare, but on the tops it looked fresh and green with vegetation.”—Owen Chase

Landfall, Briefly

For an agonizing month, the men were blown south and west more than 1,000 miles. They remained together and afloat despite exposure to the elements and quickly diminishing food and water. No ships passed them. On December 20, 1820, they landed on a rugged, uninhabited island, which they deduced from Bowditch was Ducie’s Island. It was actually Henderson Island, a place not listed in the Navigator.

The starving seamen devoured birds and fish and eventually located a fresh-water spring that was accessible only at low tide. But the island could not sustain them. After six days’ rest, they returned to the boats, now stocked with firewood, birds, and more water, and set off, hoping that a better island, or a whaleship, or South America would cross their path. Three men, none from Nantucket, stayed behind, preferring the minimal security of the island to an unknown fate in the boats.

“Our bodies wasted to mere skeletons, by hunger and thirst.”—Owen Chase

DAY 40, December 29, 1820

“Our strength was exhausted . . . by the labours which we were obliged to employ to keep our little vessels afloat, amidst the storms which repeatedly assailed us.”—Captain George Pollard Jr.

DAY 53, January 11, 1821

“We this morning buried the remains of our deceased officer in the deep blue sea as decently as our wretched circumstances would admit of.”—Thomas Nickerson

DAY 57, January 15, 1821

“This day a colourd man named L. Thomas died and his body constituted the food of his surviving companions for several days.”—Thomas Nickerson

DAY 62, January 20, 1821

“We now first commenced to satisfy the immediate cravings of nature from the heart, which we eagerly devoured, and then ate sparingly of a few pieces of the flesh.”—Owen Chase

Starvation. Death. Cannibalism.
Blubber leaning knife, 19th century. Similar knives were most likely stowed in the boats. 1998.1135.2

Within two weeks of leaving the island, the men were living on three ounces of dry bread a day. Joy, long ill, became the first to die, and his body was buried in the sea. Within days, his men exhausted their food supply and, in desperation, ate the corpse of crewmate Lawson Thomas when he died. They also ate the next two men who died and shared in the body of the first man to die in Pollard’s boat. Then, in the dark night of day 71, Joy’s boat disappeared forever.

The first mate’s boat became separated from the other two just after Joy’s death, and for 27 days Chase and his men ate only one ounce of bread a day. Richard Peterson died after a week on this diet and was buried at sea, but when Isaac Cole died nearly three weeks later, his three remaining crewmates lived off the flesh of his limbs for six days. They then ate the last of their bread and placed their last hopes with the westerly breeze.

DAY 74, February 1, 1821

“In the captain’s boat, they drew lots for the privilege of being shot, to satisfy the rabid hunger of the rest.”—The Child’s Book About Whales, 1843

Drawing Lots

The four remaining men in Captain Pollard’s boat, all Nantucketers, having eaten all that remained of off-islander Samuel Reed, agreed to a desperate final measure to survive. They drew lots, first to choose who would die and be eaten by the others, then to select an executioner. The captain’s 18-year-old first cousin, watched over the whole voyage by his relative, drew the unlucky lot. In despair, Pollard cried, “My lad, my lad, if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” “I like it as much as any other,” the boy replied.

DAY 81, February 8, 1821

“Hunger became violent and outrageous, and . . . our speech and reason were both considerably impaired.”—Owen Chase

DAY 96, February 23, 1821

After three months of physical and mental suffering, five survivors remained in two whaleboats. Twelve men were dead, seven consumed by their mates. On February 18, 1821, day 91 of their ordeal, the last three men in Chase’s boat were rescued by the brig Indian of London, less than a day’s sail from the coast of Chile. Five days later and 300 miles to the south, the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin spotted Captain Pollard’s boat and brought its two wasted and crazed occupants aboard.

The five men were reunited in Valparaiso, Chile, where American Commodore Charles Ridgely paid $430 to a British captain to rescue the three men left on Henderson Island. The ship Surry found them on April 9, 1821—141 days after the destruction of the Essex.

“They were ninety two days in the boat & were in a most wretched state, they were unable to move when found sucking the bones of their dead Mess mates, which they were loth to part with.”— Commodore Charles Ridgely, USS Constellation, March 9, 1821

From the original 2015 exhibition at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Next: Aftermath