In the Wake of the Essex

Poster showing “The Voyage of the Pequod from the book Moby-Dick” by Everett Henry, 1956. 1987.2.1

Nineteenth-century Nantucketers were reluctant to speak about the Essex tragedy, but the story was widely known, on island and off. It travelled the world’s oceans by word of mouth and was frankly recounted in children’s books. Sea-story collectors and magazine editors told it luridly or cast it as a moral lesson. The catastrophe provided plot details to Edgar Allen Poe and inspired the destruction of the Pequod at the end of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Today, modern historians’ careful work to unearth new details of the story has inspired Hollywood to recast the ship’s misfortunes anew, finding heroes and villains in the sufferings of 20 men nearly 200 years ago.

The Essex and Moby-Dick

Herman Melville, 1870, by Joseph Oriel Eaton courtesy of the Collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University

Herman Melville went whaling in 1840, at age 21. He encountered the Essex story near the very waters where the ship had been wrecked, and read Owen Chase’s Narrative in a copy borrowed at sea from Chase’s own son. A decade later, he crafted the novel Moby-Dick from his own experiences mixed with inspirations from literature, history, art, and science. The whale’s destruction of the Essex provided the novel’s climax.

“The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me.”
—Herman Melville

Learn more about the Essex and Moby-Dick

Artistic License

“The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told.”—Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea, 2000

The Essex story has been told many times. Historians have progressively deepened our understanding of the tragedy, while artists have explored the dramatic and even melodramatic aspects of the crew’s predicament. Most recently, director Ron Howard and a creative team of hundreds have made the story into an action-adventure film, imagining a meeting between survivor Thomas Nickerson and novelist Herman Melville and painting Owen Chase as a dreamboat hero. The film was shot in 2013 and 2014 in a studio outside London, England, and on location in the Canary Islands.


Trailer from Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, 2015, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s New York Times bestseller published in 2000 and which won the National Book Award for nonfiction

From the NHA Collections
(Click on an image for more detail)

“In the Wake of the Essex” as it appeared in the original 2015 exhibition at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

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