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 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.”
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.