On a clear, bright morning in November 1820, a giant bull whale rammed and sank the 238-ton American ship Essex, stranding the 20-man crew in a remote tract of the equatorial Pacific, 2250 kilometres (1400 miles) from the nearest land.
This kind of disaster, while certainly unusual, was not unknown. Alexander Starbuck, the great 19th-century chronicler of American whaling, itemised six instances of vessels being sunk by whales. Three factors lifted the Essex disaster out of the common run of such incidents, however.
First, the whale’s attack was a deliberate act of revenge for the harpooning of three members of his pod. “He came directly from the shoal which we had just before entered — and in which we had struck three of his companions,” wrote the first mate, Owen Chase, “as if he were fixed with revenge for their sufferings.”
Second, five survivors of the appalling three-month whaleboat voyage that followed kept themselves alive by eating the bodies of dead companions — one of whom was shot after lots had been drawn to determine who would be sacrificed to feed the rest.
Third, the Essex incident provided much of the inspiration for the dramatic ending of Herman Melville’s epic novel, Moby-Dick.
It was not just the ending that gave the novel its resonance with the reading public, however. The descriptions, incidents, and characters that populate the book were inspired by Melville’s own experiences on the whaleship Acushnet, and the tales he heard from whalemen on other ships and in shoreside taverns. And it was through this that he achieved something remarkable.
Up until 1851, when Moby-Dick was published, the whaling business had been largely ignored by the American public. If they knew anything about it at all, they regarded it as dirty but necessary work, and that the people involved in it were equivalent to common laborers (unless, of course, you were in Nantucket or New Bedford, where money, oil, and religion were the three tenets of the town).
Melville’s novel changed all that, because he made people aware of the sheer scope of the whaling venture — the immensity of the oceans traversed, the long months of waiting for prey, the frictions of life on board the small, cramped vessel, the brute strength, stamina and courage required to harpoon and kill great whales, and the grinding hard work and stench of turning those whales into oil for lamps and machinery, and elastic bone for buggy whips and corset stays.
Up until then, it would be fair to say that whaling had been glamorized, with its promise of adventure and tropical isles. Melville, instead, told the truth — that whaling in the days of sail was a grim and primitive struggle, which tested men to the limit. He did not have to describe the small-boat ordeal of the survivors of the sinking of his fictional Pequod, because he had already made his point.
Illustrations by Ron Druett