This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick

Engraving of the whale attack on the Essex. From Thomas Nickerson’s account The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk By a Whale and the Ordeal of the Open Boat Survivors. Illustrated by William J. Aylward. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

The Fight to Survive

The whale rammed into the port side of the ship, knocking Chase and his men off of their feet. Momentarily stunned by the impact, the whale disappeared under the water. It returned to strike the bow before swimming away. With the Essex taking on too much water, the eight crew members jumped into their repaired hunting boat. The ship slowly sank over the next two days, and the men salvaged what they could from the wreck. Outfitting the whaling boats with sails and extra sideboards, they grabbed navigational aids and food soaked with sea water.

The attack stranded the men in the middle of the South Pacific. Captain Pollard suggested sailing about 1,200 miles west towards the Marquesas Islands. Chase had a different idea: the boats would catch the Westerlies if they traveled 1,000 miles south of their location. These sea winds used in trade would push them east towards South America. The crew supported Chase’s plan, fearing the rumored cannibal tribes of the Pacific Islands. Pollard reluctantly agreed although it involved sailing almost twice the distance. Over the next two weeks, the boats sailed against the wind, and the limited provisions ran out quickly.

Frantically patching their boats in the rough sea conditions, the party made landfall at Henderson Island. Even though the Essex survivors largely depleted the island’s resources, three men remained behind when the crew left on December 27, 1820. A storm separated Chase’s boat from the others, and they slowly withered away from exposure, thirst, and hunger. When one of the men died, the rest kept his body, drying the organs, skin, and muscle in the blistering sun before eating it. It didn’t do much to feed the rest, and it made the men hungrier.

Photograph of Owen Chase, 1860s. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association

The remaining two boats – led by Captain Pollard and Obed Hendricks – stayed together, but they were running out of food. Over the next month, four men died from exposure, and the survivors kept the bodies for food. By the end of January, a storm separated the boats. Without navigational aids, Hendricks and his group were lost at sea. Pollard and his three remaining men – including his cousin Owen Coffin – clung to life, starving to death but not dying. In desperation, they drew lots to select who would be sacrificed for food to save the others. Owen pulled the fateful lot.

Pollard threatened to harm anyone who tried to kill Owen. Rejecting his cousin’s attempts to protect him, Owen was murdered. Captain Pollard had to eat Owen’s body to keep from starving to death. Ten days later, another boatmate died. After they harvested and consumed his body, Pollard and his other companion, Charles Ramsdell – the man who murdered his cousin – survived on bone marrow. Three months after the Essex sunk, a British whaling ship rescued Chase’s boat on February 18, 1821. A Nantucket whaler, the Dauphin, found Pollard and Ramsdell five days later, only 300 miles away.