Narrative of Nantucket

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“But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection. I hardly know what to say,” said Captain George Pollard, Jr., when confessing his experience with the Essex. The event (which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick) is explored in “Stove by a Whale: 20 Men, 3 Boats, 96 Days.” The exhibition is presented by the Nantucket Historical Association to welcome Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea (December 2015).

The Essex departed Nantucket, Massachusetts, in August 1819—an era defined by whaling. By November 1820, the crew was in the Pacific Ocean when it approached a sperm whale, expecting a “Nantucket sleighride” (the term for when the creature would drag the boat, after being harpooned). Owen Chase, the first mate, recalled the sperm whale—an estimated 85 feet in length—“coming down for us at great celerity” before smashing the 87-foot ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.” He added that, throughout the entanglement, “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury.”

The Essex was abandoned by 20 men who departed in three 20-foot boats. As they rationed their bread (which was saturated with saltwater), the horizon was dooming. When they happened on Henderson Island, three men deserted the boats for land—despite the fact that it was barren. (They were rescued after four months, having subsisted on eggs and shellfish.)

The others, 17 men, continued in boats helmed by Chase and Pollard. By January 1821, the situation was dire. Soon, a man on Chase’s boat went mad and proceeded to convulse and die. As Chase detailed, the crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from his bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to sea.”

That was the beginning of the cannibalism—an act that was excused in situations like these as a “custom of the sea.” And thus, it proceeded, until February 1821 when Chase’s boat was discovered by the Indian after 89 days. Pollard’s boat—which was 300 miles from Chase’s boat—was rescued by the Dauphin after 96 days. Pollard and Charles Ramsdell were delirious, seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”

Ultimately, there were five survivors from the boats, including Chase and Pollard. The third boat would be identified on Ducie Island, occupied by three skeletons.

The tale of the Essex is a tragedy, but one that has become part of the narrative of the island. As Bill Tramposch, executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association shares: “Nantucket is the ‘home’ of this story and the home of Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the best-selling book In the Heart of the Sea. The Nantucket Historical Association is proud to be collaborating with Nathaniel and Warner Brothers as we tell the tale once again, this time using the objects that remain from the disaster, props from Ron Howard’s upcoming film, and a state-of-the-art exhibition that describes the world of the Essex. In addition, we will be offering a long list of summer activities pertaining to Nantucket’s whaling history and this story, including the official In the Heart of the Sea daily walking tour that begins on Memorial Day weekend.”

For more information on the exhibition on display at the Whaling Museum (13 Broad Street in Nantucket, Massachusetts), contact the Nantucket Historical Association at 508.228.1894 or nantuckethistoricalassociation.com.