Surviving The Essex Disaster (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part 1

While traveling several thousand miles in three twenty-five foot boats was frightening, it wasn't completely unprecedented.  After the Bounty mutiny thirty years previously, then-Lieutenant Bligh and his fellow crew members traveled more than four thousand miles in a similar sized longboat and the Essex survivors were confident in their ability as seamen.  The remaining supplies were split three ways with seven in two of the boats and six in the boat commanded by Owen Chase (which was in poorest shape).   Captain Pollard and Matthew Joy commanded the other two boats.  Since they did not have enough navigational equipment to go around, the three boats stayed together as much as possible.  Along with the natural fear over their situation, the men were plagued by posttraumatic flashbacks over the loss of the Essex as well as tobacco withdrawal (Nantucket sailors were rarely without a plug of tobacco at their disposal).  Although they were able to carry on three-way conversations among the boats to relieve the boredom, this would change with time.   Navigation was also difficult since they had no accurate chronometer to track longitude (they were still too rare in 1819 to be included on Nantucket sea voyages).    All that remained was using "dead reckoning" using the ship's compass and estimating the ship's speed by a variety of clumsy methods.  While that worked well enough for Bligh, Captain Pollard was not as competent. 

Despite several near-calamities, including the need for frantic repairs on Chase's boat (which was the leakiest of the three), the ships remained together for seven days.  Then, following a bizarre incident, Pollard's ship was attacked by a killer whale.  While the orca was successfully driven off, Pollard's ship began taking on water although they managed to repair it.   As the weeks went on, their situation became increasingly desperate.   Although they were still able to eat their bread, which had been damaged by seawater, the salt remaining in the bread aggravated their thirst.   They were forced to drink the blood of the tortoises they had on board to supplement their scant water supply.  Collecting rainwater using their sails was no solution since the sails were so saturated with sea salt that it only made their thirst worse.   Miraculously the three boats managed to stay close together despite the horrendous bad weather they encountered.   

By December 9, Pollard was able to estimate that they had traveled more than 1100 miles but that they were no closer to South America than before.  Amazingly, Pollard, Chase and Joy decided to stick with the original plan rather than trying for the nearer islands despite their desperate plight.   As supplies ran short, they cut back to the bare minimum and severe starvation and dehydration began setting in.   Discovering that the barnacles attached to the bottom of their boats were edible bought them some time, but not much.  Ironically, the trained seamen were unable to catch enough fish to feed themselves since that part of the Pacific was unusually free of any sea life except for sharks and dolphins that always stayed out of reach. 

Although  various symptoms associated with severe dehydration and malnutrition are now recognized by modern medicine, the Essex survivors had no guide to what was happening to them.  Their hair began falling out in clumps, their eyes sank into their skulls, they became delusional, and almost unrecognizable.   

They were preparing themselves to die when they stumbled across an island on December 19.   The island, which is now known as Henderson Island, was only a relatively short distance from Pitcairn Island where they might have been saved.  Unfortunately, Pollard and Chase failed to recognize this.  All that mattered was that the island didn't have a good water source which made their situation more desperate than ever.   There was some vegetation which helped them fight malnutrition and a trickle of water which helped them rehydrate slightly but the Essex survivors eventually decided to take their chances on the open sea again.   Three survivors balked at the plan and decided to stay on the island in the hope of eventual rescue.  Pollard and the others didn’t object since it meant that their own food supplies could be stretched further and promised to arrange for their rescue if they reached land first. 

After stocking up as much food as they could, the men in the three boats set a course for Easter Island which they hoped would be possible with the water supplies left to them.  They still had their navigational guides but were forced to rely on dead reckoning for navigation.  Unfortunately, bad weather sent them off course for Easter Island and they gave up all hope of getting there.  

On January 10, Matthew Joy died and the other survivors gave him a solemn sea burial.  He would be the first to die since the scarce supplies they had picked up on the island had long since gone.  A few days later, the boats were struck by a massive storm which finally separated the three boats.    By then, the remaining survivors had been at sea for nearly two months after the sinking of the Essex.  With more than a thousand miles left to their planned destination and food supplies being desperately low, Chase would later write that the crew barely had strength "to move about in our boats and slowly perform the necessary labors remaining". 

The severe malnutrition caused them to experience blackouts and impaired cognition.  Tensions grew worse and Chase nearly killed one crewman who had been caught stealing bread.  By January 20, the crewmen in Chase’s boat had resigned themselves to death and one of them, Richard Peterson, refused his daily allowance of bread stating that “It may be of service to someone but can be of none to me”.  It would be the last thing he ever said and he died the following day.  He was given a sea burial just like Matthew Joy. 

As for the other two boats, they were little better off although they managed to stay together.  When one of the remaining crewmen, Lawson Thomas, died on January 20,  Captain Pollard and his fellow survivors were left with a harsh choice: either they starved or they would agree to eat the body.  Stories of shipwreck survivors eating their dead crewmates were common among sailors so the idea wasn’t completely repugnant to them.  Still, it must have seemed ironic that they were forced to become cannibals themselves after deliberating avoiding islands where natives were rumoured to eat people. 

After carefully butchering Thomas’ body (their experience as whalers likely came in handy at that point), they lit a fire on the flat stone at the bottom of the boat and roasted the body parts before eating them.  Since all of the survivors were badly emaciated by then, Thomas’ body likely didn’t produce enough meat to feed the survivors for long.  When another crewman died two days later, he was eaten too.    

For whatever reason, it was the African-American crewmen who were the first to die and be eaten.  While there was no evidence that they were specifically singled out,   only one African-American crewman was left after a few weeks passed.   On January 29,  Captain Pollard and his fellow survivors on his boat realized that the other boat had vanished.  From that point on, they were on their own. 

To be continued.


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