Surviving the Essex Disaster (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part 2

By February 6, Captain Pollard and the three seamen with him were in a desperate situation. The last of their food was gone and starvation seemed certain. The youngest crewmember, Charles Ramsdell, then suggested that they draw lots to see who would be killed so that the others could eat.  While not unheard of in other cases of survival at sea, the idea was especially repugnant to the Nantucket crewmen, most of whom were Quakers. George Pollard initially rejected Ramsdell`s suggestion, he eventually reconsidered when one of the other survivors, Owen Coffin (who also happened to be his cousin), urged him to change his mind. They cut up a piece of paper and placed the scraps in a hat to choose who would die.

As it happened, Owen Coffin was the one picked although Pollard offered to take his place. They then drew lots to see who would shoot Chase. It was Charles Ramsdell, his best friend. While Ramsdell refused to follow through, Coffin insisted that the lot had been fair and that he was ready to die. The execution went through as scheduled. As for Owen Chase and the survivors in the first boat, the same harsh decision to resort to cannibalism fell to them when one of their survivors, Isaac Cole, died on February 8. After a day of deliberating, they butchered the body and ate it. Chase would later write that there was “no language to describe the anguish of our souls in this dreadful dilemma”.   Not only had they resorted to eating a crewmember to survive but it seemed certain that any one of them would be next. 

As for the survivors on Owen Chase’s ship, they  were on the verge of giving up completely although they continued on their course.   Their unexpected rescue by the English whaleship Indian, eighty-nine days after their ordeal began, must have seemed like a dream. As they pulled their small boat  alongside the ship, all that Chase could say when the Indian’s captain hailed them was  “Essex..whaleship…Nantucket”.   When Captain William Crozier saw the state of the three survivors, he burst into tears.  Too weakened to climb aboard on their own, the Indian’s crew hauled them up and carried them to the captain’s cabin. As he regained his strength, Owen Chase was astonished to discover that they had successfully traveled 2,500 miles over open sea and had managed to remain on course the entire way. Strangely enough, the tiny whaleboat that had carried them so far and which was being towed behind the Indian, was lost in a storm just a few days after the rescue.

The boat carrying George Pollard and Charles Ramsdell (the only two left) managed to stay on course  as well even though the last of their food was gone. The only thing preventing starvation were the remaining bones of their crewmates which they cracked open for the marrow. Too weak to maintain a proper watch, they were hardly aware of the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin which picked them up on February 23.   For the Dauphin’s crew, the sight of a whaleboat with two nearly-dead men surrounded by numerous human bones must have seemed nightmarish. In the numerous stories later spread about the Essex survivors, the most ghoulish detail was that they had been found “sucking the bones of their dead mess-mates, which they were loath to part with”.

Like the other survivors, Pollard and Ramsdell were lifted on board and carefully nursed back to health. Making a rapid recovery, George Pollard described his experiences in complete detail (including the murder of Owen Coffin). One captain hearing the story, Aaron Paddack, was moved enough to write down Pollard’s story which he called “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge”.    While the five Essex survivors were safe, the legacy of what they had been forced to do to survive would haunt them for the rest of their lives. Even after they arrived in the Chilean port of Valparaiso, Chase and his fellow survivors made no attempt to keep their cannibalism a secret. After a few days of recovery in Valparaiso, the three men were transferred to the U.S. frigate, Constellation and placed under the care of the ship’s doctor who oversaw their recovery.

The captain and crew of the Constellation were so horrified by their skeletal appearance that they took up a collection for them. Along with the money raised by the Constellation as well as funds donated by American and British citizens living in Valparaiso, more than five hundred dollars were collected for the Essex survivors. But their ordeal wasn’t over yet.  Three months of starvation had damaged their bodies profoundly and their recovery would be slow. Not long after they arrived in Valparaiso, Chase and the others were astounded to learn from another whaling ship that Pollard and Ramsdell had survived as well. Finally, on March 17, the whaleship Two Brothers arrived in Valparaiso and the five survivors were reunited for the first time since their boats had become separated.

Although Pollard suffered an immediate relapse after arriving, he and the others kept their promised to the survivors who had remained behind on Henderson Island. They were later found, alive but dehydrated by an Australian trading vessel at the request of the Constellation’s commander.   As for the final whaleboat that had become separated from the others, the survivors on board were never seen again although a whaleboat containing four skeletons would be found on a distant island years later. The remains were never positively identified.

News of the Essex disaster reached Nantucket before the survivors did. Although Pollard and Ramsdell were initially listed as the only survivors, the fact that there were several other survivors was slim consolation to the families of the ones who had been lost. The grim details of their ordeal, including the cannibalism, made for an awkward homecoming for the survivors.     George Pollard had the most difficult time of all. When he finally reached Nantucket, two months after the others, he had to explain the loss of the Essex to the ship’s owners (as captain, he had primary responsibility for his vessel). He also had to face his own aunt, the mother of Owen Coffin. Not surprisingly, she never spoke to him again after he brought her son’s last message to her.

The rest of the closely tied Nantucket community rallied around Pollard and the other Essex survivors who were eventually allowed to get on with their lives. George Pollard impressed his fellow seamen enough with his courage to be offered the captaincy of a new ship, the Two Brothers and set sail just three months after returning to Nantucket.    In 1823, Pollard’s new ship struck a coral reef and sank although there was no loss of life this time. Due to his reputation for bad luck , no shipowner would ever trust him with another command. He eventually lived out his days as a night watchman in Nantucket. The other survivors didn’t make out any better and most of them had to sign on to new ships just to support themselves (the loss of the Essex had left them almost penniless).

Owen Chase, desperate to support his family, put out a book about the Essex sinking which came out within a few months of his return. The mostly ghostwritten book presented Chase in as positive a light as possible and George Pollard felt particularly insulted over how he had been portrayed. The rest of the Nantucket community hated the book as well and Chase was obliged to sign on to a new ship well away from Nantucket.    He eventually e stablished himself as a successful sea captain with a reputation for fearsomely hunting the whale that had sunk the Essex. Although all of the survivors were able to return to their regular lives eventually, the trauma of what they had faced haunted them for the rest of their lives. The story of the Essex sinking and the plight of its survivors became a maritime legend for the rest of the 19th century.

Although Nantucket’s whaling industry wouldn’t survive more than a few decades after the Essex sinking, Owen Chase’s book and the accounts of the other Essex survivors would have a major impact on literature. Edgar Allen Poe based his 1837 short story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon 41t8JyxGhKL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU15_[1]Pym on the Essex sinking.   The most literary work based on the Essex disaster was by Herman Melville who served on the whaleship Acushnet with Owen Chase’s son. Inspired by the story of Chase’s survival and his quest to find the rogue whale responsible for destroying his ship, Melville wrote his own 1851 classic, Moby Dick  (he based his Captain Ahab character on Chase).

While Melville’s book was a financial and critical failure during his lifetime, Moby Dick has ensured a form of immortality for the Essex seamen and helped keep their story alive.   More recently, Nathaniel Philbrick won the 2000 National Book Award for In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.   His gripping book brought the Essex disaster to life for a new generation of readers and is currently in development for a movie adaptation starring Chris Hemsworth.

Whether Hollywood can do justice to the full story of the Essex disaster remains to be seen...

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  • Surviving The Essex Disaster (Part 1 of 3)


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