“In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”
Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a gripping account in 2000 of what happened to the Nantucket whaleship Essex on November 20, 1820 out in the Pacific Ocean, more than 1500 nautical miles from the Galapagos Islands.
The Essex was whaling for sperm whales (for oil), when an 85 foot male attacked the whaling ship by striking it head-on twice, which caused the Essex to sink in 10 minutes. The Captain and 20 crew members survived on 3 smaller whale boats, and after that harrowing experience, chose to head back south/east towards South America, instead of going west to the Marquesas or Society (Tahitian) Isles. They made this decision based on stories of alleged cannibalism on these islands.
Remember that this is 1820, before radar and telephones, so these men were adrift for months.
After a month at sea on the whaleboats they all reach uninhabited Henderson Island, where they were able to revive themselves with birds/eggs/plants/fresh water, and regroup. After a week on Henderson, 3 sailors chose to stay, 17 to get back on the whale boats to sail for South America.
The story at this point gets grimmer, as the reader knows by then that starvation, dehydration, hallucinations, other medical conditions (diarrhea, boils, etc.) will set in for these survivors at sea. Unfortunately several crew men start to die one by one, and are eaten by the remaining men. So the very thing they tried to avoid (cannibalism) confronts them on the high seas.
On February 6, 1821 on Captain George Pollard Jr.’s whaleboat the four men on board choose to draw lots and execute the one who draws the shortest lot. Thus one of the men shoots & kills the unfortunate first cousin of the Captain, whom he had promised his Aunt to look after. By the time they are rescued in that boat, only 2 men survive, the Captain and a sailor.
In the other boat led by First Mate Owen Chase, only 2 others survive. The 3rd boat is lost at sea with 4 men aboard (but skeletons in a whaleboat matching these men are later found on Dulcie island near Henderson, so they didn’t get very far in the Pacific Ocean).
After the two boats reach South America after almost 3 months at sea, a rescue whaling ship is sent to Henderson Island and finds the 3 sailors on that island, barely alive in April, 1821. All 8 survivors of the Essex eventually return to Nantucket, Massachusetts to forge new lives, most still as whalers.
The ethical dilemma in this book is whether it had been necessary to shoot one of the sailors (for food). Not being there in such a stressful survival situation, it would be difficult to judge that now, almost 200 years later. But my husband wondered why the sailors didn’t use the gun to shoot the sharks or porpoises that swam by, or had used the corpses as bait for sharks, instead of eating them outright.
Read the book for yourself, as it is a fantastic historical recap of the Whaling Industry in the 1800’s and also a riveting survival story, which influenced Herman Melville to write Moby Dick in 1851.
Phillbrick writes this as a summary and in support (page 236):
“Captain Pollard and his crew were simply attempting to make a living when disaster struck in the form of an 85 foot whale. After that, they did the best they could. Mistakes were inevitably made. While Captain Pollard’s instincts were sound, he did not have the strength of character to impose his will on his two younger officers. Instead of heading to Tahiti and safety, they set out on an impossible voyage, wandering the watery desert of the Pacific until most of them were dead.”
Further the author calls this “a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told.”