Raising the Essex

Nathaniel Philbrick retells the astounding stroy of a ship sunk by a whale, the men who survived and their early 19th-century seafaring culture.

May 18, 2000|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

On March 15, 1821, in the port of Valparaiso, Chile, the U.S. Frigate Constellation took on board three bone-thin, desicated seamen barely clinging to life after three months at sea in a 25-foot whale boat.

"Their appearance -- bones working through their skins, their legs and feet much smaller and the whole surface of their bodies one entire ulcer -- was truly distressing," the Baltimore-born captain of the Constellation, Commodore Charles Goodwin Ridgely, wrote in his journal.

"I took them on board my ship, supplied them with every article they required and by the attention of my surgeon they entirely recovered."

Their ship, the Essex, an 83-foot, 238-ton whaler out of Nantucket, Mass., had been smashed and sunk on Nov. 20, 1820, in the Pacific Ocean about 1,500 miles from the Galapagos Islands, in what seemed to them to be a deliberate attack by a huge, angry sperm whale.

Owen Chase (the 22-year-old first mate on the Essex), Benjamin Lawrence (a 20-year-old boatsteerer) and Thomas Nickerson (the 15-year-old cabin boy) survived a 4,500-mile journey in their poorly provisioned open boat in part by eating their shipmate, an African-American sailor named Samuel Reed.

Their story and that of five other survivors from the Essex's crew of 20 flashed through the whaling fleet and back home to Nantucket where it has reverberated to this day in poems and stories, books and personal accounts. Chase's tale of his 82-day trial at sea became a source and inspiration for Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

Now in a new book, "In the Heart of the Sea," Nantucket historian Nathaniel Philbrick retells the extraordinary story of the Essex tragedy in a compelling and gripping account rich in details of early 19th century whaling culture both at home and at sea.

"There's a tendency to see the whole Essex tragedy as a sea yarn," Philbrick says, during a conversation by phone while he awaits a round of talk shows in New York City. "That's not doing justice to what the Essex is about.

"You have to see it in the amazing microcosm that was Nantucket," he says. "I set the story in the context of the island that sent [the whalers] forth and received the survivors back."

At the time the Essex went down, Nantucket -- 23 miles long and three to six miles wide with a population of 7,266 -- was the whaling capital of the world.

An upscale tourist destination these days with "trophy homes" rising along the beaches, Nantucket in 1821 was little more than a smelly factory town processing whale oil for the lamps of America. Seventy-five Nantucket ships pushed farther and farther into the Pacific on two- and three-year whaling voyages.

When the great bull whale attacked, the Essex was probing the "Offshore Grounds," a newly discovered whale fishery a thousand miles off the course of Peru, just below the equator.

"We treasure the image of the frontier as the vast unknown land in the West," says Philbrick, who lives on Nantucket. "But earlier there were these Nantucketers venturing out into the Pacific -- which is larger than all the world's land masses combined. To this day there are islands in the South Pacific named for the Nantucket captains who discovered them.

"This is something people in America don't adequately understand," he says. "Before there was the winning of the West, there was this other frontier. The one common experience of the colonists was a trans-Atlantic voyage. The sea at the beginning was at the heart of what made Americans American.

"I think that's the context this story should be placed in. Today the frontier of the west has been civilized. But the sea -- no matter how much we pollute it or ravage it -- is something we can never control.

"Ask any fisherman or tanker captain, the sea is as uncivilized, as savage as it was when the whalers went out. It is the eternal frontier."

Philbrick, 43, is a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association and has written or edited at least five other books about the island. He's a champion sailboat racer who comes south to Annapolis for annual sailing regattas.

During nearly a decade of research, he found that very strong ties of family and community such as those on Nantucket "can really sustain people in a disaster."

Five of the eight survivors of the wreck of the Essex were Nantucketers. They were all still aboard their whale boats when rescued. The three others -- two off-islanders and an Englishman -- had opted to stay behind on small barren Henderson Island, a dot in the Pacific near Pitcairn Island, which was colonized by the mutinous crew of the Bounty.

Philbrick recounts that a few days before he brought the Essex seamen on board his ship, Commodore Ridgely learned that George Pollard Jr., their captain, and Charles Ramsdell, a 16-year-old sailor, had been picked up by a whaling ship from New York.

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