The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A whale sank a boat 200 years ago. Cannibalism and ‘Moby-Dick’ followed.

A drawing by Rockwell Kent used in an illustrated edition of “Moby-Dick.” (iStock)
4 min

An enraged whale had wrecked their ship, setting them adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Two tortuous months at sea later, the emaciated sailors were at a desperate point feared by 1820s seafarers: the time to determine whom to kill and eat so others may live.

That encounter set in motion the tale of how the score of sailors aboard the whaling ship Essex became lost at sea — some forced to eat one another for survival — and how their story inspired an author to write a classic piece of American literature that would build its legend.

It would also elicit allusions 200 years later, when a whale sank a boat and left sailors stranded at sea for 10 hours this month.

Sailboat crew rescued in Pacific after abandoning ship sunk by whale

There was no cannibalism involved in the recent sinking, but Michael R. Harrison, chief curator of the Nantucket Historical Association, said it immediately brought to mind the tale of the Essex — one of the best-known stories in Maritime history that inspired one of the greatest American novels, Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

In August 1819, Captain George Pollard Jr. with First Mate Owen Chase left Nantucket, Mass.

The final crew consisted of 20 sailors, including Pollard’s first cousin Owen Coffin. The captain had promised the teen’s mother he’d take care of her boy.

Their mission was to fill the ship with whale blubber, an essential resource in the era of oil lamps.

A whale found them first.

An enraged whale struck the vessel in November 1820 without land in sight, Harrison said.

All 20 crew members of the Essex survived the wreck but were left listless in three small, jury-rigged boats in the Pacific, about 1,300 miles from land, he said.

“The mistake they made was that they didn’t sail downwind to the closest island,” Harrison said. The closest islands would have taken 20 to 30 days to reach.

The crew continued with as much food as they could bring on the makeshift boats, upon which they fashioned sails. But the sailboats proved tough to maneuver.

“They were just outmatched by the circumstances,” Harrison said.

The food went, and the crew grew weak. Several sailors died. Their agonizing deaths left the survivors with an awful choice. Without any other option, they ate the bodies of their colleagues. When that flesh ran out, the extreme became inevitable.

After two months, the sailors on Pollard’s boat drew straws to see who would be killed and eaten — customary at the time for starving sailors. Coffin, the captain’s cousin, proved the least fortunate.

In February — after 89 days at sea — the three remaining sailors on Chase’s boat spotted a ship and were saved. Days later, a ship found Pollard’s boat with him and one other crew member left.

In all, five Nantucketers survived the three months adrift at sea, Harrison said. The three boats made a stop on Henderson Island, which didn’t have enough resources to keep everyone alive, and three crew members stayed there.

The island dwellers survived on rainwater and couldn’t fish without tackle, so they ate a few turtles and “had to suck the blood of the few birds they could catch,” according to Pacific Union College. They were rescued after the survivors from the sea told authorities about where the three men had stayed behind.

The five Nantucketers returned home.

This month’s sinking was a modern one that included selfies, water bottles and an emergency beacon. The people aboard live to sail another day.

As did Pollard, who would take to the seas about a year after his novel-inspiring journey, this time on the Two Brothers whaling ship.

Despite sailors being a superstitious sort, Pollard was sure he wouldn’t suffer the same fate again, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In February 1823, while in the remote northwestern Hawaiian islands, a storm struck and sank the Two Brothers.

Pollard survived, returned to Nantucket and became the town’s night watchman.

The captain and others shared the tale of the Essex, and the story blossomed into “Moby-Dick.”

Before he wrote his legacy-defining work, a 21-year-old Melville started his whaling career that would include a brief stint deserted on Pacific islands, according to the National Museum of American History. His literary hit, formally titled “Moby-Dick, or the Whale,” flopped when it was published in 1851, according to the museum. It sold 2,915 copies at about $1.50 apiece while he was alive, netting $556.37 for Melville.

He died in 1891, and, according to the museum, it wasn’t until about four decades later when Random House’s 1930 printing developed it into the seminal piece of American literature that it remains nearly a century later.


An earlier version of this article referred to a sperm whale sinking a boat on March 13 in the Pacific Ocean. A woman aboard the vessel said she thinks it was a Bryde’s whale. The article has been updated.