This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick

This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick

Jennifer Conerly - March 7, 2019

Before trying his hand at writing, the young Herman Melville’s brief career on the sea would influence his later works. Joining the whaling vessel the Acushnet in 1840, his chance encounter with William Henry Chase – the son of Owen Chase – would cement his reputation as one of the great American authors. The younger Chase handed Melville a copy of his father’s memoir that detailed his horrific survival at sea after a sperm whale attacked and sank the Essex during a whaling voyage in 1820.

Stranded thousands of miles away from land with no provisions, the crew piled into small twenty-five-foot hunting boats as their vessel sank. When other whaling ships rescued less than half of the Essex‘s skeleton crew three months later, the survivors recounted a gruesome tale of starvation, cannibalism, and murder. The sinking of the Essex inspired the final scene of Herman Melville’s most celebrated novel, Moby Dick. However, the author didn’t include the horrifying events that followed, recorded in Owen Chase’s memoir in stomach-churning detail.

The Essex spent twenty years on the sea before embarking on her final voyage in August 1819. Manned by a twenty-one-man crew, including twenty-nine-year-old Captain George Pollard and twenty-three-year-old First Mate Owen Chase, the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific. The doomed voyage encountered misfortune from the start. A storm in the Gulf Stream almost sank the Essex. Rough sea conditions put the trip behind schedule. After five weeks at sea, the Essex finally rounded the tip of South America in January 1820. One man abandoned the ship, but the rest of the crew had a successful season.

This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick
Model of the Whaling Ship Essex, ca. 1970s. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association

Reaching the South Pacific, the men of the Essex hunted whales near the border of modern-day Ecuador until October 1820. Encountering another whaling vessel, the crew learned of another fertile hunting ground about 3,000 miles southwest of their location. Even though the men feared stories of cannibal tribes that lived on the Pacific Islands, Pollard and Chase hoped to catch more whales. When they reached the promised area of plenty, there were no whales in sight. On November 20, 1820, the disgruntled crew finally spotted a pod of sperm whales.

This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick
Map of the Journey of the Essex, August 1819-November 1820. The Telegraph. “The Incredible True Story of the Whaleship Essex.”

The excited crew loaded into their whaling boats, splitting into three groups of six, leaving two men behind on the vessel. After their small boat sustained damage on the hunt, Owen Chase and his team boarded the Essex to repair it. As they hurriedly patched up their hunting boat, the men spotted a large male sperm whale approach the Essex. As the rest of the crew in the remaining two hunting boats returned, they watched in horror as the whale attacked the Essex.

This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick
Engraving of the whale attack on the Essex. From Thomas Nickerson’s account The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk By a Whale and the Ordeal of the Open Boat Survivors. Illustrated by William J. Aylward. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

The Fight to Survive

The whale rammed into the port side of the ship, knocking Chase and his men off of their feet. Momentarily stunned by the impact, the whale disappeared under the water. It returned to strike the bow before swimming away. With the Essex taking on too much water, the eight crew members jumped into their repaired hunting boat. The ship slowly sank over the next two days, and the men salvaged what they could from the wreck. Outfitting the whaling boats with sails and extra sideboards, they grabbed navigational aids and food soaked with sea water.

The attack stranded the men in the middle of the South Pacific. Captain Pollard suggested sailing about 1,200 miles west towards the Marquesas Islands. Chase had a different idea: the boats would catch the Westerlies if they traveled 1,000 miles south of their location. These sea winds used in trade would push them east towards South America. The crew supported Chase’s plan, fearing the rumored cannibal tribes of the Pacific Islands. Pollard reluctantly agreed although it involved sailing almost twice the distance. Over the next two weeks, the boats sailed against the wind, and the limited provisions ran out quickly.

Frantically patching their boats in the rough sea conditions, the party made landfall at Henderson Island. Even though the Essex survivors largely depleted the island’s resources, three men remained behind when the crew left on December 27, 1820. A storm separated Chase’s boat from the others, and they slowly withered away from exposure, thirst, and hunger. When one of the men died, the rest kept his body, drying the organs, skin, and muscle in the blistering sun before eating it. It didn’t do much to feed the rest, and it made the men hungrier.

This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick
Photograph of Owen Chase, 1860s. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association

The remaining two boats – led by Captain Pollard and Obed Hendricks – stayed together, but they were running out of food. Over the next month, four men died from exposure, and the survivors kept the bodies for food. By the end of January, a storm separated the boats. Without navigational aids, Hendricks and his group were lost at sea. Pollard and his three remaining men – including his cousin Owen Coffin – clung to life, starving to death but not dying. In desperation, they drew lots to select who would be sacrificed for food to save the others. Owen pulled the fateful lot.

Pollard threatened to harm anyone who tried to kill Owen. Rejecting his cousin’s attempts to protect him, Owen was murdered. Captain Pollard had to eat Owen’s body to keep from starving to death. Ten days later, another boatmate died. After they harvested and consumed his body, Pollard and his other companion, Charles Ramsdell – the man who murdered his cousin – survived on bone marrow. Three months after the Essex sunk, a British whaling ship rescued Chase’s boat on February 18, 1821. A Nantucket whaler, the Dauphin, found Pollard and Ramsdell five days later, only 300 miles away.

This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick
Photograph from the film In the Heart of the Sea, starring Chris Hemsworth as First Mate Owen Chase and Benjamin Walker as Captain George Pollard Jr. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2015. Internet Movie Database.

Life After the Essex

In their deteriorated mental state, Pollard and Ramsdell resisted the crew’s efforts to pull them safely aboard the Dauphin, frantically shoving bones in their pockets. Pollard and Ramsdell sucked the marrow after their rescue, violently protesting when the crew tried to take the bones away. Over the next month, the five survivors recovered, reuniting in Valparaiso, Chile. Rescued from Henderson Island in April 1821, the three remaining crewmen survived on marine life and bird eggs. Although the events haunted them for the rest of their lives, all eight survivors returned to the sea. All but two lived to old age.

Captain Pollard suffered the worst fate of all of the survivors: the loss of his reputation. Less than a year after he returned to Nantucket, he captained another whaling voyage aboard the Two Brothers. A storm sank his ship off the coast of Hawaii in February 1823. After his string of bad luck, Pollard could not find another commission. He retired from the sea life, becoming a night watchman for incoming ships – one of the least respectable jobs in Nantucket for a former captain. For the rest of his life, Pollard fasted on November 20 in memory of the Essex.

For months after his return, First Mate Owen Chase documented his experiences in his memoir, The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. He remained in the whaling business, taking part in several voyages for the next twenty years. After his retirement, he returned home to his family, but he was never the same man. Suffering from debilitating headaches, Chase lost his grip on reality, hiding food in his attic. Of the men who returned to Nantucket, Charles Ramsdell died first, tormented with guilt over killing his friend Owen Coffin.

This Disastrous Shipwreck Forced Survivors into Cannibalism and Inspired the Tale of Moby Dick
Painting of Herman Melville, ca. 1846-1847. Artist: Asa Weston Twitchell. This painting was completed shortly before Melville began writing Moby Dick. Wikimedia Commons

By 1887, all of the survivors of the Essex were dead, and so was the novel inspired by the event. Ten years after his meeting with Chase’s son, Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, the tale of Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge to kill the sperm whale that maimed him. Chase’s memoir provided so much detail that Herman Melville primarily used it when plotting the final scene. The book was a disappointment, only selling a few thousand copies. Melville’s other novels failed, too. He abandoned writing books, turning to poetry while working his day job as a customs inspector.

Melville’s death in 1891 reintroduced his works to new audiences. Dramatized on film several times, Moby Dick has become one of the most famous tales of the sea. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book In the Heart of the Sea – and the subsequent movie starring Chris Hemsworth – brought knowledge of the shipwreck and its connection to Melville into the twenty-first century. Herman Melville’s novel is now one of the most influential works of American fiction, yet it is missing the astonishing tale of survival that followed the disastrous voyage that inspired it.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Essex (whaleship).” Wikipedia.

King, Gilbert. “The True Life Horror That Inspired Moby Dick.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 1, 2013.

Than, Ker. “Rare 1823 Wreck Found – Captain Linked to ‘Moby Dick,’ Cannibalism.” National Geographic News. February 11, 2011.

Essex (whaling ship).” Britannica Online.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. 2000.

Thompson, Derek. “The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story.” The Atlantic. February 22, 2012.

Venning, Annabel. “Cannibal Horror of the Sailors Shipwrecked by the Real Moby Dick: Two New Films Reveal the TRUE Story – and How the Victims Drew Lots to Decide Who to Eat First.” London Daily Mail. October 22, 2013.

Essex: The True Story of Moby Dick.” Documentary. History’s Mysteries: November 2000.

“Herman Melville and Nantucket.” Nantucket Historical Association.