The Men of the Essex where in dire circumstances by January of 1821. Out of the three whale boats that had been transporting the crew on their difficult journey, one had been blown out of sight and the remaining two had succumbed to eating the flesh of fallen crew mates to survive.
Owen Chase’s and his men where still alone, thousands of miles of course and giving into the all-encompassing horror of their situation. The winds had finally changed to a westerly breeze, which was pushing them in the right direction, but this brought little comfort. Once again, they found themselves unable to speak from a combination of exhaustion and thirst, even with Owen Chase attempting to bring relief by increasing the daily ration. It had an adverse effect, the men felt intense hunger pains from the sudden increase. They also had again been blighted by the pain of hypernatremia (Excess of salt in the body) rendering them unable to speak most of the time. By the 8th of February,79 Days since they ship had sunk, the boat would take its second loss. Isaac Cole had spent the last few days rejecting his rations and acting out of sorts, seemingly withdrawn from all else. By the afternoon of the 8th he had begun to convulse, slipping in and out of consciousness. His fellow crew mates where terrified by the erratic behaviour: Was this their fate? What was happening? By 4pm, Isaac Cole was dead. Experts speculate that his death may have been caused by a combination of dehydration, Hypernatremia, and a magnesium deficiency. The latter of which would account for his personality changes, spasms, and loss of appetite. Although distraught to lose another crew member Owen Chase paused. They where starving. Just like the two other boats they had long lost contact with, Chase made the difficult choice to cannibalise Cole’s body.
However, their ordeal was not to last much longer. Over the next few days their mental states continued to deteriorate, the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson (Aged 15) had become despondent and increased worry from Chase. But on the 18th of February, salvation came. On the horizon they sited “The Indian”, a British ship. Owen Chase would later comment in his book concerning the event “I felt at the moment, a violent and unaccountable impulse to fly directly towards her.” Despite his joy, Chase could only muster a few words to the Captain “Essex…Whaleship…Nantucket.” The captain of the Indian, William Crozier, commented that the survivors where “the most deplorable and affecting picture of suffering and misery.”
Meanwhile the remaining two boats still faced greater toils, on the 27th Isaiah Shepperd died, followed the very next day by Samuel Reed, they were both black crew members and Just like the previous crew members, they where consumed by the others. This left one black survivor, William Bond. Who was residing in Obed Hendrix’s boat. It is common that men in these survival situations become demoralised when they resort to cannibalism, the crew of the Essex where no exception. Survivors claim that there soon became an absence of feeling, just a drive to survive their circumstance and live just a little longer in hopes rescue would come. But Obed Hendrix’s boat would get no such salvation. Late at night on the 29th of January Obed Hendrix’s boat was separated from Captain Pollard’s. This was a death sentence, Hendrix’s boat had n navigational equipment and no food. Obed Hendrix, William Bond and Joseph West were never seen again.
On the 6th of February , Captain Pollard and his four-man crew had run out of meat. An idea was presented by Charles Ramsdell that would define the history of this event. He suggested they draw lots to choose a sacrifice. One man to die for food so the others may live. Reluctantly, aware of how limited their options where, Pollard agreed. So, they took five scraps of paper and drew lots for a black spot. The lot was drawn by Owen Coffin, the captains own younger cousin. Panicked and struck by grief, Pollard is claimed to have said “My lad, If you don’t like your lot, I will shoot the any man who tries to touch you.” Owen was just 18, Pollard had sworn to protect the boy. Owen however replied “No, I like my lot as well as any other”. A second lot was drawn to determine who would shoot Owen, this time Ramsdell drew the spot. The pair had been childhood Friends, Ramsdell was only 16 at this point. Despite him having the original idea Ramsdell refused at first, beside himself with guilt and fear. But their situation pushed him on, days passed, on the 8th of February Owen Coffin was shot. Before his death he whispered a message for Pollard to pass on to his mother. Days later, Brazillai Ray, also 18 and another childhood friend of Coffin and Ramsdell, died. He too was used to sustain the two remaining crew mates.
Days passed; the boat was being pushed east toward the Chilian coast. But it was mostly unnoticed by Pollard and Ramsdell, who could barely lift their bodies and drifted in and out of consciousness. They managed to survive those days by smashing open the bones to suck out the bone marrow. This gave them fats that they so desperately needed. But being gone from land for so long and all hope having drained from them, they barley noticed the calls from the ship that found them. The whale ship, Dauphin had arrived to save them from their 94 day ordeal on the 23rd February. Out of 21 men, had survived, Including those on Hendrix Island. Obed Hendrix and his crew where not so lucky, a boat containing three skeletons was found on a remote island years later although the identities where never confirmed.
They would all eventually return to Nantucket, the legacy of their journey would change their own lives and the culture. The reaction to the disproportionate deaths of black crewmen was immediate, many Nantucketers where embarrassed by the fact. The island’s Whaling industry quickly resorted to damage control, launching campaigns that stressed the important role of black members of the industry. However, the sailors were largely welcomed without server judgement, the terrible circumstances where enough to bring forgiveness. It’s important to know that the ability to fish was not an option, the area they were adrift in was known for its lack of marine life near the surface.
This is not to say the sailors themselves didn’t suffer, far from it. Records show that they did all continue to work at sea, but in the case of Pollard and Chase, this was not an easy endeavour. Pollard, was always quick to discus the event, like a constant defence that was never asked for, always stressing how much the events pained him. His sailing career did not last long after, in 1822 he was captain the whaleship ‘Two Brothers’, the ship also sunk off the coast of Hawaii. After that he joined a small merchant ship, which also sunk. After this Pollard returned to Nantucket with no chance of employment, people saw him as a poor cursed ‘Jonah’. He spent the rest of his life as a coastal watchman. Some claim he also fasted every year on November 20th to pay tribute to the men who died all those years ago.
Chase meanwhile returned home to his wife and the daughter he had never met, during the months of physical recovery he wrote “Narrative of the most extraordinary and distressing shipwreck of the whaleship The Essex”, publishing it to great acclaim in late 1821 This book would partially inspire “Moby Dick”, as Chase’s son gave a copy to Herman Melville. Chase would then return to sea, for another 19 years, during which time he would seldom return home. His relationships suffered, having four times and barely having time with his children, his children would later remark how little they knew him. Over his lifetime Chase’s mental state would decline, suffering from headaches and nightmares. Later in life, he would take to hoarding food in his attic. With our modern perspective It is easy to see that Chase suffered from a form of PTSD. He eventually would be institutionalised, dying in the institution in 1869, aged 73.