Mark Blackmore regales us with the true story of a sperm whale that wreaked havoc on a whaling ship and its crew, leading to inspire a maritime legend
Herman Melville’s sixth and most famous book is Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the gigantic white sperm whale that took his leg. The novel was inspired by The Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket whose fate became maritime legend.
On the morning of November 20, 1820, the crew of The Essex, led by Captain George Pollard and first mate Owen Chase, attacked a pod of sperm whales near the Pacific equator, 2,000 miles from the coast of South America. But on this day, an 85-foot bull sperm whale fought back. Ramming The Essex twice, it inflicted critical damage before withdrawing, leaving 20 crew members to watch from three whaleboats as their ship sank.
The boats soon drifted apart, and one was never seen again. The men in both Pollard’s and Chase’s boats resorted to cannibalism before they were rescued, three months later, with Pollard and his surviving crewmate found “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with”. The eight men who survived the ordeal were forever haunted by their experience, as their story became a cautionary tale – and an inspiration to a great American novelist.