Sunday, November 20, 2011

Owen Chase

The captain's boat was the first that reached us.  He stopped about a boat's length off, but had no power to utter a single syllable; he was so completely overpowered with the spectacle before him.  He was in a short time, however, enabled to address the inquiry to me, "My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?"  I answered, "We have been stove by a whale."

From his 1821 book, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.  

The "spectacle" spoken of above by Chase was the sinking of the Essex, which had left Nantucket, Massachusetts in August 1819 to hunt for whales in the South Pacific, where it was attacked and sunk by an 85-foot-long sperm whale on this date in 1820.

The crew of the Essex (21 men) set out in three 28-foot whaleboats for South America, which was about 4000 miles away.  Captain George Pollard wanted to sail in the opposite direction to the Marquesas Islands, which were only about 1200 miles to the west, but his crew -- led by the first mate, Owen Chase -- voted him down because they feared that the Marquesas were inhabited by cannibals.

Chase's boat, with five men aboard, eventually became separated from the other two.  One man died on January 18 and was buried at sea.  When a second perished on February 8, the remaining three sailors resorted to cannibalism to survive.  They were rescued by a British ship three days later.   

Pollard's boat ran out of food on February 1, and its four survivors decided to draw lots to decide who would be sacrificed for the survival of the rest.  A 17-year-old named Owen Coffin drew the black spot, accepted his fate calmly, and was shot in the head and was consumed.  Another man in the boat died on February 11, and he was also eaten.  Pollard and the other survivor were finally rescued by another Nantucket whaler on February 23, 1820 -- 95 days after the Essex sank.

A total of eight of the 21 crew members survived, while seven were eaten.

Herman Melville, whose novel Moby Dick was inspired by the incident, later said that he believed that all would have survived if they had sailed west to the Marquesas.

Mountain's 1971 song, "Nantucket Sleighride" (from the album of the same name) was dedicated to Owen Coffin.  The title describes what happened when whalers harpooned a whale from a small boat -- they were towed behind the wounded mammal, often at a disturbingly rapid speed.

Nathan Philbrick won a National Book Award for his 2000 account of the ordeal, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

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