In the 1800s, American whaling was a brutal, murderous undertaking. It was carried out by tough crewmen, on tall ships, based in Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts, who were not afraid of huge whales. They were about to learn a frightening lesson.
After the American Revolutionary War, whalers had decimated the whale population in the Atlantic. They were now sailing farther and farther from home, around Cape Horn at the southern edge of South America, into the Pacific Ocean, in search of the leviathans of the deep.
These huge whales produced oil that was used for many things, but it was especially needed to light the lamps of the world, before the discovery of fossil fuel below the surface of the earth which produced kerosene.
One day in 1840, about a thousand miles off the coast of Chile, in the Pacific Ocean, two American whaling ships crossed paths. Their encounter provided a rare moment of human contact and an exchange of news and conversation between members of the two crews.
A teen-age boy, William Henry Chase, was part of one crew. He had grown up among whalers, since his father was now Captain of another whaling ship. The boy fell into a conversation with a young member of the crew of the other ship, the Acushnet, who was just a few years older than he was.
William Henry Chase bragged about his father, Owen Chase, who had suffered through one of the most tragic and difficult experiences a person could have at sea and survive; in fact, he and his crew nearly starved to death. What saved him was something so terrible that few can accept or choose to think about it: the act of cannibalism.
The tragedy began twenty years earlier, very near the spot where these two whale ships happened to be at the moment. At that time, Owen Chase was First Mate of a whale ship called the Essex. On the morning of November 20, 1820, Chase was making repairs to one of the whaleboats on the deck of the Essex, while the rest of the crew was away in small boats hunting whales.
Glancing out to sea, Chase spotted a huge whale, 85 feet in length, moving rapidly through the water, on a direct collision course with the ship!
When the whale reached the ship, the huge head of the whale rammed and crashed through the wooden bow of the ship below the water line. Then the whale swam below the ship to the other side and rammed the ship again. What seemed to be an angry and revengeful whale had doomed the ship.
Taking on water through the two holes created by the whale, the ship was sinking. The crew of twenty was stranded in the ocean around 1500 miles from land, with only three fragile whaleboats for their survival. For over three long months the crew, growing fewer and fewer in number, battled the elements and starvation. Only eight members of the crew survived and, when finally rescued, they were practically living skeletons, presenting such a pathetic sight that the rescuing Captain, upon seeing them, broke out in tears.
William Henry Chase told his new friend that his father had written down an account of the terrible struggle for survival, detailing the daily events. It had been published nineteen years before. In fact, the teenager had a copy, which he loaned to his new friend.
The teenager’s new friend, Herman Melville, read it and was greatly impressed by the attack on a whale ship by an angry, revengeful whale. Years later, he used this idea for a new novel about a fictitious whaling Captain named Ahab, and an angry, revengeful whale named “Moby Dick”.
While Melville’s novel took a long time to become a classic, the true story of the Essex became famous from the moment it was first published in 1821. It remains a riveting adventure to this day.
The narrative of First Mate Owen Chase, detailing his sense of responsibility for his crew, his efforts to ration food and water for everyone’s survival and his attempts to inspire his crew, are heroic. The daily emotions, fear, hope and desperation of Chase and his crew are compelling reading. And now they are compelling listening as a Listen2Read audiobook.
I am pleased to add “Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale Ship Essex” bu Owen Chase, First Mate of the Essex to our Listen To Read American Adventure Library.
You can preview Owen Chase’s first hand experience for yourself
(Free Preview at http://youtu.be/lBE4kH5uuDQ).
Listen To Read