On November 20, 1820 the whaling ship Essex was rammed twice and sunk by a sperm whale, an incident which inspired the conclusion of Melville's "Moby Dick." The crew of twenty men salvaged what food and equipment they could as the ship sank, and set out with three whale boats in an attempt to reach the coast of South America. (They were aware that the Marquesas Islands were much closer, but chose not to go there for fear of cannibals). They reached Henderson Island a month later, but found only a meager water source and not enough forage to sustain them all. Three men chose to remain there, the rest of the crew sailed on. When the food supply ran out, they subsisted on the corpses of their dead shipmates and one man (a relative of the Captain) was chosen by lot to be shot and eaten. Pitcairn Island, with food, water, and friendly inhabitants, was only a few days sail from Henderson Island, but the Essex crew were unaware of its existence. In February 1821 two of the whale boats were picked up near the coast of S. America. The crew members on Henderson Island were rescued in April 1821. In total eight men survived. Owen Chase, the first mate of the Essex, published his memoirs soon afterward and Herman Melville is known to have had a copy. Chase's memoir, as well as that of Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, may be found along with other primary sources relating to the Essex in the book "The loss of the ship Essex sunk by a whale".

Victor Niedehoffer adds:

I have commissioned a painting of the Essex — the painting has particular significance as described in Practical Speculations.

After his ordeal with the Essex, the captain immediately received a second commission and promptly grounded the new ship on ice. He refused to be rescued on the grounds that he'd be considered a hoodoo from then on. I have regularly used that second disaster as a sales prop, the way my daughter Galt uses her baby Magnolia in her movie meetings — "I can't afford to let it happen again as they'll consider me a hoodoo, look at my responsibilities." And in my case "if I fail a second time I won't be able to support my seven kids and 45 dependents, and I can't get a job as a squash pro because the hard ball game I played is obsolete." That was always good for some deep sagacious nods among my prospects, as it seemed to them a very good reflection of my concern for risk.

Pitt T. Maner III writes:

I remember seeing a small exhibit on the Essex at the Nantucket Whaling Museum several years ago. It is really quite amazing to see how important and profitable the whaling industry was in the early 1800s.

If you type the term "Essex" into the Nantucket Historical Society's multi-media search engine you should see some interesting items (photos, sketches, ship logs, etc.) on the subject.


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