American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

ESSEX. The Nantucket* whaleship Essex (built 1799) is the first ship definitely known to have been sunk by a whale. Built in Amesbury, Massachusetts, the 238-ton ship had made at least six whaling voyages by 1819 when she sailed from Nantucket under Captain George Pollard for the Pacific. On 20 November 1820, when a few miles south of the equator at longitude 119° W, she was rammed twice and sunk by an eighty-five-foot sperm whale. The twenty men from the ship drifted in three boats for a month before reaching Henderson (which they thought was Ducie) Island; three of them elected to stay on the island, while the rest after a week set out eastward. One boat was lost, and five men had survived in the other two boats when they were rescued off the coast of South America three months after the wreck; the three left on Henderson Island were picked up by an Australian captain who had been told about them.

The ship’s story is recounted by the first mate, Owen Chase,* in his Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex of Nantucket (1821), which Herman Melville* discusses at length in Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick* and which was the main dramatic source for the ending of that novel. Thomas Farel Heffernan includes contemporary accounts of the sinking of the Essex in his book Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex (1981). The other authorities are Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000) and Thomas Philbrick and Nathaniel Philbrick, eds., The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale: First Person Accounts (2000). Although the names are identical, the whaleship Essex should not be confused with the frigate Essex, on which David Porter* sailed. [ See also NICKERSON, THOMAS]

Thomas Farel Heffernan