Long before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and even before the days of petroleum, men sought another type of fuel. And amid cutthroat competition for the precious energy source — whale oil — sailors ventured deeper and deeper into the blue seas in pursuit of riches. A few of them met an epic disaster, something that showed how limited man is when trying to conquer the vast oceans, even with his best technology, and how tough the sea can be on mankind when his pursuits fail.
By the time Herman Melville wrote “Moby Dick,” the 87-foot, 238-ton whale ship, “the Essex,” had settled at the bottom of the Pacific for 31 years. But the unknown writer, whose great fame came long after his death, brought the tale back to life, using an account of the 1820 sinking of the Essex by a sperm whale as the basis for his great American novel, published in 1851.
It’s a gruesome tale. In 1819, the Essex set out on a two-and-a-half year voyage to the South Pacific, leaving from Nantucket — the epicenter of the old whaling industry, which sits on the farthest tip of North American coastline into the Atlantic. On Nov. 20, 1820, a very large sperm whale rammed the ship twice and sank it while the sailors pursued other members of the whale’s group. A recent PBS “American Experience” documentary, “Into the Deep: America, Whaling and the World,” provided a detailed account of the sinking of the Essex. I watched that in fascination recently as I also pondered our current deep-sea predicament.
Can you imagine an angry 60-to-70-foot whale coming after you in the sea?
“I turned around and saw him (the whale) about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed, and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect,” said Owen Chase, who was on the ship and whose son would later provide Melville a copy of his father’s account. “The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.”
As their ship sank, the 21 sailors set out on three smaller whale boats, which served as rescue boats in the disaster. But they had inadequate supplies. And they argued over whether to go with the trade winds east toward the Pacific Islands or back towards South America. They feared taking the easier path east because of tales of cannibals on those islands. So they took the harder route, heading south before planning to take a left back west. They stopped at one small island, but the resources were scarce and were quickly depleted. All but three of the men got back on the small boats.
One by one, the men began to die. They reportedly suffered from diarrhea, blackouts, boils and magnesium deficiency, “which caused bizarre and violent behavior.” They drank their own urine and stole and mismanaged their food. Initially, those who died were set out to sea, but as desperation worsened, they started eating their dead shipmates.
Ironically, the men who feared cannibalism to the east, turned west toward their own cannibalism reality. With several near death in one boat, the men drew lots on who would be sacrificed for the survival of the crew. A young man, Owen Coffin, drew the black spot. Lots were then drawn to determine who would be Coffin’s executioner. Charles Ramsdell shot Coffin. Ramsdell and two other shipmates consumed the remains. Ramsdell and one other shipmate were eventually rescued 95 days after the Essex sank, still gnawing on Coffin’s bones. Three men on another boat were rescued two days prior. And the three men who stayed on the island were eventually rescued, too, though they were near death.
So, why were the sailors so far from home, fighting with this whale anyway? Of course, whale oil provided good income for those in the industry. It lit the new world. And the wealth from whale oil helped fuel the nation’s expansion westward during the 1800s.
“This was the beginning of the Industrial Age,” said writer Nathaniel Philbrick in the PBS documentary. “And before petroleum, the oil that was lubricating the machines, lighting the urban centers of America and Europe was whale oil. And before there was Mobil Oil headquarters, there was Nantucket, and it was Nantucket sperm oil that was making the Industrial Revolution happen and providing the first global economic engine America would know.”
It seems appropriate to remember the Essex now as we watch that great disaster in the Gulf. Think of the desperation of those men in 1820, how stranded they were, how mean the sea was to them once the technological achievement beneath their feet — a whale ship — was reduced to rubble.
Think of how a modern day technological achievement — a deep-sea oil rig — has also been reduced to rubble, taking men with it. And we’re stranded too, in a different way — not on the sea, but from it. The residue of the disaster won’t leave us anytime soon. And there will be so many stranded from their old life as that oil lingers and moves.
We know man is mighty, but the sea can always leave us desperate for a rescue boat.
What would Herman Melville make of all this?
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.