The Whaleship Essex: Real-life Moby Dick Sinks a Ship

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And Sarah and I were talking books earlier like we do and I keep meaning to read 20,000 leagues under the sea because I hear maybe a narwhal makes an appearance.

Sarah Dowdy: And I don't even remember that. It's been so long since I read that book. I was probably, like, 10 years old or something. My Aunt Kim gave me a big batch of Jules Verne books and I raced through them. I remember my favorite one though is the Mysterious Island. That was a very cool book.

Katie Lambert: Well, and I've been calling Sarah a steampunk since we went to Dragon*Con and we're talking about the influences of Jules Verne on these steampunk movement.

Sarah Dowdy: He would be a good podcast subject perhaps.

Katie Lambert: She swears she is not. There is this other great American novel that I keep meaning to read, Moby Dick, and when you love a book enough, it often inspires you to learn more, at least it does us, about the author, about the time period, about the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book and it's extra exciting when a beloved book has its basis in fact and that is the case with Moby Dick and whale ship called the Essex.

Sarah Dowdy: So, if you were a 19th Century elementary schooler, you wouldn't have missed this story in history class but somehow or another, it has been lost over the years and that's a shame because it's a really crazy story.

Katie Lambert: So, we're gonna give you some context because it's what makes history make sense and when I think Nantucket, I think Nantucket reds because I know a lot of very preppy people who have weddings involving lobster but our story does not take place in modern times and no whalers wore shirts with an actual whale logo on them.

Sarah Dowdy: A pink whale?

Katie Lambert: Yeah, vineyard vines.

Sarah Dowdy: So, whaling today is generally not considered a noble pursuit but, hey, neither is eating sled dogs but it worked at the time, right? The economy of Nantucket, for a really long time though was based on whale hunting and it makes the town a very, very wealthy place.

Katie Lambert: So, Native Americans in New England were known to butcher dead whales that had washed up on or near shore but no one got into boats to hunt the creatures until the 17th Century.

Sarah Dowdy: Because it's a little crazy to do that you're going to find out.

Katie Lambert: They were searching for right whales which was an actual designation of some whales but they were also known as the right ones to kill because these bailing whales stuck close to the shore and Nantucketers and Indians would go shore whaling together. Guess who was captain, in these little boats, and according the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the whalers harpooned their pray and this instrument that they harpooned them with had ropes attached to it that ended in wooden floats and the whale would exhaust itself pulling these floats and when it got tired enough, the whalers could lance it and take it back to the shore to harvest the blubber and the whale bone.

Sarah Dowdy: So, we've got to establish what you use all this stuff for. The blubber is boiled down to make oil which was used for a long time in lamps and candles and it was how people used light. The whale bone was used for stays and we saw kind of a lot of corsets at Dragon*Con but I for one don't really miss the days of corsetry.

Katie Lambert: Neither does Scarlett O'Hara.

Sarah Dowdy: But whaling didn't become a really big business until the 18th Century and that's when sailors, after hunting those right whales, almost to extinction, realized that there was much bigger whales further out. Those were the sperm whales.

Katie Lambert: And sperm whales are deep divers, like my narwall, and they're the biggest toothed whale. They like squid and they're in every ocean. Sometimes diving 3,300 feet down according to the American Cetacean Society. And they're not usually white. Sorry Melville. But the characteristic that most interested the whalers was what was in a sperm whales head, no, not its brain, it's spermaceti.

Sarah Dowdy: So, this definitely requires a little definition. It's called the spermaceti because people thought it was the whale's semen, it's not, but it's really this type of wax and it didn't have a smell so it could be used in makeup and candles and used to lubricate machines and supposedly, those candles burned brightest and according to Encyclopedia Britannica, "The former official unit of elimination, the candle power, was defined as the light given off by a candle of pure spermaceti burning at a rate of 7.776 grams, 120 grains, per hour." So, there you have it. Candle power and the stuff in a whale's head!

Katie Lambert: But if you were really, really lucky, you might also find some ambergris which is this weird stuff that forms in the intestines of sperm whales and it can come out either end but the bigger pieces of it come out of a whale's mouth, which is why it's often known as whale vomit and squid beaks are sometimes found in it.So maybe the ambergris is a way of protecting the whale's insides but when it first comes out, it's really gross and smells like dung, according to some scientists, but if you find it in the ocean after its been there for a while, it smells fantastic and it's used in the best of the best perfumes because it makes the scent stick according to an article on our site by Julia Lighten. And some people say it's also an aphrodisiac.

Sarah Dowdy: I have to wonder how people discover the uses for things like this, for both of the things we just mentioned that sound really gross in one case, kind of stinky. I mean, how do you figure out -

Katie Lambert: You're not getting whale vomit for your birthday, Sarah, how about that?

Sarah Dowdy: Man, maybe just a nice perfume. You could get me the converted form.

Katie Lambert: When whaling was at its peak, ambergris was literally worth its weight in gold so this a big deal. Let's get back to our whale hunters though.

Sarah Dowdy: Okay. So, the island of Nantucket is the heart of the whaling industry or it was at the time.

Katie Lambert: You didn't like my joke I had in the outline and said it was the blubber of the whaling industry. Ha ha.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: That's really bad.

Sarah Dowdy: So, from 1800 to 1840, it was considered the whaling capital of the world and according to the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce, that's a pretty big designation I'd say. Others put its hay day sometime between 1750 and 1850 but this was it. This was where everything happened. Nantucket! Nobody was better at hunting the sperm whale and the Quakers of the island had a corner on the market and therefore, they had a corner on the money.

Katie Lambert: So, to go further and further in the ocean, whalers would need bigger and better ships and also a way to deal with the blubber and such on board instead of hauling it back to shore because it would rot before they would get there so we'll introduce the tri-works which was this combination of two pots, known as tri-pots, and a furnace and that was a way you could boil your oil on board a ship and fresh blubber made better oil anyway so this was a huge step to process the whale on the ship. You don't have the rotten carcass anymore. You don't have the thousands of pounds of whale meat that you're toting around -

Sarah Dowdy: To carry back.

Katie Lambert: You can stay out there for a long time condensing the blubber into the precious oil.

Sarah Dowdy: But you would think if you've got these giant pots of oil and also a lot of fire, it might be a bit dangerous and it was. Fires on board of course were very possible but more dangerous were the w hales themselves because you don't go around chasing giant whales in tiny little boats and expect always to come out on top.

Katie Lambert: You've already seen what whales can do to ponies in a recent episode so you can imagine.

Sarah Dowdy: Nathaniel Philbrick, In The Heart of the Sea, which is an excellent book that I just started reading but it's pretty much the definitive account of the Essex, related that in 1810, there were 47 fatherless children on Nantucket, you know, a pretty small island and a ¼ of the women over 23 were widows so you sent your men off to sea knowing that there was a very good chance they might not come back.

Katie Lambert: And by the time we got to the American Revolution, these ships are going further than they've ever been before to the Falkland Islands, to the west coast of Africa. Other ports were starting to become players in the whaling industry.

Sarah Dowdy: Right, like, New Bedford.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, but Nantucket was still the leader and the American Revolution of course slowed things down a little bit. It makes sending out ships more difficult and the same deal with the War of 1812 but by the Treaty of Ghent, it was time to go back to sea and that was in 1814 and it's in August 1819 that a particular ship set sail, the Essex.

Sarah Dowdy: And just to give you a little about whaling ships, all of these details come from the New Bedford Whaling Museum as well, our usual whaling ship was about 300 tons and it had the tri-works on board, like we mentioned before; the Essex was a little bit smaller than that, and each whale ship carried three to five small whale boats with it because obviously you can't chase a whale with a giant ship.

Katie Lambert: It's not maneuverable.

Sarah Dowdy: No. And there were planks on the starboard side so men could stand there cut up the whales. So, I'm just - you know, if you try to picture it, this ship out in the middle of nowhere, these tiny boats chasing after whales, this - the fire and the oil all on board and men cutting up these gigantic whales on a ship.

Katie Lambert: I'm just imagining how slippery everything would be with the greasy whale blubber everywhere and the rocking ship and it's easy to see why this was such a dangerous profession.

Sarah Dowdy: I'm so clumsy to begin with I'm pretty sure I would slide from one end to the other and go directly overboard.

Katie Lambert: So, the further these ships were out at sea. Of course the longer the journeys were and often times it would take years for one mission. Ships carried enough provisions for about four years and they would usually have approximately 30 men on board and the men weren't paid a wage so it wasn't like you got a big chunk of money up front or got some sort of hourly salary for the amount of time you worked. Instead, they got a share in the profits when they came back to shore with all their whale oil so it was a pretty good incentive to kill as many whales as possible even if it meant staying out for a really long time, even if meant risking your life.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. It was worth the risk for them. So, the Essex set sail with a lot of Nantucket men and also some black men and some off islanders, Nantucket. Men were very snobby and they would've preferred to have had all Nantucket men aboard but they sort of ran out.

Katie Lambert: Maybe because a lot of them were dying in whale accidents.

Sarah Dowdy: But the off islanders were called coofs which was quite an insult. And they had planned for a trip of two to three years but they knew they'd have to go even further than Cape Horn where others were going. Some said that even the whales off of Chili and Peru were completely gone so the new place to go was way, way out in the Pacific, further than pretty much every whaling ship had ever gone but that's where the money was, this "almost untraversed ocean," according to first mate Owen Chase. So, they went.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, and the trip didn't go well. Almost from the start they were nearly blown over, they lost boats, they weren't seeing whales and then it got much, much worse. On November 20th, 1820, and okay, so the sailors finally saw a pod of whales and sent two of the ships boats to chase the pod to get some oil and everything but the cabin boys spotted something that was really, really strange, an 85-foot 80-ton whale way too close to the boat. It was about a 100 yards away then 35 yards away and it was heading straight toward them.

Sarah Dowdy: And they tried to turn the boat but there wasn't enough and it hit them and it then went under, scraped the bottom of the boat, resurfaced, looked at them for a second and came at them again at six knots directly toward the boat. And we have a quote from first mate Owen Chase who would later write a book about his experiences called, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale Ship Essex. They had some good - very descriptive titles -

Katie Lambert: Lengthy title.

Sarah Dowdy: - back then. We're not allowed to have titles that long.

Katie Lambert: No, our producer won't let us. "I could distinctly see him smile his jaw together as if distracted with rage and fiery. I turned around and saw him about 100 rods directly ahead of us coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed and to me, at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fiery and vengeance in his aspect."

Sarah Dowdy: So, according to him, the captain cried out, "My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?" And he answers, "We have been stoved by a whale." So, the ship has a hole in the bottom and it sinks quickly. Where are we at? We're in the middle of the Pacific and a whale had just attacked us repeatedly.

Katie Lambert: So, luckily, unlike the Titanic, they had these little whale boats in good working order with supplies on board. They've got 21 men and three boats and they were divided up according to status among the boats. Captain George Pollard, Jr. had the Nantucket men; the first mate had some more Nantucket men, some black men and one off islander; and the third mate had all off islanders and black men. And if they ate and drank practically nothing, they might, just might have enough supplies for 60 days.

Sarah Dowdy: There supplies were casks of bread, a 195 gallons of water, musket and powder, tools and a few turtles for eating.

Katie Lambert: Not for pets.

Sarah Dowdy: No. So, they have two options and the first was to head to the Tahitian Islands which were about 1,200 miles away but they were afraid that if they went there, they might run into cannibals so -

Katie Lambert: Huh?

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, this is -

Katie Lambert: That's interesting.

Sarah Dowdy: Remember that part.

Katie Lambert: Remember that detail.

Sarah Dowdy: So, they decided instead on another plan to head south and perhaps the winds would carry them all the way to Chile but the journey wasn't easy. There were all these storms, there's of course sun just beating down all the time, there's sharks, I mean, you never know, you might even run into another pod of whales again. And sea water got into the hard tacks so -

Katie Lambert: Which I'm sure was so delicious to begin with.

Sarah Dowdy: I know. So, it's immediately a really bad time in these little boats. And the boats landed in the Pitcairn Islands for a time but, unfortunately, not the same one as our guys from the Bounty did because there wasn't much there besides water and some birds and certainly not enough to feed all of them but three men decided to stay and the rest headed back to the sea but they had run out of the supplies they had and it was clear that, you know, disaster and despair are on the way.

Katie Lambert: They began to die. And when the first men died, they were given a proper burial at sea, you know, a respectful burial. But that didn't last for much longer.

Sarah Dowdy: The other men are even eating their shoes but soon starvation and dehydration set in along with these hallucinations and if that doesn't sound too terrible to you, this is Philbrick 's description of what happens when you remain dehydrated for so long. "The tongue swells to such proportions that it squeezes past the jaw. They eyelids crack and the eyeballs begin to weep tears of blood."

Katie Lambert: So, what are they going to do? And this is where the really terrible stuff comes in because when the next man died, they did what they had to do to stay alive. They ate him and here's a quote from Chase, "we separated the limbs from the body and cut all the flesh from the bones after which we opened the body, took out the heart, closed it again, sewing it up as decently as we could and then committed it to the sea." And every man who died after that suffered the same fate.

Sarah Dowdy: But then no one died for a while and lots were chosen and a man was murdered and devoured by his comrades. Six men in total were eaten and then off the coast of Chile in February 1821, an American whale ship came up against this boat that looked a little bit funny and when they looked into it, they found two men sucking on human bones. They were covered in salt and blood and sores. They're disoriented, they're wild-eyed. They didn't know who they were. They even tried to hide from their rescuers, you know, crouching against the sides of the boat and these were two of the survivors.

Katie Lambert: And eight men survived total; five were rescued from the sea; three from the island and all said and done, they'd been at sea for 93 days and according to Philbrick, they sailed 4,500 miles across the Pacific. That's more than Bly after the Bounty; that's more than Shackleton to South Georgia. Own Chase wrote about the experience and so did the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, but it was a very famous ordeal pretty quickly.

Sarah Dowdy: And Herman Melville read the story of the Essex while aboard a New Bedford whale ship and he said, "The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea and so class to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect on me." Moby Dick was published in 1851 and it was a flop. And Chase went on to captain his own whale ship but later he went insane and stored crackers in his attic just in case.

Katie Lambert: And that brings us to listener mail. So, today's edition of listener mail is real mail, and in fact, it is this amazing handmade card from Hallie. It's so cute.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, lots of people have suggested the Whale Ship Essex but Hallie was the first to do so. She recommended that Philbrick book and, yeah, she made this card with a ship and it has the date, November 20th, 1820. Whale Ship Essex Sunk!!! But the best part is the angry sperm whale.

Katie Lambert: Very angry.

Sarah Dowdy: He even has an eyebrow.

Katie Lambert: A slanted eyebrow so you can see the fiery and the vengeance in his visage.

Sarah Dowdy: And it's pretty clear that he's headed at the ship at approximately six knots -

Katie Lambert: And she is the one who -

Sarah Dowdy: - about to ram a hole in it.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. She's the one who swayed our opinion and finally decided our minds that this is something that we should do so thank you to Hallie and for all the others who suggested the Whale Ship Essex. If you would like to send us an email with some topic ideas, we're at We're also on Twitter at mistinhistory and we have a Facebook fanpage. You should come find us and keep up with what we're doing. And if you're interested in ambergris, we have an article called how can whale vomit help me retire, that you can find if you search our homepage at

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