The Sinking of the 'Essex’; or, The Whale

03 January 2014

Cultural Studies | History

Last night’s BBC drama ‘The Whale’ told the story of Thomas Nickerson and the crew of the whaling ship Essex. The story of the attack and sinking of the vessel by a sperm whale also inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Reading the original accounts of the crew shows that the true story was more exciting, terrifying and harrowing than any work of fiction.

Hunting Sperm Whales

The accounts of Owen Chase, the first-mate, and Nickerson, a 15-year-old cabin boy, appear in China, America and the Pacific. The former is better known, but the decision to have Nickerson tell the story in the BBC drama was merited. Although he wrote decades later, the ordeal was still vivid in his memory.

Nickerson helped to steady the ship after the whale’s first attack, but he could only watch as the leviathan came upon them again: ‘the monster took a turn off about three hundred yards ahead, then turning short around, came with utmost speed and again struck the ship with a tremendous blow with his head upon the larboard bow, and with such force as to stave in the whole bow at the water’s edge.’

The Perils of Whaling

The crew were left in small boats and had to sail across the Pacific in search of land. They thought salvation had arrived when they found an island. However, resources proved scarcer than hoped, and all but three decided to leave. Nickerson was one of those that left.

They sailed two thousand miles to the coast of Chile, an extraordinary effort. Fresh water was limited and extreme heat alternated with storms. But it was food that caused the greatest problems. Nickerson was coy in his account, but Chase described in detail how the men on his boat had to eat one of their shipmates after he died. The situation on Captain Pollard’s boat was even worse. With four men left alive but too weak to sail the boat, they agreed to draw lots to decide who should be shot and eaten. Pollard’s 17-year-old cousin was the unlucky man.

A page from Thomas Nickerson's journal listing the crew members and their fates.
The distress of these people must have been unimaginable. Two of the three boats were rescued, as were the men on the island. Incredibly, the experience was not enough to put Thomas Nickerson off sea voyages. Indeed many of the eight survivors sailed again (Captain Pollard was wrecked in his next two voyages, before calling time on his career). Nickerson continued sailing until the 1870s, when he finally sat down to record his memories of the Essex’s ill-fated voyage. To read his account, and other documents relating to this voyage and many others, see China, America and the Pacific.

About the Author

Ben Lacey

Ben Lacey

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2013. My academic background is in medieval history, although I enjoy learning about all historical periods. I have worked on a wide range of projects since joining the company, with the American History and Colonial America resources being recent highlights.