In 1820, a whale rammed into an American whale-hunting ship in the South Pacific. It was the first time in American history that a whaling ship was assaulted by its prey in what seemed like a calculated attack. As the boat sank, the crew had a harrowing decision to make: to either head for the nearest dry land or try to cross the Pacific in rowboats.
What followed for the crew of the Essex was a terrifying ordeal of survival — and one that later inspired Herman Melville to write his classic seafaring tale, Moby Dick.
The whaleship “Essex” sets sail on its final voyage
As America marched through the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, whale products became invaluable commodities. Whale blubber was used to make candles and oil, which heated lamps and lubricated machinery. Whale bone was also harvested for the ribs in women’s corsets, umbrellas, and petticoats. As such, whaling was a booming American industry, especially in New England.
Before her final voyage, the Essex had a reputation for being lucky. It was an old whaler that had a history of profitable expeditions, which made 29-year-old Captain George Pollard Jr. — one of the youngest whaleship captains ever — confident that his excursion would be no different. And so on Aug. 12, 1819, he and his crew set sail from Nantucket, Massachusetts.
However, the Essex seemed doomed from the start. Just two days later, a squall nearly sank the ship in the Gulf Stream. Even though the storm damaged two of the five smaller boats they would use to hunt whales, Pollard pushed on until his crew reached the Galapagos.
But when they arrived at Charles Island in the Galapagos, a prank gone awry nearly cost Pollard the expedition. One of the sailors had lit a fire on land that quickly got out of hand, and as the men ran through the flames to survive, they nearly lit the entire island on fire.
But the biggest threat to the Essex’s voyage was yet to come. A year into the journey, the Essex and her crew came face to face with a massive sperm whale in the empty oceans of the South Pacific.
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