“We cast lots to be eaten”: Essex and the true story of Moby Dick

A whaler sailing in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale that overwhelms the ship and a group of castaways who manage to survive by resorting to cannibalism. They seem like the perfect ingredients for a blockbuster novel or movie. But these facts are not the result of a narrative fiction, demonstrating that, at times, reality surpasses fantasy. And, in fact, it was the story of the whaling ship Essex to inspire books like Herman Melville’s, Moby Dick.


Since ancient times man has considered the whale (and, in general, cetaceans) an animal to hunt. In addition to the meat, sperm whales, fin whales and humpback whales were also precious for the oil, obtained from the fat and used to power the lamps, and the ambergris, with which perfumes can be made. Even the baleen, sheets present in the mouth of some species of whales, could be used to build carts, poles and to stiffen some parts of clothing, such as women’s corsets or men’s shirt collars.

There hunting the whale was carried out with the use of large vessels, called whalers, which used small boats, the lances, able to get closer to the sighted cetaceans. From here the sailors launched a harpoon to strike and kill the whale. Once captured, the animal was taken to the whaler, where it was processed, in order to separate and store the fat and other products useful to man.

At the beginning of the 19th century, whaling became the main activity of the inhabitants of Nantucket, an island in the United States, located south of Cape Cod, in the state of Massachusetts. He started right from there whaler Essexwhose tragic end inspired the novel Moby Dick. Built in Amesbury in 1799, as reported by the National Maritime Digital Librarythe Essex set sail in August 1819, under the command of George Pollard. After reaching the islands west of Africa and rounding Cape Horn, the whaler sailed off the coast ofPacific Ocean. The cargo on board, consisting of whale fat, was in fact considered too low, especially in relation to the arrival of winter. For this the captain and the sailors decided to continue exploring the sea.

The attack of the sperm whale

In mid-November, according to what the first officer reported Owen Chasesurvived the disaster, the whaler sighted a group of sperm whales and the commander gave the order to lower the spears, so that they could chase the cetaceans, in the hope of catching some, in order to obtain the necessary. Chase managed to harpoon a whale which, in an attempt to free itself, hit his lifeboat, causing a leak. Given the problem with the opening, where water was entering, Chase let go of the cetacean and went back to the Essexto try to repair the boat.

But something more terrible was about to happen. It was November 20, 1820. The cry of a man announced the attack: “I saw a very large whale approaching us“, he later recounted Thomas Nickerson, a sailor aboard the whaling ship, who survived the shipwreck, who wrote an account of the affair. “The sound of their voices had just reached my ears – continues Nickerson’s story – when it was followed by a terrible ‘crash‘. The whale had hit the ship with its head, directly under the port bow chain“. The ship, however, did not sink. But, instead of moving away,“the monster made a turn about three hundred meters ahead, then, turning abruptly, arrived with its maximum speed“. And once again he attacked the ship with”a tremendous blow“. For Essex, by now, there was nothing more to be done:”One of the men who was below at that moment came running up to the deck saying, ‘The ship is filling up with water’ “.

There Essex did not sink immediately, giving way to the crew, consisting of about twenty men, to recover material and food for 30 days of navigation. Then, on November 22, three boats left the wreck, which was sinking, and began their navigation in the Pacific, with the intention of reaching the coasts of South America. It will be the beginning of a long and exhausting one shipwreckwhich will leave dozens of deaths behind and put men to the test.

The shipwreck

Storms, wind and rough seas characterize the first days of the shipwreck. Then the days turned into weeks and months and the scorching heat began to invade the spears of the men who survived the sinking and attack of the sperm whale. There thirstNickerson said he was so strong “so much so that some were forced to seek relief in their own urine. Our suffering during those hot days they are beyond any imagination“.

Then, on December 20, at seven in the morning, one of the sailors saw something that gave hope to the men in the lifeboats: “There is Earthhe cried suddenly. The sailors thought they had stumbled upon Ducie Island, a small atoll, but it was actually Henderson, a ‘uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean, which offered few resources. For this, after a week on the island, the captain and his companions made the decision to set off again across the ocean. On the morning of December 27 the boats were brought back to sea. On board were all the crew members of the Essex, with the exception of three men, who remained on the island, probably because they were too weak to face the open sea again. The three were rescued and rescued after months, on April 9, 1821.

Meanwhile, the other sailors were sailing in the Pacific Ocean, with very few supplies and the sea did not provide the necessary sustenance. Thus, some men began to die of hardship and the companions buried the bodies and entrusted them to the sea. Until the situation became desperate. At that point, there was only one resource left: eating the bodies of their dead comrades. The sailors of the Essex they had to resort to cannibalism. “Today a black man named L. Thomas died – Nickerson wrote – and his body was the food of his surviving companions for several days“. The same scenario was repeated other times until”the captain with his three surviving companions, after due consultation, agreed to cast lots“, to decide which sailor should die, so as to allow the others to survive until, in February 1821, they were rescued from the ship Dauphin by NantucKet. Other sailors were rescued by the Indian freighter and from Surrey.

As specified by the Nantucket Historical Associationeight sailors of the Essex they died at sea and four others were missing. In total, therefore, twelve men never returned home. Between survivors, Captain Polland returned to command of a ship, which was wrecked again, and First Officer Owen again sailed for several whaling campaigns. For many of the survivors, remorse for cannibalism was such that they were scarred for life, and the other surviving sailors never sailed again.

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About Banner Leon

Videogames entered his life in the late '80s, at the time of the first meeting with Super Mario Bros, and even today they make it a permanent part, after almost 30 years. Pros and defects: he manages to finish Super Mario Bros in less than 5 minutes but he has never finished Final Fight with a credit ... he's still trying.

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