The truth is so much more harrowing than any fiction. Don't mess with whales!

The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex: A Narrative Account – Owen Chase (1822)

            My favorite novel is Moby Dick.  I did not read it until I was in my 30’s, but as a kid I read and re-read the Illustrated Classics comic book of Moby Dick!  (I loved those comic books.  They were a great way to be introduced to classic literature.)  It is an amazing story which touches on themes that most novels cannot begin to explore.  This narrative, by Owen Chase, is the main inspiration for Moby Dick.  Herman Melville was looking for a topic to write about where he could craft a deep, resonant novel.  He was looking to write something great.  The story told in this narrative gave him the nucleus of what became Moby Dick.

            The narrative if the Whaleship Essex is a first-hand account of an incredible experience the narrator went through sailing as First Mate on the Essex out of Nantucket.  It is a harrowing tale, a real catastrophe which very few people are familiar with.

            The events which are described took place in 1819, at a time when the whaling industry was beginning to grow, and when most of its workers were based out of a few ports in New England.  A strong man could sign himself up for a voyage, work his ass off for 2-3 years, and return from his travels to be paid a share of the profits made.  It was a hard life, and a risky life, but it was also a romantic life, as all sailors will describe.

            The Essex was actually attacked by a behemoth of a whale, which purposefully rammed their ship repeatedly, crushing the hull and drowning much of the crew.  Eventually, three lifeboats with 9-10 men each managed to salvage what they could of the slowly capsizing ship, and were left to fend for themselves in the open ocean, deep in the Pacific, with thousands of miles between them and the western coast of South America.  The horrors they suffered, the nightmares of starvation, insanity, MONTHS adrift, death, cannibalism, storms, and hopelessness are plainly described and are as horrifying as anything you’re likely to read.

Chaos on the high seas.

            Mr. Chase describes everything in detail.  He is giving a straightforward account with no embellishments or luridness.  Its twenty-six pages are full of details of life back then, of their struggles and of their hope for rescue.  At one point only two boats are left and they become separated in a storm.  Mr. Chase’s boat manages to reach land, and later he finds that the Captain’s small boat was also as lucky.  Due to the lack of provisions, the Captain’s boat had to draw straws to see who would be shot to feed the others.  Horrible.  Horrible.  The human spirit can survive so much.  A person can do or endure almost anything to survive.  Life is one bad stroke away from chaos at any time.   The lessons carried in this narrative are something we should all know and respect.

            Reading this 26 page account helped me appreciate Moby Dick even more.  It also helped me understand a little better how life was like for people 200 years ago.  This is something that anyone with an interest in history, sailing, Moby Dick, human resilience, and a good, gripping, true story should read.

(This account is in the public domain, and is available here: http://www.riapress.com/Narrative-of-the-Wreck-of-the-Whaleship-Essex/ )

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