The Essex Tragedy

The Essex Tragedy – The (part history, part legend) Story of the Whaler that Inspired Moby Dick

The Essex tragedy is a well-known historical event that occurred in 1819 and involved a whaling ship named Essex. This tragic incident became famous because it inspired the novel “Moby-Dick” written by Herman Melville.

In the 1800s, sperm whales were highly sought after prey because their heads contained about 2,200 liters of high-quality oil ready for use, which, when burned in lamps of that time, produced a bright light with significantly less dense smoke than that emitted by the oil of ordinary whales and even more so by mineral oil. Sperm whale oil at that time was the petroleum of the 20th century.

Setting sail from the small island of Nantucket, about 24 miles off the coast of New England, the “Essex,” with its 26 meters in length and 238 tons in weight, was considered a mid-sized vessel. At its helm was the twenty-eight-year-old Captain George Pollard Jr., an indecisive man with little command, who could, however, rely on the ambitious first officer Owen Chase, just a little younger than him but already considered an experienced and trustworthy man.

After crossing the Atlantic with poor results, they decided to head towards the Pacific, an ocean that at that time instilled fear due to its vastness and the dangers it presented (sudden and tremendous storms, shoals, islands infested by CANNIBALS)… and it was right there that the incredible happened: after already harpooning some sperm whales, the men remaining on board saw a huge male, about 26 meters long and weighing 80 tons, deliberately and at full speed heading towards their ship… something that had never been seen before…

The impact was extremely violent, and the collision occurred right below the waterline, near the rudder; thrown to the ground, the sailors remained incredulous, unable to comprehend what had happened… even when the sperm whale returned to the attack, definitively sinking the ship…

The men had no choice but to hastily retrieve the nautical instruments and as many provisions as possible, and then take their places partly on the surviving lifeboat, partly on the other two that were already in the water and had helplessly witnessed the entire scene. Thus began for those twenty sailors a dramatic Odyssey that would last almost three months, spent in unspeakable suffering caused by hunger, dehydration, diseases, and acts of sheer madness, and characterized by episodes of cannibalism… after which only a few would survive, picked up by passing ships, and among them would be Captain George Pollard and First Officer Owen Chase…

The Essex tragedy was an extraordinary event that aroused much empathy and interest at the time. Over the years, the story has been the subject of numerous literary and cinematic works, including the famous novel by Herman Melville “Moby-Dick,” which was inspired by the events of the Essex tragedy. This story has had a significant impact on culture and narrative, providing food for thought on the aspect of human survival and the relationship between man and wild nature.

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