200 years of the Essex whaling drama that inspired Moby Dick
On November 20, 1820, in the heart of the Pacific Ocean the tragedy of the Essex whaler took place, a true event of the sea recently recounted in the spectacular film “In the heart of the sea” and which constituted the genesis of the Melville story ” Moby Bick “, one of the most widely read novels in the world that has inspired many films and series.
The practice of whaling, which persists today despite international prohibitions and the tough battle of large environmental organizations aimed at guaranteeing the protection of the species. It had a role of great importance in the history of maritime trade from the 15th century, Basque fishermen were the first to hunt whales with agile lifeboats and following the choice of cetaceans from more distant routes to avoid ambushes along the coast.
The fishermen became “seamen of the high seas” to be able to pursue them using boats of 20 meters in length, later replaced by Caravels with greater maneuverability and stowage capacity.
Between the 18th and 19th centuries, cetacean hunting reached its peak, the hunting areas extended to all the oceans and the typical whaling ship was armed with three masts to overcome the dangers of the passage to Cape Horn, and with adequate capacity of stowage to face fishing campaigns of several years.
The Essex whaler, built in 1799 with 27 meters in length and 300 tons in August 1819 left Nantucket under the command of Major George Pollard, called on islands west of the African coast and after suffering a storm in the Atlantic Ocean it circled Cape Horn and took the Pacific Ocean onto unexplored routes.
On November 16, 1820, the lookout announced the sighting of sperm whales and the commander lowered three spears and immediately they launched in pursuit.
In their mating season, a huge, immediately captured male took aim at the Essex men and overturned one of the spears.
In a lull, the sperm whale lunged at Essex itself, the ship was hit hard. It did not sink immediately and the men in the boats and on the deck had a moment of indecision that proved fatal, the huge cetacean resurfaced, hitting the ship already damaged by the previous impact again, and began to sink.
Twenty Essex crew members remained and three boats landed on Henderson Island, inhabited by seabirds. With a streak of water they decided to leave on December 27, leaving three shipwrecked in the small atoll waiting for help, the three will be rescued more than three months later.
In the Pacific, an ocean considered calm but lethal in wide areas where it is practically impossible to get food from the sea, the spears were diverted and men began to die of thirst and hunger.
One of the ships with the second and 5 sailors on board disappeared on a stormy night. Without food, the sailors on the other ships pushed their dead companions into cannibalism, but soon this food source was also depleted. There was no trace of the continent and 78 days had already passed since the shipwreck.
At this point the sailors were persuaded that they had only one recourse left, to kill a companion, chosen by lot, and eat his body. This practice was implemented even with great remorse on the part of all, until 650 km off the coast of Chile a ship saved two survivors, First Officer Owen Chase and a sailor. After a week, another ship sighted the second with Commander Pollard and a sailor on board, reduced to the limit. and 78 days had passed since the wreck.