Little Bits of History

Sperm Whale’s Revenge

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 20, 2011

The Essex being struck by a whale (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)

November 20, 1820: The Essex is attacked. The ship was a whaling ship based out of Nantucket, Massachusetts. The ship left Nantucket on August 12, 1819 undertaking what should have been a 2.5 year whaling expedition off the west coast of South America. The ship was nearly sunk just two days after leaving port when she was hit by a squall. That storm destroyed the topgallant sail as well as three of the whaleboats. They sailed on without stopping for repairs.

It took five weeks, a long time even considering the era in which the story took place, to round the end of South America and reach the Pacific Ocean. There was talk among the crew of “ill omens” but the ship pressed on. However, their proposed are to hunt was fished out and they needed to sail further out. They were thousands of miles off the coast with tensions mounting. The crew was unsuccessful in their whaling attempts. Another whaleboat was damaged when a whale breached right under it.

On this day, a pod was sighted and three of the four remaining whaleboats went in pursuit. A whale was harpooned off the Essex, but the fluke of the wounded beast hit the ship and the whale was released to effect repairs. Another whale was harpooned from a whaleboat and was dragged off toward the horizon. A larger whale had been acting strangely in the waters. Said to be 85 feet long, the whale lay floating on the water and then all of sudden it rammed the ship. The whale was stunned by the contact and then swam away, turned, and came back to hit the ship again.

The ship’s bow was crushed. The ship took two days to actually sink and so some supplies were placed into the three surviving whaleboats. The 21 men were divided between them. They attempted to stay together, but were eventually driven apart in a storm. Most of the men died of exposure, dehydration, or starvation. One by one the survivor list grew shorter. One boat was rescued 90 days after the sinking. Another boat was rescued 95 days after the sinking. The third boat was lost. Their story was published and eventually became the basis for Herman Melville’s tale, Moby-Dick.

“I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed (around 24 knots or 28 mph), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.” – Owen Chase, first mate and survivor

“The captain’s boat was the first that reached us. He stopped about a boat’s length off, but had no power to utter a single syllable; he was so completely overpowered with the spectacle before him. He was in a short time, however, enabled to address the inquiry to me, ‘My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?’ I answered, ‘We have been stove by a whale.’” – Owen Chase

“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” – Herman Melville

“The whale is endangered, while the ant continues to do just fine.” – Bill Vaughan

Also on this day:
What a Yo-Yo – In 1866, the yo-yo was patented.
God, Save the Queen – In 1992, Windsor Castle caught fire.

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