History : Nov-Dec 2016
14 NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2016 MILESTONES the rich pickings off the South American coast, then striking out into the Pacif- ic. The economic stakes were high: Each expedition could yield hundreds of bar- rels of precious whale oil. There was also valuable ambergris, a substance from the sperm whale used in making perfumes and medicines. Expeditions could last for years while being highly profitable. But the story of the Essex would be dif- ferent. The 88-foot, 238-ton whaleship D eath to the living, Long life to the killers, Success to sail- ors’ wives, And greasy luck to whalers.” So went a pop- ular toast when Nantucket, Massachusetts, was still the center of the whaling industry in the early 19th century. But times were changing: Whale pop- ulations in the North Atlantic had de- clined, forcing whaling ships to head to more distant waters, first plundering left Nantucket on August 12, 1819, sched- uled for two and a half years at sea. At the helm was Captain George Pollard, Jr., age 28, with first mate Owen Chase and sec- ond mate Mathew Joy. The 18-man crew included teenagers like Owen Coffin, the captain’s cousin, and Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy, age 14. Seven of the sailors were African American. Later there would be talk of how strange omens appeared in Nantucket The Whale’s Revenge: The Odyssey of the Essex In 1820 a massive sperm whale rammed a Nantucket whaling ship, sending it to the bot- tom of the Pacific Ocean. Stranded 1,500 miles from land, the surviving crew’s horrific quest for survival came to symbolize the primordial struggle between man and nature and went on to inspire one of America’s greatest literary works: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.