July 23, 2010

Nantucket Whaling: The Fate of the Essex

Nantucket, Massachusetts was the heart of the American Whaling industry during the 1820s. Whales were used to produce a multitude of everyday items including oil, candles, meat, corset and crinoline boning and even expensive perfumes.

Whaling was a huge industry. Sailors on whaling vessels not only had to track and find whales but also harpoon them, bring them aboard their ship and process the whales. It was a very dangerous job as many sailors could not swim and there were plenty of chances of falling into the water.

When a whale was spotted, chosen sailors would depart the ship and man small whaling boats. All the small boats would be rowed up to the whale and the harpooner would take a shot at the whale. Ropes attached the harpoons to the small boats so that the boats would not lose the whales. The whales would frequently try to swim away, dragging the boats quickly behind them, sailors referred to this as a "Nantucket sleigh ride." When the whale was too hurt to swim, the whale was hobbled, by cutting the tail (this is similar to cutting an Achilles tendon in an ankle.) The whale was then struck again with a lance to kill the whale. The whale's lungs would fill with blood until blood would shoot out of the whale's blowhole, sailors would call "chimney's afire," when it happened to prepare everyone for a shower of blood.  It was a gruesome job but the only way to get oil in a time before petroleum.

The Essex, a whale ship in the 1820s, was attacked by an abnormally large sperm whale in the South Pacific. The ship was rammed twice and sank and 21 men escaped on their small whaling boats but could not manage to get the necessary supplies. The men eventually landed on a small island with a freshwater spring but soon drained the island of its resources. All but three men decided to leave the island in search of food.

The three men who stayed behind were eventually rescued but the other men, delirious from malnutrition and a lack of fresh water" soon resorted to eating their dead companions. Similarly to many 'last resort' accounts of the time, African Americans "died" first, a true testament to the societal norms of the time. After exhausting those who died of natural causes, the stranded men started to draw lots to decide who would be sacrificed for the group. The Captain's nephew, who was entrusted to his care by his sister, was elected and his good friend was elected to kill him.

When they were rescued, there was only three men left. The First mate soon wrote an account of the incident entitled The Loss of the Ship "Essex" Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats. The account was not published until the 1980s; however, the son of the First mate lent a copy of his father's manuscript to a young Herman Melville while they worked on a ship together. Melville was so inspired by the violence of whales, which was a rare occurrence, that he went on to write Moby Dick. 

The whole whaling industry sends shivers down my back. Can you imagine the time when whale oil would be lighting your homes and your corset would be stiffened with baleen? Those sailors must have been a tough group!

You can see modern whaling on Animal Planet's Whale Wars. It is an interesting show. I am not sure I believe in their methods but they do have a great devotion to saving whales.


  1. I've always been fascinated by whaling stories. This was very interesting.

  2. I think it's interesting how many period drawings of whales actually look nothing like whales, it is the same with lions and tigers. I think we take photography for granted sometimes. If we didn't have photos of these animals, most of us would never know what they really look like either. At the time, the middle drawing in the post was confirmed by sailors to be the most accurate representation.

    For example:



  3. Huh. That's all around scary!
    I find it funny how the ship on the first picture has numbered sails. Is it because it is accompanied by descriptions in the book, or was it really like that in real life, I wonder? I believe I've read about sails made from flour-sacks (was it in Old Man and the Sea?), but those wouldn't be numbered like that!

  4. Hana, The numbers were for an accompanying description. But it is cute to think of "easy sails."


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