MADAME GILFLURT on A Tale of Whale vs. Whaleship

Editor’s Note: To honor (honour?) our friends across the pond and preserve the effervescence of the original text, and because it is our editorial policy never to Americanize the spelling of  those over 200 years old, we have left the charming British “u’s” and other bits of Britspeak in Madame Gilflurt's dispatch from Gin Lane.

From my Gin Lane salon I watch the passing of the long 18th century, setting quill to paper now and again to tell tales of the glorious Georgian era. It is, dear reader, truly an honour to make a small contribution to Society Nineteen's nautical broadsheet! The story I have set down for your delectation is one of man versus nature and inspired a famed Victorian study of revenge, obsession and the great white whale.

On 12th August the whaleship Essex left Nantucket under the command of Captain George Pollard, Jr. and First Mate Owen Chase, bound for two and a half years at sea. Its long and successful career had left the craft with a reputation for good luck and those on board looked forward to a fruitful whaling voyage across the Pacific Ocean, dreaming of rich pickings at sea. In fact, the journey proved ill-fated from the start, blighted by storms and discord amongst the crew, particularly between Pollard and Chase.
There were few whales to be found; when lookouts sighted a pod of sperm whales early on 20th November 1820, excitement gripped the vessel as the crew made for their whaleboats to give chase. A furious pursuit followed and as the whaleboats closed in on the pod, Chase laboured on board the Essex to repair his own damaged craft. As he worked he and his fellow sailors saw a whale that they estimated at 85 feet in the vicinity of the ship, barely moving, yet apparently watching their endeavours.

The whale's strange behaviour caught the attention of the men and as they watched, it circled away from the ship before moving towards them, its pace increasing as it closed in. The creature rammed the Essex and dived beneath the waves, leaving the vessel listing dangerously from side to side.

The whale resurfaced, swimming ahead of the ship before it turned and hurtled towards the vessel at a speed that filled the crew with terror. Its enormous tail thrashing in the waves, the creature slammed headfirst into the Essex and ploughed straight through the bow, turning it to matchwood. As the crew gathered what few provisions they could the whale turned and disappeared once more beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Terrified that the creature might return, the sailors piled into the whaleboats and fled the Essex as it capsized and sank beneath the waves 2000 nautical miles from the coast of South America.

For the crew of the Essex, the whale's attack was only the beginning of their suffering. With their provisions quickly ruined by seawater and no land in sight, members of the crew began to die of thirst and the conditions at sea. When they finally reached land it was the uninhabited Henderson Island, just over 100 miles away from Pitcairn, where they might have found sanctuary amongst the survivors of HMS Bounty. Eventually they took to the sea again, turning to cannibalism of their dead comrades as the weeks passed.

In total, only eight of the crew of 20 survived. Survivors included Pollard and Chase, who wrote his own account of the sinking, The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Both men returned to the sea, yet neither fully recovered from the memory of that terrible ordeal. Chase in particular suffered terrible torments, with the former First Mate committed to an institution in later life.

And what of the creature that sank the Essex? Well, the whale never repeated its attack—or if it did, no men lived to tell the tale. The memory of that whale lives on today, though, immortalised forever in Herman Melville's classic tale of the whaling world, Moby-Dick. < Self-described glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Madame Gilflurt is the author of the popular blog A Covent Garden Gilflurt’sGuide to Life. She shares her home with a rakish colonial, a hound, a feline and several rodents of exquisite character. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering Henrietta Street abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter.
Sketch of whale attacking the whaleship Essex above by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson; in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association, along with other Nickerson papers. Like Nickerson, first mate Owen Chase wrote an account of the ship's sinking. It is readable in various editions including within Thomas Farel Heffernan's Stove by a Whale, which includes a variety of other documents as well. Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea is a gripping modern look at the voyage.