The whale tale

Pax Arcana

One of the best books I’ve read in the past few years is Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of Sea , which traces the story of the whaleship Essex. The Essex is the only vessel in history known to be attacked and sunk by a whale, and if that story sounds familiar, that’s because a young Herman Melville was a whaler himself at the time and fashioned much of the story of Moby Dick on the Essex.


Today marks the 188th anniversary of the sinking of the Essex, far off the coast of South America. But the real drama of the story unfolded for months afterward, as the men clung to life in small whaleboats with almost no food left:

The winds, it turned out, weren’t favorable at all, but Pollard was determined to reach South America. Eventually the three boats became separated from one another. One vanished and was never heard from again. The other two, one commanded by Pollard and the other by Chase, thrashed against the elements, and as the provisions dwindled and ran out, men began to die.

The first to go were given proper burials at sea, but as food ran out and the survivors on both boats became delirious from hunger, they turned to cannibalism. In Pollard’s boat, straws were drawn to see who of the remaining four would be sacrificed so that the other three might survive. Pollard’s young cousin, Owen Coffin, drew short straw. He was shot and eaten.

Only two men on that boat, Pollard and Charles Ramsdell, were alive when they were rescued by the whaling ship Dauphin after 95 days in an open boat. Chase and the survivors of his boat were picked up after 90 days. Three other men, who had chosen to remain on a small island shortly after the ordeal began, were also rescued.

Ordinarily I don’t like to violate the social contract, but guess what happens when Pax Arcana draws the short straw in that situation? If you guessed “kill the smallest guy in the boat before the rest of them eat you,” then congratulations! You’re today’s big weiner!

Nov. 20, 1820: One Whale Exacts His Revenge [Wired]



Filed under books, history

2 responses to “The whale tale

  1. I have not read Moby Dick. I have a degree in English from a respected college.

  2. You should. It’s surprisingly good.

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