Thomas Nickerson sailed on the Essex along with Owen Chase. He was 14 years old when they left Nantucket and it was his first whaling voyage. He too survived the Essex wreck, returned to Nantucket, and in his old age wrote a series of “Desultory Sketches” detailing the voyage. His manuscript was lost and was only published in 1984.
The most obvious difference between Nickerson’s story and Chase’s is the amount of time Nickerson spends telling of the voyage before the wreck. Is it because he’s a boy and it’s his first time at sea? But he’s writing as an old man. He notices birds and fish, describes every tiny island the ship stops at, recounts the habits and fashions of the peoples there. He even describes the mechanism by which the ship takes on salt at an island with waves breaking hard on the beach. Did you know that when American whalers stopped at small islands in the middle of the Atlantic to trade whale oil for produce and poultry they first went to see the American Consul for permission to trade, for example? Neither did I.
This part of the narrative is pretty wonderful; Nickerson gives such a feel for life on the ship and the excitement of the voyage, though he purposely skims over the unique practices of whaling. He goes off on tangents to talk about later trips he’s taken around the world, and his stories are fascinating. And I loved his musings on ship owners, insurers, captains, officers, sailors. Like here:
Again the charge of tyranny onboard those ships comes from another class and which is too often the case many young men who are so wild, insolent and dissipated that their parents cannot keep them at home and send them onboard a whale ship to reform them.
And did I mention he was funny? A little, that is.
They have been christened dog watches and are always distinguished by that name, but for what reason they have been called dog watches I am unable to explain, unless it may be said they have been cur-tailed.
Get it? And here, on a terrapin:
He appeard very old and we gave him the name of the Commodore but as he never came quick at the call we presume he didnot fully appreciate the cognomen.
He gives a lot of practical advice:
Very soon after this we succeeded in taking a large whale without much trouble and as this was our first greasey work I will make some mention of it. It may be of service to some of our young men who may be about to begin the whaling buisness. It may be the means of saving to them hundreds of dollars at the end of those long voyages, for should they fall short of clothing they must go to the slop chest for a supply.
When Nickerson comes to the wreck itself, he begins to rely on Owen Chase’s published narrative for the dates and exact sequence of events, and they were in the same boat together so they story matches up pretty well. There are a few crucial differences, however. For one, Nickerson emphasizes that right after the tragedy it was the ship’s officers who pled so strongly in favor of making for South America, while the captain disagreed with them. He’s not afraid of saying that this decision cost many men their lives.
That’s at the beginning of the trip in the whale boats. At the end of that trip is the other place Nickerson departs from Chase. In Nickerson’s account, he, Chase, and their third companion are able to survive after the deaths of their comrades because of the increase in rations, not because they ate the bodies. Nathaniel and Thomas Philbrick, in their introduction to the Penguin edition of The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, suggest that in his old age Nickerson doesn’t want to think of himself as a cannibal. Yet he describes the cannibalism of those on the other two whale boats with no sense of judgment at all, and is glowing in his description of Owen Coffin and his tragic death. He does say that the members of his boat agreed not to cast lots in the same situation, but clearly admires the conduct of Coffin and Captain Pollard.
Nickerson also seems to admire Owen Chase. Mirroring a passage I discussed last week, he writes:
With our provisions nearly exhausted, scarcely a hope remained for us to cling to, and all sunk in sullen silence in the bottom of the boat, untill aroused by the cheerful voice of the mate who again wished to remind us that all hopes werenot yet at an end, and that our duty to ourselves and to each other demanded our latest exertion. Even the strong fortitude of this remarkable man seemed to waver, but in no instance did it finally forsake him, untill the day of our delivery.
This is really a tragic and marvellous story.