Can it be possible that such poor objects as we, have a home.

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.

Stove by a Whale

Like Benito Cereno, Moby-Dick was also inspired by real-life events. In this case, it was the story of the whale ship Essex that Melville incorporated into the novel. The Essex was attacked by a sperm whale while hunting in the South Pacific—rammed twice, in fact—and sunk. The crew was able to escape on the three whale boats with some water and hard bread, and also makeshift masts and sails. At the time, they were some 1,000 miles from land, but instead of sailing to Tahiti they chose to make for the coast of South America. They were afraid of cannibals.

Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, published his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (likely ghostwritten) after his return to Nantucket. The account is harrowing; a few men in a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean, slowly running out of food and drink. And they do run out. The men are in despair, of course, but:

I reasoned with them, and told them that we would not die sooner by keeping up our hopes; that the dreadful sacrifices and privations we endured were to preserve us from death, and were not to be put in competition with the price which we set upon our lives, and their value to our families; it was, besides, unmanly to repine at what neither admitted of alleviation nor cure; and withal, that it was our solemn duty to recognise in our calamities an overruling divinity, by whose mercy we might be suddenly snatched from peril, and to rely upon him alone, “Who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.”

Chase speaks thus throughout of his attitude and the hope he tries to instill in his men. Could he really have been so rational and optimistic? He is very cool and collected when it comes to the most intelligent way to ration out food and drink, and even when it comes to eating his fellow sailors seems to keep reason at the top of his mind. But all this can just as easily be the way he wants himself remembered acting during such an adventure.

At the beginning of the Narrative, Chase has a note to the reader that I found very interesting, both in terms of this book and all the others:

I am aware that the public mind has been already nearly sated with the private stories of individuals, many of whom had few, if any, claims to public attention; and the injuries which have resulted from the promulgation of fictitious histories, and in many instances, of journals entirely fabricated for the purpose, has had the effect to lessen the public interest in works of this description, and very much to undervalue the general cause of truth. It is, however, not the less important and necessary, that narratives should continue to be furnished that have their foundations in fact; and the subject of which embraces new and interesting matter in any department of the arts or sciences.

I love that he considers his book to embrace “new and interesting matter” in science. It was unheard of for a whale to attack a ship in this manner. And in any case, you could say he furnished new and interesting matter in the arts as well—Moby-Dick.