On November 20, 1820 the Nantucket whaling ship Essex sailed Pacific waters in search of sperm whales. Thousands of miles from land, the ocean was filled with these great leviathans who roamed the deep. Twenty men were on board, unaware of the fact that their lives were about to change forever.
Calm waters lapped against the bow of the ship, as some of the crew hunted in smaller whaling boats a short distance away. And then it happened. First mate Owen Chase, busy with the routine tasks at hand on board ship, looked up to see a gigantic whale charging them at full speed, crashing into the bow with “an appalling and tremendous jar”. As the whale swam away, the ship began to sink. Minutes later, Chase discovered the whale “enveloped in the foam of the sea…and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury.” He attacked the ship again, destroying the bow.
Thus began the incredible journey of twenty men aboard three small whaleboats, men who endured starvation, thirst, and storms. Owen Chase now assumed leadership, vowing to bring his men home safely to shore. In all of the three-month fight for survival, Chase never forgot the attack. Six months after his arrival on Nantucket he wrote a journal in which he described the terrifying moment. His mind was obsessed with “the dismal looking wreck, and the horrid aspect and revenge of the whale.” Chase considered the attack to be “premeditated” and the whale filled with malice toward them.
If all of this sounds familiar, it is because Owen Chase’s journal was the direct inspiration for Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s epic tale of the white whale. Melville read the first mate’s account and admitted it had “a strange effect on him”. He wrote in a chapter called “The Affidavit” about the Essex tragedy, using it as proof that a whale could be malevolent and calculating.
Several years ago, I wrote The Wreck of the Essex for ages 9-12. I had been fascinated by the story for many years, and believed it was an action-packed adventure, perfect for young readers.
This week marks the two hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the whaleship Essex. If you would like to learn more about the book, go The Wreck of the Essex by K.F. Griffin (my maiden name). Free downloads will be available until this Wednesday.