The Terrible Wreck of the Essex
While doing a study on whales I discovered the awesome art form of Scrimshaw. I had never heard of it before and what quite inspired. I was also surprised to find that the average person could buy Scrimshaw for the price of a small car. It looked like a fabulous possible inroad to getting children interested in the history of whales and whaling. The problem was that whalebone and teeth are no longer available since whale are internationally protected. With educational and artistic purposes in mind, I created a faux whale’s tooth from plaster and came up with some great lesson plans for children. I tried them out on several homeschool families and the boys especially loved the project. I published my how-to called The Art of Historic Scrimshaw and Whales. To follow that up I am adding the rest of whale research and findings here.
We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.— Galileo Galilei
Have you ever heard of Scrimshaw?
I'll tell ya true, me lads, the Essex was a fine whaling ship, to be sure. I was first mate and proud of me ship and me cap'n. I'm Owen Chase and I have a terrible tale to tell. This ain't no yarn, mates. This'n is as true as a port in a storm.
The whalin' business is a dangerous one, to be sure. Sometimes a man can lose a digit, a limb or even his life.
It was November as I recall it, in 1820. We'd been at sea some time already. We'd just come upon a pod: a group of whales in the South Pacific. As pretty a sight as you ever seen, rollin' in and out of the water like babies rolling in the sheets. Each time they'd come up they'd send up a mist of spray through their blowhole. They fair sparkled in the sunlight. It'd take your breath away.
Three boats were launched and the hunt began. Each of us in the small boats had a crew of 6 or so and chasin' a whale could send us some ways from the ship. Bein' first mate, I took the till and steered the boat while me mates rowed. We came up beside a big-un, a bull whale and I called for the harpooner to hit him. But he was a fighter and he whipped the water into a foam and thrashed at us with his tail cracking a hole in our boat. That's nothin'. I'd seen worse. I stuffed some of the men's jackets into the hole and we rowed back to the ship.
Scrimshaw on Bone
As we climbed on board, we seen him comin' for us again. He ramed us with his head, he did, and so hard and astonishing the jar was that he nearly knocked us all onto our faces. That's the first time I ever seen that with me own eyes. I heard tell of such things from other whalers but I didna believe it. You know how sailors can weave a yarn.
We checked the damage and found we had been holed. I gave orders to start pumping out the water and maybe we could save the ship and the cargo. But me blood run cold when I heard a crewman yell, "Here he is-he's making for us again!"
Shore enough, I seen him coming down on us again with all the speed he could muster. He must have been swimming twice his ordinary speed and sent a wake of white foam behind him. He was a fearsome sight to see with all his anger and vengeance aimed at us. His head only half out of the water, he struck us again. And this time we were badly damaged. We abandoned ship in the last boat. All hands grabbing what little provisions we could before she went down.
The two other boats came back from their hunt to find the Essex going under. It was a sad sight to see her drink in the salt brine and disappear forever in the cold and hungry sea. But worse yet, we knew we had little hope of seeing land again without her. We were 1,200 miles from the nearest land in the middle of the South Pacific. Three small boats and very few supplies. It was a death sentence, to be sure.
He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.— Muhammad Ali
Hunger and Thirst
One by one, I watched me crewmates die of hunger and thirst. One by one, we had to heave them over into the deep and still try to row for land. One by one, all me hopes of seein' me home and loved ones died with me crew. In the end, we were driven to the unthinkable. There were twenty saved from the sinking of the Essex but only eight saw land and that at a terrible price. We survived by eating our dead shipmates.
This is a true story and one that lives in infamy. It is partly this story that fueled Herman Melville to write his epic Moby Dick where all but one perished in the pursuit of a great whale. Being at sea for many months and sometimes a year before seeing land meant that you had to survive with what you could carry in the ship. If the ship went down, usually the sailors could not survive for long with no food or water.
Good health and good sense are two of life’s greatest blessings.— Publilius Syrus
Let me know what you think of this story. If you would like more information on Scrimshaw or any other questions you may have, leave them in the comments below.