The famous novel Moby-Dick is not entirely fiction. Author Herman Melville was inspired to write it after reading accounts of the sinking of a real whaling ship, Essex. Although whaling had always been dangerous, the tragedy of what befell Essex and her crew shocked the world at the time and still remains prominent in the public memory today.
In 1820, Essex was on a whaling voyage expected to last about two-and-a-half years in the southern Pacific Ocean, off the coast of South America. She had set off from Nantucket, in Massachusetts, with 21 men nine months prior. They initially had poor luck, suffering a squall two days after launch, one crew member deserting during a stop in Ecuador, accidentally setting almost the entirety of Charles Island (now Floreana Island) in the Galápagos on fire and being forced to go farther out to sea due to depleted whaling grounds. The situation for them would only get worse.
Soon after attempting a hunt on a pod of sperm whales, an abnormally large male, reported to be around 85 feet long, attacked the Essex. After taking serious damage to the bow, the Essex began to sink, forcing the crew onto the ship’s three small whaleboats that were typically used on hunts.
After salvaging what they could, they began to debate what to do. They were roughly 2,000 nautical miles off the coast of South America, well aware that they did not have adequate supplies to sustain them until they reached land. The decision was between trying to make a journey back east to South America or sail west to the nearest inhabited islands. The captain, George Pollard, wanted to go west but the crew, fearing cannibal tribes, voted to go back east. In their three small boats, outfitted with makeshift sails, they set out.
Most of their food had been soaked with seawater and they had little fresh water. The whaleboats, which had not been designed for long trips, had to be continuously repaired against leaks. They got a small reprieve upon arriving at the small uninhabited atoll Henderson Island, where they found fresh water and some food, but it did not sustain them for long. Three crew members opted to stay behind on the atoll while the others continued on. Miraculously, these three men were rescued a year later by another ship.
The other survivors did not fare as well. Slowly, they began to die as they desperately tried to reach Easter Island, and then when that wasn’t looking likely, Más a Tierra Island. Desperate, the men began to eat the bodies of the crew members who had died. The boats became separated, with one of them never being seen again. The situation finally became so desperate that the crew drew lots to see who would be killed for food.
Finally, the survivors on the remaining two boats were rescued in two separate occurrences by other ships. Of the twenty men who had gotten into the boats as the Essex sank, only eight had survived.
Melville was clearly fascinated by the story, even speculating on other possible outcomes of the situation. He published Moby-Dick in 1851, which would go on to become a classic of American literature.