Manage episode 259813502 series 2659594
The crew of a 19th Century whaleship experience an unlucky turn of fate when they’re sunk by a whale. In this episode, Alix tells the story of the Essex, the disaster which inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.
Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.
Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.
Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.
- Alexander, C. (2004). The Bounty: The true story of the mutiny on the Bounty. London: Penguin Books.
- Beidler, A. (2009). Eating Owen: The Imagined True Story. Seattle, WA: Coffeetown Press.
- Boren, M.E. (2000). ‘What’s Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick’, Style, 34(1), pp. 1-24. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/style.34.1.1
- Carlisle, H. (2000). The Jonah Man. London: Orion Books.
- Cook, P. (2019). You Wouldn’t Want To Sail On A 19th-Century Whaling Ship!, Brighton: Book House.
- Cowdell, P. (2010). ‘Cannibal Ballads: Not Just a Question of Taste…’, Folk Music Journal, 9(5), pp. 723-747. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/25654209
- Dolin, E.J. (2008), Leviathan: the history of whaling in America. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Dowling, D.O. (2016). Surviving the Essex: The Afterlife of America’s Most Storied Shipwreck. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.
- Gatineau, M. and S. Mathrani. (2011). Obesity and Ethnicity. Oxford: National Obesity Observatory. Available at: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20170110172557/https://www.noo.org.uk/uploads/doc/vid_9851_Obesity_ethnicity.pdf
- Hosain, G.M.M., M. Rahman, K.J. Williams, and A.B. Berenson. (2010). ‘Racial differences in the association between body fat distribution and lipid profiles among reproductive-age women’, Diabetes & Metabolism, 36(4), pp. 278-285. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2939924/
- In the Heart of the Sea. (2015). [DVD]. Directed by Ron Howard. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros.
- Karttunen, F.R. (2005). The other islanders: people who pulled Nantucket’s oars. New Bedford, MA: Spinner Publications.
- Krueger, P.M. and E.N. Reither. (2015). ‘Mind the gap: Race/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in obesity’, Current Diabetes Reports, 15(95). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4947380/
- Mass Moments. Captain Absalom Boston dies on Nantucket. Available at: https://www.massmoments.org/moment-details/captain-absalom-boston-dies-on-nantucket.html
- Melville, H. (2008). Moby Dick; or, The Whale. Urbana, IL: Project Gutenberg. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm
- Nickerson, T. and O. Chase. (2000). The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale: First-Person Accounts. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
- Philbrick, N. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
- Rhodes, T.S. (2014). ‘Cannibalism at sea’, The Pirate Empire, 13 January. Available at: http://thepirateempire.blogspot.com/2014/01/cannibalism-at-sea.html
- Severin, T. (2018). In search of Moby Dick: Quest for the white whale. London: Endeavour Media.
- Wagner, D.R. and V.H. Heyward. (2000). ‘Measures of body composition in blacks and whites: a comparative review’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71(6), pp. 1392-1402. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/71/6/1392/4729362
- The Whale. (2013). BBC One Television, 22 December.
Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?
Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.
A: I’m Alix.
C: I’m Carmella.
A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…
[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Welcome to Episode Seven, where we will be covering the whaler The Essex.
[Intro music continues]
A: Carmella, would you like to hear the story about the sinking of the whaleship Essex?
C: Alix, I know I am going to hear this story no matter what I say.
C: Yes please!
A: Yup, we’re gonna be here for a while. ‘Cause this isn’t just the story of the Essex, this is the story of Alix’s first cannibalism hyper-fixation.
C: The story of one woman’s love for the… tragic fate of a whaleship.
A: I can’t deny it. It’s very true. I’d like to set the scene – it’s the 22nd December and a body is being butchered on a whaleboat lost in the Pacific. Except, it’s actually 2013 and the whole thing is happening on television. For some reason, part of the BBC’s Christmas programming that year was an adaptation of the Essex story called The Whale.
C: That’s festive.
A: Exactly. I can remember the most visceral scene that actually made me feel slightly ill, with shots being crossed between a man cutting up meat and the butchery of a human body. This was Christmas. Don’t know why it was there, but this was also my first encounter with survival cannibalism.
So this whole thing began. It began with The Whale. I’m assuming by point of release my Essex-specific cannibalism collection will have made it on to Instagram. I’ve got a lot of resources about the Essex. I’ve got books of fiction – not including Moby Dick! – I’ve got children’s books, I’ve got the first hand resources, I’ve got the two films, I’ve got analysis. And the two books that are going to be at the heart of today’s (all 18 hours of it) – these are David O. Dowling’s Surviving The Essex and Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart of The Sea.
Here I’ve got to do a quick shout out to my friend Sarah – we went to go and see the In The Heart of the Sea film in Leicester Square in 2015. It’s an astonishingly gorgeous film but, no, it’s bad. It’s bad. I don’t really get on well with ‘inspired by true events’ films. I like the facts, I like the stories to be true, and I’m not gonna lie, we sat at the back of the cinema and fact-checked on our phones.
A: They got quite a lot wrong. In our defence, there wasn’t actually anyone else in the cinema.
[Carmella laughs again]
A: It was a commercial failure. So, if you couldn’t tell, this is going to be a long one. I have a lot of thoughts and opinions. And you’re going to hear all of them. You ready?
A: Let’s go to Nantucket. It’s 1819 at the island of Nantucket, which is a major whaling community in America. The whaleship is the Essex – and the cabin boy would later write that “black and ugly as she is I would not have exchanged her for a palace.” The Essex had a reputation. She was a lucky ship, a happy ship and an experienced one. Yeah… Irony. If there’s one word to describe the story of the Essex, it’s irony.
Some of her crew were experienced: her Captain, First Mate and Boatsteerers (also known as the harpooners) had sailed on her before. She had a crew of 21. While some of these were men were of ‘whaling Nantucket stock’, there were also “off-islanders”, men with little or no whaling experience, and in order to fill her berth there were also seven Black sailors who were signed on to work as well. Quotation: “In a tight spot, a captain didn’t care if a seaman was white or black: he just wanted to know he could count on the man to complete his appointed task.”
C: Yeah, that’s fair.
A: It does make a lot of sense. Despite this, there was a clear division in attitudes between natural born Nantucket sailors, white off-islanders and Black sailors. This will become clear. We have already mentioned, however, our three main players. They are Captain George Pollard, 29 years old, First Mate Owen Chase, who’s 23, and Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, who’s 14. Not to spoil the ending of who survives, but we have the published works by Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson.
C: So they both die right?
A: Ghost written. I’m going to admit this outright: I’m a bit of a Captain George Pollard apologist. He’s had a very bad reputation over the past few hundred years-
C: But you’re going to set that to rights today, on this influential podcast.
A: Yes I am! Because I don’t think it’s fair. Add on to that – there is this weird historical obsession with him having sex with his aunt.
A: It just keeps coming up. Completely without evidence. And it’s weird.
A: One of the fiction books, which is called The Jonah Man – spoilers if you know anything about The Bible – but there’s just like, ‘yeah well I shouldn’t be attracted to my aunt, I’ve not lost my virginity because I’m worried about getting venereal disease, but my aunt who’s ten years older than me wants to sleep with me so we’re gonna do that’… Why? No evidence. It’s bizarre.
C: It’s… I mean, character defamation?
A: He’s been very dead by the time this book is published.
C: Yeah. Strange one.
A: There’s also the fact that someone [fake cough] Hollywood, has bought onto this ‘we need an underdog so obviously the captain was entirely incompetent, the first mate was the only good sailor’ – and this sort of completely forgets about the fact that Pollard had served as second and first mate on the Essex. When he was made captain, he was one of the youngest whaling captains in Nantucket history.
A: He was experienced, he was experienced with the Essex, he deserved the role given- I’m very defensive.
C: So he’s more a prodigy rather than a… undeserving person taking on this role.
A: Yeah. I mean he’s definitely learnt the role. He might not be excellent as a captain, we will come onto this, but he’s been very demonised in history. Also, probably because who’s written the accounts?
C: Are you #TeamPollard or #Team…?
C: Let us know!
A: You know what the right answer is. As a first time captain, he wasn’t given the luxury of choice of crew. And Owen Chase was competent but “cocksure”. He was ambitious and impatient to become a captain himself. This can’t have helped with it being Pollard’s first command and Chase’s first position as a first mate.
A: The journey does not start smoothly, they make it out of harbour on the 12th of August 1819, and I’m big enough to admit that Pollard got it very wrong when there was a storm on the 15th of August. He made the wrong call, the Essex was almost upended.
C: He isn’t doing well so far actually Alix.
A: After the Essex is righted, it’s emerged that she’d lost two of her whale-boats and damaged a third. Pollard wants to return to port, but Chase urges them to continue and Pollard changes his mind and they continued at sea. Pollard was willing to listen, but a captain’s word is supposed to be law. Despite this, they continue, the crew of the Essex take on more supplies and eventually manage to purchase a third whaleboat from a wrecked whaler. Symbolism and irony.
C: Yeah, the cursed whaleboat coming aboard.
A: The Essex went on her way, hunting whales and sailing around the coast of South America and out into the Pacific Ocean. There are a few hiccups along the way. Henry DeWitt, one of the Black sailors, deserted and Pollard wasn’t able to replace him. There were challenges over the supply of food, which resulted in Pollard, who according to Nickerson was “generally very kind”, putting the men in their place with the regards to their demands. However, the biggest hiccup comes in the Galapagos Islands in the October of 1820. The men were collecting tortoises as an emergency ration.
C: That’s what you do when you go to the Galapagos. You just hoard tortoises. Everyone knows that.
A: Oh yeah, yeah. Very tasty.
C: Hmm. Delicious.
C: Well, endangered now.
A: So they’re collecting tortoises and Thomas Chappel decides to play a prank. Now, when I was drafting the script, this next section simply read: Burning a whole fucking island. Jesus guys. What the fuck?
C: [Laughs]. It’s just a funny prank.
A: Thomas Chappel burns Charles Island to the ground. It’s still burning when the Essex sails away. Pollard is furious – his “wrath knew no bounds.” Later in life Thomas Nickerson will return to Charles Island and note that “neither trees, shrubbery, nor grass have since appeared.”
C: Can you imagine, you’re responsible for an entire island being just… decimated?
A: I’m gonna make it worse. Charles Island was one of the first Galapagos Islands to lose its tortoise population.
C: It’s too much power for one ship to have.
A: This was the key moment in the film In the Heart of the Sea. They were like… ‘and they didn’t even include the island! They didn’t burn a whole island to the ground!’
C: [British lad voice] “Oh, I went on my gap year, I burnt a whole island to the ground, yah.”
A: Thomas Chappel is English.
C: Yeah, there we go.
A: Can you tell?
C: Oh, lads lads.
A: Bantz. Cheeky Nandos.
C: Ah yeah just went for some-
Both: Cheeky tortoise.
C: Absolute madman, just burnt the island!
A: On the 20th of November 1820, the story will really begin. This is when the Essex is sunk by a whale. An 85-foot-long male sperm-whale was “coming down for the Essex with great celerity” according to Chase. There was only a skeleton crew left on the ship, and two of the boats were out hunting – it may have been the noise of repair work happening on ship that attracted the bull. This was the first time in recorded whaling history that a sperm whale had deliberately sunk a ship. Although not the first whaler to be sunk by whale – that was the Union in 1807, which accidentally hit a sperm whale.
C: They’re so small and difficult to spot.
A: Difficult to navigate round.
C: I would love to know, do we have the statistics for how many whales they had caught up to this point? Is it more or fewer than the amount of men that die eventually as a result of this whale? Because I’m just trying to see who wins here. Is the tally more in favour of the whale or the men?
A: Are we going one for one?
C: I think so.
A: They don’t successfully get their first whale until 1820, which isn’t great because they set sail in the summer of 1819. I think ultimately the whales win. But, not really. And also, may I point out… They’ve just completely eradicated a species of tortoise.
C: That’s true. The tortoises are the real losers in this story.
A: Sciencey bit. Sperm whales are noted, biologically, to turn to the direction the last wind blew, when they’re fleeing.
A: So, “head turned windward, tail pumping and momentum blistering that the whale had the misfortune to run directly into the Essex’s hull.” Because the story goes that the whale deliberately attacked the ship. Probably not?
C: Aww. That’s not as fun though.
A: It was most likely one that was fleeing from the fact that they were being attacked. Now there is a chapter in Surviving The Essex called ‘A Whale’s Motives,’ that goes into-
C: [Laughs.] That’s beautiful.
A: It goes into far more scientific depth about how and why sperm whales behave in the way that they do. Here when the Essex is sunk, we have our first controversy. Whether it could have been stopped. Nickerson and other authors, both fact and fiction, certainly believe so, believing that Chase could have “saved the ship by killing the whale even at the expense of losing the rudder” – because Chase was on board the Essex at this time-
A: And was a harpooner.
A: He had opportunity to throw a lance and save the ship. In 1834, the Sailor’s Magazine concludes that had Chase thrown a harpoon accurately, the rudder and the ship could have been saved.
C: What do we know of Chase’s aim?
A: It’s quite good.
A: Chase never mentions this opportunity when he writes his account.
C: Hmm. No.
A: A harpoon was not thrown and the Essex was lost. Two whaleboats returned from the hunt to the sinking Essex. Captain Pollard says “My God, Mr Chase, what is the matter?” Very polite. And the response is: “We have been stove by a whale.”
C: That whale!
A: Damn that whale!
A: Attempts were made to ready the whaleboats. The Essex was no longer a viable option. There were three whaleboats, one having been damaged by a whale during the hunt. These boats were “clinker-built and very slight” – they’re certainly not for long dangerous open water voyagers. Sails were fashioned, and the sides of the boats were built up to protect the 20 survivors from the elements.
C: So we’ve got 20 survivors between two boats?
C: I thought the third one was damaged?
A: It is!
C: Oh. Okay. I see. I see. Right. So bad luck to the ones in the boat, huh?
A: Who do you think’s gonna be on that boat?
A: Yeah. Items were retrieved from the Essex, including “six hundred pounds of unspoilt ships biscuit”, “sixty-five gallons” of fresh water per boat-
C: How much is a gallon? Enough water?
A: Well, no. I’m gonna be safe to say no it’s not.
C: Depends how long you need it for I guess?
A: Yeah. Muskets, gun powder, boat nails and two pistols. Several of the tortoises and hogs from the Essex swim out to the boats.
A: Yeah, yeah. Good for the people. Bad choice on their behalf.
C: Can you imagine being a pig?
C: And like, you’re on a boat and you get sunk and you’re like swimming out to- Like, poor pigs! That is completely outside their normal realm of experience. How would they comprehend what’s happening?
A: I don’t think they would. Sorry, entirely different. Have you seen that photo of chickens in a swimming pool? It’s very weird.
A: Chickens float!
C: Do they?
C: Like a duck.
A: Like a duck.
C: Or a tortoise.
A: Or a tortoise.
A: In Pollard’s own words, also retrieved were “a compass for each boat, a sextant for two boats, and quadrant for one, but neither sextant nor quadrant for the third boat” were collected.
C: Yeah, it’s just like ‘fuck those guys’ huh?
A: Yeah, and their shit boat. A decision now had to be made. Where the survivors were going next. The nearest islands were the Marquesas Islands. 1,200 miles away. They’re sort of off the coast of Chile to vaguely put us in the right bit of ocean.
A: Very far off the coast of Chile in fact. In the middle of nowhere. Pollard says that “we were so ignorant of the state and temper of the inhabitants that we feared we should be devoured by cannibals if we cast ourselves on their mercy.”
C: Oh that delicious dramatic irony. That’s- I love it when this happens in a story. I know these are real people. But even so. You know? I think that’s what makes it a good story.
A: There is going to be more irony. Pollard instead wanted to go towards the Society Islands. These islands could be reached in less than 30 days. The first and second mates both argued against this, mightily afraid of the spectre of Pacific cannibalism. They instead said that it would take 60 days to make it to the coast of South America. “The captain reluctantly yielded to their arguments,” according to Nickerson’s account. And again, in Chase’s Narrative of the Sinking of the Essex, he completely fails to mention that he had been the leading voice against Pollard’s council.
A: Of course, Pollard should have pulled rank and insisted, he should have acted like an authoritarian captain rather than a democratic leader. The 20 men were divided into the three boats. Pollard took responsibility for his cousin (18-year-old Owen Coffin) and his two young friends (Charles Ramsdell and Barzillai Ray), and three other sailors. Only one of whom was African American – this is Samuel Reed. Pollard had the majority of the Nantucket-born crew. Chase had five men: two Nantucketers and one Black sailor. And in the third boat, led by second mate Mathew Joy, there were no Nantucketers. This third boat is the damaged boat.
C: Right, yeah. I see what’s going on there.
A: So the journey to South America begins. It was a necessity for the boats to stay together, because despite the difficulties, there wasn’t enough navigational equipment. They had to stay together so they could make it to safety. For each member of the crew, daily rations were 170 grams of hard tack biscuit, a little bit of bread, and if they could catch fish. They did have a little food to supplement this ration, such as tortoises, which would be upended onto their shells and cooked alive.
C: Poor boys.
A: Even with this supplement to their diet, this was a starvation ration – and this isn’t to mention the blistering heat, the lack of shelter, and less than half a pint of water a day.
C: In the hot hot sun.
A: In order to soothe themselves, the men of the boats would dip themselves in the sea, although some were too weak to pull themselves back on board and had to be assisted. Rough waves – and this is something that we’ve covered before – would damage, salt and destroy food supplies. This is especially prevalent in Chase’s boat – but this is perhaps because our two main sources, Chase and Nickerson, are in the same boat.
A: So it might just appear that this happens more to them because they are the ones who write it down. Do you want some more irony?
A: A week after the Essex went down, Pollard’s whaleboat was attacked by a whale.
C: Oh yes!
A: This isn’t a sperm whale, this is a killer whale – whales that are actually known for ramming and sinking wooden sailing yachts. It’s going from bad to worse.
C: Yeah, they really are losing to the whales now I think.
A: Yeah. Over the following weeks, the crews in the three boats work their way through the food, occasionally losing the other two boats in the darkness but always coming back together. The irony continues that they’re actually quite close to the Society Islands by this point, but they’re still heading to South America. Or at least they think they are.
A month after the Essex sinks, land is spotted. This is Henderson Island, and – much to the relief of the crew – for the first time in a month, they had solid land under their feet. Henderson Island is empty. A desperate hunt for sustenance and shelter takes place. Over eight days, water, crabs, eggs, and birds are found. On the first night, a feast is prepared by Captain Pollard and his steward William Bond for the men. “No banquet was ever enjoyed with greater gusto or gave such universal satisfaction,” according to Nickerson.
C: This is a nice story so far. This is going well for them now.
A: I’m so glad you said that. Even though they weren’t discovered by the crew, on Henderson Island there were in fact eight skeletons-
C: Huuuuuh, yeah, hmm, maybe not so nice a island huh?
A: Who later were identified as Caucasian in origin, who had died of “dehydration”.
C: I thought they found water on the island?
A: They did- well these people didn’t. Sorry to point that-
C: I guess they didn’t.
A: The food gathered wasn’t enough; they certainly couldn’t live on this island. And after seven days they sailed again – except without three of their number. Thomas Chappel, the English-fire starter, and two other young sailors, wanted to remain on Henderson Island. They were given as much “that could have been spared from the boats” and the three men were left, along with letters, which were written by Pollard to be collected on the off chance that a ship passed Henderson Island before the 17 men made land. Pollard gave his word that he would have Chappel and his companions saved after his own rescue.
C: Quite optimistic that they’ll last that long from the sounds of it.
A: I mean they do have some water, there’s a fresh water spring.
C: Okay. As long as they don’t set the island on fire again.
A: I mean, it is Thomas Chappel. Do you want some more irony?
C: Please, give me that good, good irony.
A: Henderson Island is actually part of the Pitcairn group.
C: Don’t know anything about geography. That means nothing to me.
A: Have you heard of a little something called the Mutiny on the Bounty?
A: The mutineers end up on Pitcairn. By 1820, there is an English-speaking community living in the Pacific, on Pitcairn Island. The next island over the horizon.
C: That is very, very unfortunate.
A: Now the crew of the Essex weren’t to know this… But irony. The first death takes place on the 10th of January. The second mate Mathew Joy, who had been ill for some time, was buried at sea. It later transpires that due to his illness Joy hasn’t been monitoring the provisions on the third boat.
A: This is only found out when Pollard sends one of his men to take command of the third boat. There are only two or three days supply of biscuit left in what’s now Hendricks’ boat. And then, another loss. The loss of each other. The three boats are separated, with Hendricks’ and Pollard’s boats staying together, and Chase’s boat becoming separated. Technically this separation might explain the higher survival rate in Chase’s boat, as Chase only had to keep his crew alive, while Pollard technically had responsibility for the third boat as well.
C: Which had fewer rations.
A: Which had fewer rations. And he shared with the third boat the little bread that was on the first. So, here we have the division in narratives. We’ve now got two stories. Owen Chase’s Boat. On the 14th of January, there is an accusation of theft. Chase threatens to kill the guilty party should he do it again. Then they’re attacked by a shark.
C: Wow, the sea really hates them huh?
A: I mean, fair.
C: Yeah, they’ve done their fair share of attacking sea life.
A: I do like here where they’re like ‘the shark was so much larger than an ordinary shark.’ No it probably wasn’t.
C: It was just closer.
A: [Laughs.] They attempted to kill the shark, but they were all too weak to do so. Then they’re followed by a pod of porpoises.
C: So just to clarify, these are men trained in catching large sea life, on a boat designed for that purpose, with weapons designed for that purpose?
A: I mean, I’m gonna give them a bit of leeway here.
C: They are-
A: They are starving to death.
C: Yeah. Okay. That’s fair.
A: So they try and hunt these porpoises. It also fails. Peterson, who is the the Black sailor who’d attempted to steal bread, dies on the 20th of January, two months after the Essex sinks. He’s buried at sea. During this time, Nickerson notes that Chase was “a remarkable man.” Chase himself writes that he was “constantly rallying his spirits to enable [himself] to afford his men comfort.” Hope alone wasn’t enough to sustain Chase’s men. 43 days after leaving Henderson Island, Isaac Cole dies. The corpse is left in the boat overnight, and preparations are made for burial the next day.
C: Right. I’m thinking they’re getting a bit hungry now, though, huh?
A: During these preparations, Chase stops his men. “The painful subject of keeping the body for food,” was raised, and they “set to work as fast as they were able.” The next paragraph’s a bit gory. I mean. Obviously. They cut off the arms and legs and removed the heart. Then they sewed up the torso and dropped it into the water. They ate the heart first, they cut up the rest of Isaac Cole’s remains and hung in the rigging to dry.
C: Mmmmm. Delicious.
A: According to Thomas Nickerson’s account, he himself didn’t eat from the body of Cole, and instead it was the extra rations of the dead men which allowed for his survival.
C: Hmm. That sounds like, doesn’t want to implicate himself.
A: It does a bit doesn’t it? After a week of sustaining themselves from the body of Cole, Chase and his men were able to muster the strength to steer their boat – they saw a sail, and they chased the ship. They were eventually rescued by the London vessel the Indian on the 18th of February. Chase had brought himself, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence safely out of the Pacific. 89 days of open water.
C: So they haven’t actually done too bad. Not to be too #TeamChase, but they’ve only had to eat one body.
A: They have only had to eat one body. What of Pollard and Hendricks? Eight days after being separated from Chase, Lawson Thomas – one of the Black sailors from Hendricks’ boat – died, and the decision was made that the body would be consumed. It’s unknown who did the deed, but it is worth noting that on whaleships it was often the Black members of crew who cooked and prepared the food.
A: It’s a bit uncomfortable. The organs and meat of the corpse were cooked and shared between the two boats. This “wretched fare” sustained the crews, although due to starvation, Thomas’ body might have only provided 30 pounds of meat. The next man to die was Charles Shorter, who was also a Black sailor, and he was also shared between the two boats. As was the next, Samuel Reed. There is a very clear racial element to the survival chances of the Essex survivors.
C: Yeah, yeah. Shall we talk about why?
A: This may not have been malicious, or at least not intentionally. There have been studies undertaken regarding the differences between how different ethnic groups store and maintain body fat.
A: This does tend to disproportionately favour Caucasian men in simply having larger reserves of body fat.
A: Now, I’ll stick the study in the show notes, because I’m not a scientist. Don’t feel very qualified to talk about it. But it does have to be noted that there are natural ties of kinship, religion, friendship, familiarity – especially between the Nantucket-born sailors, which would have been very advantageous in these circumstances. And there are no Black survivors of the sinking of the Essex.
C: And of course, if the Quakers in general considered themselves a pro-abolitionist faith from Nantucket, then the Nantucketers who survived maybe want to maintain that, rather than admitting to perhaps, if there was any ill-treatment there.
A: There certainly does appear to be, back in Nantucket, an embarrassment over the fact that there were no Black survivors. While the Essex was certainly controversial and not something that people would casually discuss down the pub, you’re right, the Quakers were very proud of their pro-abolitionist movements. There’s a whaleship that’s entirely crewed by Black sailors, and they are given an immense parade down the highway of Nantucket town and they’re entirely honoured for their works. This racial element is incredibly uncomfortable for Nantucket to deal with – and to deal with at the time, it’s worth noting.
A: They’re aware that it’s not quite right. On the night of January 29th, the first and the third boats were finally, permanently separated. Obed Hendricks, William Bond, and Joseph West and their boat were never seen again. What happened on Pollard’s whaleboat on the 6th of February is still a matter of discussion and debate. With the two most recognised sources of the misadventure of the Essex of course being written by Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson, on another whaleboat. In Pollard’s own words, recorded in 1823: “Two men died; we had no other alternative than to live upon their remains. These we roasted to dryness by means of fires kindled on the ballast-sand at the bottom of the boats. When this supply was spent, what could we do? We looked at each other with horrid thoughts in our minds, but we held our tongue. I am sure that we loved one another as brothers all the time; and yet our looks told plainly what must be done. We cast lots-”
C: Now remind me Alix. On this boat, is it Pollard and his nephew?
C: Cousin. Are we…?
A: Oh I’m getting there.
C: Are we gonna get to your favourite phrase?
A: We are going to get to my favourite phrase. Pollard’s still talking. Don’t interrupt.
C: I’m sorry.
A: [Laughs.] “We cast lots and the fatal one fell on my poor cabin-boy. I started forward instantly, and cried out ‘my lad, my lad, if you don’t like your lot I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.’ The poor emaciated boy hesitated a moment or two; then, quietly laying his head down upon the gunnel of the boat, he said ‘I like it as well as any other’. He was soon dispatched and nothing of him left. I think then another man died of himself and him too we ate. But I can tell you no more – my head is on fire at the recollection.”
The poor cabin-boy was, as we’ve already commented, Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard’s 18-year-old cousin. The question of drawing lots had first been raised by the youngest boy, Charles Ramsdell, and according to Nickerson, Pollard first reacted negatively, refusing to cast lots, but he did state “if I die first you are welcome to subsist on my remains”. But as Pollard was oft to do on this journey, he allowed himself to be swayed. Owen Coffin drew the metaphorical short straw – in this instance it was a scrap of paper – and Pollard is alleged to have offered to take his place. “Who can doubt but that Pollard would rather have met the death a thousand times,” wrote Nickerson, “None that knew him will ever doubt.” Lots were then drawn again for who would carry out the deed, and that straw fell to Ramsdell. Nantucket tradition said that Pollard drew the short straw and Coffin offered himself, but when this was reported in 1804 [Error: Intended to say 1904], the source in fact states that he highly “doubts this”. It does appear to be part of scurrilous rumour.
C: Yes it’s one of those – where would they get that information from?
A: Exactly. You’re right, it’s time for my favourite survival cannibalism phrase. I feel like we should have some music-
C: Drum roll.
A: For this. Drum roll please.
[Carmella drum rolls poorly.]
A: Because the death of Coffin and the consumption of his body by his cousin George Pollard is referred to as ‘gastronomic incest’. I told you there was an obsession with Pollard and incest.
C: Yeah, his aunt, his cousin. God. This guy can’t catch a break.
A: He really can’t.
C: Or he is just that weird guy, huh?
C: I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
A: The story is littered with inaccuracies and variants. For example, in Chase’s account, Pollard doesn’t offer himself to take Coffin’s place; in Nickerson’s, it’s Pollard, not Ramsdell, who shoots Coffin. There is no solid source as to what exactly happened to Coffin’s body, but The Essex Ballad – a great tune about cannibalism.
C: Ooh! A banger.
A: I’m not gonna sing it. Has lyrics that denote the common themes of survival cannibalism, the classic pattern of dismemberment: “His messmates they killed him and cut off his head, / And all the ship’s crew from his body did feed”.
C: Did fed?
A: Did fed. People took liberties with these stories. Five days after the death of Owen Coffin, on the 11th of February, the third occupant of Pollard’s boat, Barzillai Ray, died. Twelve days later – “days of horror and despair” – and almost at the Chilean coast, Pollard and Ramsdell resorted to cracking open the bones of their dead companions, extracting the marrow and clinging desperately to the bones. They clung to the bones so desperately that when, on the 23rd of February, they were happened upon by the whaler [French pronunciation:] Dauphin – I don’t know why I’m doing the French accent; I’ve not done any good accents throughout this entire recording-
C: Unlike me, I’ve done nothing but good accents.
A: Would you like to name the ship for me?
C: [Better but exaggerated French pronunciation] Dauphin.
A: Thank you. They could not bear to part from the last remnants of their salvation; they couldn’t physically put the bones down. The captain of the…
A: Was Zimri Coffin.
C: That’s such a good name!
A: What’s his surname?
C: Ah. I see. Oh, embarrassing.
A: Commodore Charles Goodwin Ridgely (what a name) of the US frigate the Constellation, said of Pollard and Ramsdell that “their appearance bones working through their skins their legs and feet much smaller and the whole surface of their bodies one entire ulcer was truly distressing.” Not got very good grammar but gets the point across.
A: The five men would be reunited on the whaler the Two Brothers, although only four of them would return to America together. Pollard suffered a relapse and returned two months after his crew. However, before they made it back to Nantucket, rumours were swirling around the Pacific and the Atlantic. Stories were being spread from ship to ship. Nantucket had been waiting for the return of the Essex’s captain, but when Pollard made land there was utter silence. Not a figure spoke to him, people moved aside to let him pass. Of 20 men, there would be eight survivors. For while the third whaleboat would never be found, the three men left on Henderson Island would be rescued.
A: Yeah, you weren’t expecting that were you?
C: No! I was completely, I was like, ‘nah, they’re gonna burn that island down and die’. Well I’m glad for them.
A: And it was one of the first things that Pollard did, was give word they needed to be rescued.
C: Ah. Good of him. Okay.
A: So, what comes next? For the most part, the men returned to sea. Although the spectre of cannibalism remained above them, some more than others. Pollard’s aunt, understandably, never forgave him-
C: Is this the same aunt he was alleged to have an affair with?
C: It’s just… it’s all awkward.
A: And the rumours spread that in later years, that when asked if he knew an Owen Coffin, Pollard would say – “I et him”.
A: This is quite doubtful.
C: Yeah, that sounds more like a fun story than anything else.
A: This isn’t even me being a paid up member of the George Pollard defence squad; this was the man who would fast every year on the anniversary of the loss of the Essex. It doesn’t seem likely that he would be like ‘yeah, I et him.’
C: Yeah, that flippancy.
A: Yes. Not quite. Pollard returns to whaling and he returns as a whaling captain. In an extraordinary display of faith by the people of Nantucket not only is he given a new command, but that command is that of the Two Brothers, one of ships that rescued the Essex men – and he gets that position on recommendation by her captain.
C: So they clearly are on Team Pollard as well, they don’t think that he’s done anything wrong. Necessarily.
A: Yeah. He takes that command in the November of 1821. That’s not a lot of turnaround.
C: No. No, that’s quick rebound.
A: It doesn’t end well.
C: Wait there’s more?
A: There’s more! Pollard is by Essex men on the Two Brothers – Thomas Nickerson and Charles Ramsdell both join his ship. Charles Ramsdell is the one man who had come to know Captain Pollard better than any other. Sort of, like, what better endorsement could there be, that these men are prepared to sail under him again?
C: Yeah, like ‘we survived for however long on a whaleboat together. But I still trust him.’
A: Which I think, probably implies that Pollard didn’t draw the short straw-
C: Yeah that Pollard didn’t sacrifice his cousin.
A: These men return to the whaling industry. They don’t have to return with him.
A: This next section is now just the George Pollard Defence Squad. We’ll get back into plot in a minute. In 1822, midshipman Charles Wilkes meets George Pollard and he expresses, “how he could think of again putting his foot on board Ship”, to which Pollard responded that “it was an old adage that lightning never struck the same place twice.”
C: Oh, I don’t like where this is going.
A: In the February of 1823, the Two Brothers sinks.
C: Oh, not on a whale?
A: Not on a whale. Pollard almost refuses to leave deck of his second floundering ship, he’s only persuaded to leave at the last moment. Later that year Pollard considered himself truly “ruined […] All will say I am an unlucky man.” And he will never again command a whaleship. He ends up taking up the position of night watchman on Nantucket for the rest of his days. Okay, one last line from the George Pollard defence squad.
C: Go ahead.
A: This is again from Charles Wilkes, who after meeting Pollard stated that he felt “that I had by accident become acquainted with a hero, who did not even consider that he had overcome obstacles which would have crushed ninety-nine out of a hundred.” George Pollard Defence Squad.
C: An objective podcast, objectively presenting these stories. No biases here.
A: None. Owen Chase goes on to work on the first, and thus the most widely recognised account of the sinking of the Essex – although it’s highly doubtful he wrote his narrative himself. It was a ghost written account under his advice.
C: So it was ghost written!
A: I put that joke very early in, but it’s paid off now.
A: Chase’s Essex narrative is a personal affair, in which his own detrimental actions wouldn’t be uncovered until Nickerson’s account was discovered 163 years later.
C: Ooh, that is a long publishing embargo.
A: It was lost.
C: Okay. I mean, you know with some of these journals, the embargos they impose, you could believe it.
A: I mean that’s fair. Now, Chase’s account didn’t really endear himself to the residents of Nantucket. The depth and honesty regarding cannibalism left a sort of bitter aftertaste in Nantucket memory, and while Chase would go on to rise to the position of captain, he wouldn’t sail on a Nantucket ship for eleven years. Ultimately however, he’d never recover from the Essex; at the end of his life he would hoard and hide food around his home and would spend time in and out of asylums until his death.
C: I think that’s understandable, I mean, that’s- It’s an ordeal to go through.
A: Yeah. To this day it’s Owen Chase who’s provided us with the definitive voice of what happened in the Pacific. Thomas Nickerson’s account was also written, but not until 1876, and it was then subsequently lost until 1960. It was then only published in 1984.
C: Now does that coincide at all with the resurgence in anthropological interest in cannibalism?
C: Whether that caused the resurgence, or whether the resurgence means that people were like, ‘huh this book I’ve got lying in the attic is quite useful actually.’
A: I’m not sure but it does make sense, it’s all sort of coming together.
C: Connecting all these dots.
A: Nickerson’s account gives us this alternative dimension, adding layers and questions to Chase’s account. It’s worth nothing that allegedly Pollard also wrote an account, but if it exists, it’s not been found. It’s in an attic in Nantucket somewhere and I want it.
C: And you will find it!
A: I will find it! I hate to think how long I’ve been talking for now but very quickly, I do have to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or the white whale in the ocean.
C: Boom badum tsh.
A: Ah, isn’t it good? So. Moby Dick. Moby Dick was written in 1851 by Herman Melville. And I’m not gonna llie, I’ve never managed to finish it. I had to read Pierre and the Ambiguities in two weeks for my Masters degree. Me and Melville have taken an indefinite leave from each other after that. Moby Dick is the definitive whaling story, and it’s one that skirts around the accepted traits of survival-cannibalism at sea – this was considered normal in maritime communities. But, Moby Dick looks at the events of the Essex dead in the eye as it tells its story. Right, I promise I’m wrapping up now, but we do have a very quick shout out to the Ann Alexander – which is another whaling ship. This is a whaling ship that is sunk by sperm whale in 1851.
C: So this is a common occurrence huh? Well, more than once.
A: More than once. It, has happened. Herman Melville went into absolute overdrive following the loss of the Ann Alexander. No loss of life, no cannibalism, very quiet really. And he took the loss of the Ann Alexander as a… review? This is what Melville said [Dramatic voice]: “Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster!”
A: May I just say, Hermann Melville, shut up.
C: Get over yourself! If we see any cannibalism stories in the news, I hope we won’t be big-headed enough to think that our ‘evil art’ has raised that monster because of this podcast. Especially because I just- I can’t believe that a sperm whale has read a book.
[Alix laughs maniacally]
[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]
C: Thank you for joining us for today’s episode on the whaleship Essex. Let us know, are you #TeamPollard or #TeamChase?
C: We know Alix, we know.
A: Join us next time for an episode on the Mignonette – a landmark legal case that is less boring than it sounds. I promise.
[Outro music continues]
A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.
C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.
A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.
[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]