On March 15, 1821, in the port of Valparaiso, Chile, the U.S. Frigate Constellation took on board three bone-thin, desicated seamen barely clinging to life after three months at sea in a 25-foot whale boat.
"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," the Baltimore-born captain of the Constellation, Commodore Charles Goodwin Ridgely, wrote in his journal.
"I took them on board my ship, supplied them with every article they required and by the attention of my surgeon they entirely recovered."
Their ship, the Essex, an 83-foot, 238-ton whaler out of Nantucket, Mass., had been smashed and sunk on Nov. 20, 1820, in the Pacific Ocean about 1,500 miles from the Galapagos Islands, in what seemed to them to be a deliberate attack by a huge, angry sperm whale.
Owen Chase (the 22-year-old first mate on the Essex), Benjamin Lawrence (a 20-year-old boatsteerer) and Thomas Nickerson (the 15-year-old cabin boy) survived a 4,500-mile journey in their poorly provisioned open boat in part by eating their shipmate, an African-American sailor named Samuel Reed.
Their story and that of five other survivors from the Essex's crew of 20 flashed through the whaling fleet and back home to Nantucket where it has reverberated to this day in poems and stories, books and personal accounts. Chase's tale of his 82-day trial at sea became a source and inspiration for Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."
Now in a new book, "In the Heart of the Sea," Nantucket historian Nathaniel Philbrick retells the extraordinary story of the Essex tragedy in a compelling and gripping account rich in details of early 19th century whaling culture both at home and at sea.
"There's a tendency to see the whole Essex tragedy as a sea yarn," Philbrick says, during a conversation by phone while he awaits a round of talk shows in New York City. "That's not doing justice to what the Essex is about.
"You have to see it in the amazing microcosm that was Nantucket," he says. "I set the story in the context of the island that sent [the whalers] forth and received the survivors back."
At the time the Essex went down, Nantucket -- 23 miles long and three to six miles wide with a population of 7,266 -- was the whaling capital of the world.
An upscale tourist destination these days with "trophy homes" rising along the beaches, Nantucket in 1821 was little more than a smelly factory town processing whale oil for the lamps of America. Seventy-five Nantucket ships pushed farther and farther into the Pacific on two- and three-year whaling voyages.
When the great bull whale attacked, the Essex was probing the "Offshore Grounds," a newly discovered whale fishery a thousand miles off the course of Peru, just below the equator.
"We treasure the image of the frontier as the vast unknown land in the West," says Philbrick, who lives on Nantucket. "But earlier there were these Nantucketers venturing out into the Pacific -- which is larger than all the world's land masses combined. To this day there are islands in the South Pacific named for the Nantucket captains who discovered them.
"This is something people in America don't adequately understand," he says. "Before there was the winning of the West, there was this other frontier. The one common experience of the colonists was a trans-Atlantic voyage. The sea at the beginning was at the heart of what made Americans American.
"I think that's the context this story should be placed in. Today the frontier of the west has been civilized. But the sea -- no matter how much we pollute it or ravage it -- is something we can never control.
"Ask any fisherman or tanker captain, the sea is as uncivilized, as savage as it was when the whalers went out. It is the eternal frontier."
Philbrick, 43, is a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association and has written or edited at least five other books about the island. He's a champion sailboat racer who comes south to Annapolis for annual sailing regattas.
During nearly a decade of research, he found that very strong ties of family and community such as those on Nantucket "can really sustain people in a disaster."
Five of the eight survivors of the wreck of the Essex were Nantucketers. They were all still aboard their whale boats when rescued. The three others -- two off-islanders and an Englishman -- had opted to stay behind on small barren Henderson Island, a dot in the Pacific near Pitcairn Island, which was colonized by the mutinous crew of the Bounty.
Philbrick recounts that a few days before he brought the Essex seamen on board his ship, Commodore Ridgely learned that George Pollard Jr., their captain, and Charles Ramsdell, a 16-year-old sailor, had been picked up by a whaling ship from New York.
"They were 92 days in the boat and were in a most wretched state," Ridgely wrote in his journal. "They were unable to move when found sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with."
That became the image of the Essex disaster passed from ship to ship through the whaling fleet, back to Nantucket and down through history.
Whale attacks ship
When the great bull whale was sighted, Pollard was at sea fastened to a whale he had harpooned, and Nickerson, 15 years old and making his first voyage, was at the helm of the Essex.
Off the port bow, Philbrick writes, was the largest whale they'd seen so far -- "a male about 85 feet long, they estimated, and approximately 80 tons."
Both Nickerson and Chase, the first mate, would later write about their ordeal. Their stories will be in "The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale Ship: First Person Accounts," which Philbrick and his father Thomas Philbrick, an English professor, have edited.
The bull whale churned through the water; "its 20-foot-wide tail pumped up and down."
"Put the helm up hard," Chase cried, and other crewmen shouted warnings. "Scarcely had the sound of the voice reached may ears," Nickerson recalled, "when it was followed by a tremendous crash."
The whale rammed the ship near the bow: "The Essex shook as if [it] had hit a rock."
"We looked at each other with perfect amazement," Chase recalled, "deprived almost of the power of speech."
They had good reason to be amazed, Philbrick writes. "Never before, in the entire history of the Nantucket whale fishery, had a whale been known to attack a ship."
The whale swam under the boat, ripped off a long, thick timber called the false keel and surfaced groggily beside the ship. It veered off leeward about 600 yards, then turned back, pumping through the water twice as fast as on its first run.
"With a tremendous cracking and splintering of oak, the whale struck the ship just beneath the anchor on the port bow. The creature's tail continued to work up and down, pushing the 238-ton ship backward until water surged over the transom."
The whale shrugged off splintered timbers and "swam off to the leeward, never to be seen again." The Essex was already sinking.
The crew salvaged 600 pounds of hardtack biscuits, as many water casks as they could hold in their whaleboats, some navigational instruments, tools, nails, a musket, two pistols, a couple of skinny hogs and several Galapagos tortoises they ate with great relish on their long, hot, hungry and thirsty voyage home.
The 20 crewmen set sail for the coast of South America in three whale boats: five Nantucketers, an off-islander and an African-American in Captain Pollard's boat; Chase, the first mate, got Nickerson, another Nantucketer, two Cape Codders and an African-American named Richard Peterson, who was the oldest man on the Essex; Matthew Joy, the sickly second mate, had four African-Americans and two off-islanders.
In a decision that would prove ironic, they decided not to head for the Marquesas Islands, much closer than South America, because they feared the inhabitants were cannibals. They had about enough food and water to last 60 days. Their journey was just about 90 days. Chase gave each man in his boat six ounces of hardtack -- a sea biscuit made of flour and water -- and a half-pint of drinking water a day.
Joy was the first to die, on Jan. 10, 1821, "a hot, windless day in the Pacific." He was buried at sea. The next was Peterson, the African-American on Chase's boat who had led the men in prayer each evening until his tongue became so swollen from thirst he could not speak. He, too, went into a watery grave.
But when Lawson Thomas, an African-American, died in what was Joy's boat on Jan. 20 his fellow crewmen "dared speak of a subject that had been on all their minds: whether they should eat, instead of bury, the body."
They ate him. In all, seven seamen from the Essex were eaten. The castaways were following an iron rule of survival, which if not fully condoned was certainly accepted.
"These guys did not invent [survival cannibalism]," Philbrick writes. "It happened with alarming regularity. Once you were out in a boat without food in the early 19th century, you resorted to cannibalism.
"It was something any maritime culture would have understood in a way we today cannot contemplate."
The Quaker islanders on Nantucket certainly seemed to accept that necessity. Perhaps more than the men themselves. Chase went on to a very successful career as a whaling ship captain. But he died insane, plagued by unbearable headaches and hoarding food in his attic.
Nickerson became the proprietor of a boarding house that still stands in Nantucket. Captain Pollard, too, carried vast amounts of food stored in nets above his head when he went back to sea. But he retired from whaling forever after another ship sank under him.
He lived out his life as the Nantucket town watchman.
"He was a short, fat man," recalled a relative quoted by Philbrick. "Jolly, loving the good things in life."
According to an apocryphal tale recounted by Philbrick, he was once asked if he knew one of the Essex crew members.
"Know him?' Pollard reputedly replied. "Iet him!"
But friends couldn't believe he'd mock the memory of his men. They knew that every year on the anniversary of the loss of the Essex, Pollard locked himself in his room and fasted.