Monday, March 23, 2009

A True Story of Our Shipwrecked Ancestor

My GrGrandmother was a Nantucket native. She had a half-brother, by the name of Owen Chase.
In 1819, at the age of 22 years, Owen became the first mate on a crew of 21 men on the Whaleship Essex. The ship sailed out of Nantucket Harbor for the waters of the South Pacific, prepared for a trip that would take an estimated two and a half years.

Four hours out, a storm blew up, the ship tossed and battled with the sea. The captain of the ship wanted to turn back. First mate Chase convinced him that the crew of novice sailors would abandon the effort, should they return to Nantucket, so the ship sailed on their voyage. After a year at sea, they had butchered a number of whales, but knew that they would need to continue hunting if they were to make a profit. They continued around Cape Horn.

On November 20, 1820, they farmed in the 'whale grounds' , 2000 miles off the west coast of South America. One of the three small whaleboats, which contained Owen's crew of 8 men, was found to need repair. The men returned to the Essex in order to make the needed repairs. As they worked, a large male sperm whale, with a length nearly as long as the 87 ft. vessel, was seen to be approaching the whaleship, about 50 feet from the side. With little warning, the whale rammed the side of the boat. Dazed, the monster rested beside the ship until he regained his normalcy. Then he turned, swimming away from the ship. Suddenly, as if with extreme intent, the whale turned again to swim with purpose toward the Essex. Again, and with a great fury, the huge fish rammed the ship, this time at the bow. With great strength, he pushed the Essex backward, and as he did, the 20 year old vessel, with ribs built in sections which were pegged together, weakened under the pressure. As the ship began to drink in the sea water, Chase's crew loaded their small whaleboat with enough food and water to last 60 days.

The men in all three whaleboats were adrift on the sea, thousands of miles from solid ground, with too little to sustain them all. Each of the small crews suffered horrible experiences of hunger, thirst, vitamin deficiencies, exposure, hallucinations, and death among them. They buried some at sea, as was their custom of the day, but some were cannibalized, as a last resort to survival for the others. At the end of 84 harrowing days, the survivors numbered eight. The Captain, George Pollard, was one of them, Owen Chase was another.

During the next year, 1821, Owen Chase wrote and published his account of the shipwreck, entitled "A Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex." Eventually, Chase returned to the sea, as a successful captain on a number of whaling voyages. Twenty years later, a sailor named Hermann Melville boarded the ship, Acushnet. He'd read Chase's book, and was excited to meet Chase's son, William, who lent him a copy of the account. In 1851, Melville published his famous book, Moby Dick, which was based upon Owen Chase's narrative.
My search has left me with more wonder than information of his life. I have found that, over the years, he'd been married four times. I've read, too, that he was haunted by the recurring memories of the horrors he'd suffered on the Essex. In his later years, he was found to be hoarding food in the attic of his Orange St. home on Nantucket, and some writings deem him 'insane'. He died in 1869, at the age of 70 years on the island of his birth.
What a sad life I see in this man. He chose the sea, as so many did on Nantucket. It was a lucrative business in those days. It may have been his love for the water, it may have been a love of money. It may have been for reasons that I'll never know. What I do know is that from
his return to Nantucket until his death, he seems to have suffered in many ways. I search, still, for more on the life of Capt. Chase. I want to discover some small shard of information from the days before he boarded the ill-fated Essex or after his return that will show me that he had some happiness in his life. I continue to hope so.