It was the 22nd of November. The crew of the Essex was in dangerous position. Their ship had been sunk by a ‘vengeful whale’ and now were adrift in small boats thousands of miles from the shore. The grim knowledge that this would be a long, difficult journey was not lost on them. They knew they could take months to find the mainland. Having vetoed landing on the Marquesas or Society islands, the 4,000 mile sail to Chile was estimated to take two months.
Rations would have to be strictly monitored. They had salvaged enough food for each of the three boats to receive 200lbs of hard tack, 65 gallons of water and surprisingly 2 Galapagos tortoises left over from the stop on the Islands. The daily ration would afford the men 6oz of hard tack and ½ pint of water day. This would put them at an extreme calorie deficit, putting them between 400-500 calories a day of food that lacked substantial nutrition.
They sailed on in a group, it was of the upmost importance for the ships to stay together, partially for a feeling of comfort among them men but mainly due to the lack of navigational equipment. Only two of the three boats could be supplied. Leaving the third reliant on the guidance of at least one of the other boats.
In survival situations such as this starvation is not the first concern, exposure and thirst are a more immediate concern. The harshness of the sea and baking heat soon took its toll. These whale boats had nothing to protect them from the elements other than scrap canvas, soon painful sores broke out on their skin because the salt water and heat. Their half pint of water a day was near useless, just serving as brief relief from the grim effects of their thirst. It only got worse for Owen Chase and the men on his boat. The Hardtack had been compromised by sea water, although edible it had an increased level of salt. This exasperated thirst further, causing them to slip into a state of Hypernatremia, a condition that is caused by the bodies salt levels becoming dangerously high. The dehydration made the condition worse. They may not have known it but if they did not find a greater supply of fresh water and food soon, they would be at risk of kidney failure, seizures or losing consciousness.
Just 10 days in they experienced another incident with a troublesome whale. This time a killer whale which damaged Captain Pollard’s boat. They managed to repair the damages as best they could, but it must have been a chilling event, reminding them of just how delicate their position was. During the next few days weather blew them off course and although they passed Tahiti, they rejected the idea of landing yet again as the fear of cannibalistic natives still plagued their minds. But they could not avoid landing for much longer. The survivors recalled how they could scarcely speak, their mouths so dry that they barely produced saliva. They were dying.
Imagine their relief when they landed on Henderson, a small uninhabited island with plenty of fresh water and enough food to assuage their hunger. The water saved them from certain death, however the food sources where quickly depleted. Between the 20 men the islands small and delicate ecosystem was shaken. After killing and eating most of the fish and animals they could either wait for rescue or sail. They could not count on rescue when so remote, three men decided to stay behind. Seth Weeks, Thomas Chapple and William Wright where all from mainland America, unlike the majority of the crew who were Nantucketers. It made sense that the ‘others’ banded together to take their chances on an island. A land with shade, shelter and water was seen -not surprisingly- as a better option.
Despite showing clear signs of Tuberculosis Matthew Joy, the officer commanding the third boat elected to continue sailing. Days later, 44 days in total since the sinking of The Essex, Matthew Joy made a request. He asked to join Captain Pollard’s boat. It was not for cowardice, fear or that Pollard’s ship was a better prospect. It was obvious to all that Joy was in the final stages of his illness. He wanted to die in dignity beside an old friend. On January 10th Matthew Joy died, Obed Hendrix having taken command of the Third boat in his place. He was sewn into his clothes and given a dignified burial at sea. With this first death Owen Chase would later comment that “It was an incident, which threw a gloom over our feelings for many days.”
That evening, as Obed Hendrix checked the boats rations. He found that Joy had lost track of the groups hardtack. The Third boat had enough for 3 or 4 days at most.
On day 52 the weather took a nasty shift, harsh winds and rough waters rocked the boats, making the half-starved men work hard to avoid damage or capsizing. One night despite their efforts Owen Chase’s boat was blown off course, far from the other two boats. Morale once again took a hit, Chase’s men may have been blown of course but the other two boats had lost their comrades with no idea what may happen to them.
Miles off course Chase knew they would be adrift for even longer than planned, reluctantly he made the choice to cut the rations down to 3oz of ‘bread’ a day. But in the following days it was yet again slashed to a pitiful 1.5oz.
By January 18th 1821, the rations where barely enough for 14 days. On this day Richard Peterson refused his daily ration, feeling that he had not much longer left. Chase claimed he Spoke “It may be of service to someone but can be of none to me.” Before falling into a silence, dying in the late evening. Hunger turned to anguish and fear, they didn’t feel the same gnawing, so starved that hunger had turned to nothing. Yet they knew how desperately they needed food. But at this point they were still to confused and pained to consider that ultimate taboo. They sewed Peterson into his clothes and let the waves take him.
Meanwhile the other two boats remained together but facing similar concerns as the rations depleted. Pollard and Hendrix could not keep up the morale in their respective boats, gloom and desperation had made each day longer. Their bodies becoming weaker by the day to the extent standing was a chore and they would crawl when movement was required. Death by Starvation was growing inevitability. How would anyone know if they died out in the open waters? What of their loved ones at home? How would it feel to slowly see everyone around you die? The sheer horror is more than many could imagine. On January 20th Lawson Thomas, a member of Hendrix’s boat, died. At this point the accumulative amount of hardtack left was secretly a pound. This was life or death. The remaining 10 men made the choice to eat the body clinging to the hope that they could stay alive until finding shore or being spotted by another ship.
On the 23rd of January Charles Shorter, who had been in Captain Pollard’s boat, died. Like Lawson Thomas before him, he too was cannibalised. Peterson, Thomas and Shorter where all black men who did not originate from Nantucket (Off-Islanders). It is speculated that the black crew members may have been having an inferior diet to their white crew mates, their status as ‘Off-Islanders’ may also have played a role in making them a lesser priority for the band of Nantucketer’s. It seems all to convenient that those who died first where acquaintances rather than friends. Whilst I would not call this ‘murder’ and do not imagine cannibalism was planned out in advanced, I do believe that this was a means of survival that prioritized kin over the collective.
Did cannibalism save them? No, not really. The bodies of these men, this stage of starvation would have around 30-40 lbs of edible meat. However, the levels of fat in the bodies would have been drastically reduced due to their bodies burning any fat reserves during the earlier stages. Once the fat is burned the muscle mass is reduced as the body begins burn it in a similar way. Meaning they were eating very lean meat at best. To be painfully blunt, consuming such little meat that was devoid of fat was as useless as eating hardtack. They needed fat to aid digestion and satiate their hunger. They where still in a state of starvation despite resorting to cannibalism.