Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fortitude, Courage, and Strength at Sea

April 1, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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When Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby-Dick comes to mind, do you wonder what might have inspired him to write the tale? If so, Owen Chase’s memoir is a must read, especially in its newest version, Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex: The Complete Illustrated Edition: The Extraordinary and Distressing Memoir That Inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

fortitude 2Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex shares Chase’s extraordinary and distressing account of fortitude, courage, and strength at sea. The original title of the 1821 memoir, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, aptly describes the true-life horror story that unfolded while Chase was the first mate on the ill-fated American whaling ship Essex, which sailed from Nantucket on August 12, 1819. The ship was on a whaling voyage to the sperm whale hunting grounds of the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of South America when it was attacked and sunk by an 85-foot sperm whale.

Through Chase’s point of view, we encounter the sinking of the Essex in the southern Pacific Ocean in 1820 and the events which followed. The shipwreck strands Chase and 19 other crewmates in small, open boats.  They face unrelenting misfortunes while out at sea for months in these flimsy, leaking boats, including attacks by killer whales. They were subjected to the blazing sun and other elements; their survival depended upon small allowances of bread and killing and eating wildlife such as turtles, birds, and crabs.

Eventually, some of the men spotted land, but they discovered it was barren. With the harsh conditions and limited food supply, survival proved impossible for most as the crewmates resorted to cannibalism before eight remaining survivors, including Chase, were rescued.

fortitude 3Even if you’ve never read Melville’s novel, you’ll be entertained and informed by the information on the history of whaling and that dangerous nature of whaling voyages that generally lasted about two and a half years without guarantee of success. Chase wrote, “The business is considered a very hazardous one, arising in unavoidable accidents, in carrying on an exterminating warfare against those great leviathans of the deep…”

Along with learning about Chase’s tragic experiences, the Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex: The Complete Illustrated Edition: The Extraordinary and Distressing Memoir That Inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick presents accounts of other whaling incidents, including “Boats Sunk, Stove, or Upset, by Blows from Whales” by Captain William Scoresby; “Loss of the Ship Ann Alexander” by Thomas H. Jenkins; and “A Night on the Raft of the Medusa” by J.B. Henry Savigny and Alexander Corréard. There’s also illuminating artwork, photographs, maps, artifacts, and an informative introduction by Gilbert King, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Book review by Melissa R. Walsh

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Excerpt from the book and additional photos

Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex: The Complete Illustrated Edition: The Extraordinary and Distressing Memoir That Inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by Owen Chase

The words were scarcely out of my mouth, before he came down upon us with full speed, and struck the ship with his head, just forward of the fore-chains; he gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces. The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf. We looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech. Many minutes elapsed before we were able to realize the dreadful accident; during which time he passed under the ship, grazing her keel as he went along, came up underside of her to leeward, and lay on the top of the water (apparently stunned with the violence of the blow), for the space of a minute; he then suddenly started off, in a direction to leeward.

After a few moments’ reflection, and recovering, in some measure, from the sudden consternation that had seized us, I of course concluded that he had stove a hole in the ship, and that it would be necessary to set the pumps going. Accordingly they were rigged, but had not been in operation more than one minute, before I perceived the head of the ship to be gradually settling down in the water; I then ordered the signal to be set for the other boats, which scarcely had I dis-patched, before I again discovered the whale, apparently in convulsions, on the top of the water, about one hundred rods to leeward. He was enveloped in the foam of the sea, that his continual and violent thrashing about in the water had created around him, and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury. He remained a short time in this situation, and then started off with great velocity, across the bows of the ship, to windward.

By this time the ship had settled down a considerable distance in the water, and I gave her up as lost. I however, ordered the pumps to be kept constantly going, and endeavoured to collect my thoughts for the occasion. I turned to the boats, two of which we then had with the ship, with an intention of clearing them away, and getting all things ready to embark in them, if there should be no other resource left; and while my attention was thus engaged for a moment, I was aroused with the cry of a man at the hatchway, “Here he is—he is making for us again.”

I turned around, and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him, and his course towards us was marked by a white foam of a rod in width, which he made with the continual violent thrashing of his tail; his head was about half out of water, and in that way he came upon, and again struck the ship.

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