August 30, 2000
Some Ironies of the Essex and of Whaling
Whaling is filled with ironies; The tragedy of the Essex expecially so. For example:
When the Essex was wrecked, Captain Pollard estimated that their best chance would be to strike out for Tahiti, only two to three weeks' sail away-a distance for which they had sufficient food, and favorable winds. But the Essex was one of the first Nantucket whaleships ever to have sailed so far west of South America, and at that time in history, Pollard and his crew had no idea what lay to their West. The first and Second mates feared cannibals and Pollard lacked the self-confidence to impose his will on them by insisting on making for Tahiti anyway. So against his better judgement he made sail for the far more distant Easter Island, and ultimately the South American coast, a decision that in the end made sure that he and his crew would encounter cannibals-they themselves.
When Captain Pollard and his crew had nearly starved to death, it was Pollard who still refused to entertain the thought of resorting to cannibalism. Yet later, under pressure from his young cousin, Owen Coffin, he approved it, and having done so, watched as his cousin Owen drew the short straw, and became the first victim.
The crew member who first suggested resorting to cannibalism was 16 year-old Charles Ramsdell, Owen Coffin's boyhood friend. When the crew drew straws a second time to see who had to assassinate Coffin, the short straw came to Ramsdell who not only had to kill his friend but later share with the others in eating his flesh.
One of the ultimate ironies concerning whaling is that the owners of the Nantucket whaling ships like the Essex were usually devout Quakers whose meeting houses, in which the universal non-violence of man against man was promoted, were lighted by the same sperm whale oil that made these men rich-a product of one of the most brutally violent ways of killing an animal ever devised. Here were God-fearing men whose ships succeded because their sailors employed such tricks as turning a mother whale's brave defense of her calf into her undoing: they harpooned the calf first, then, rather than killing it, let its agonizing struggles draw the mother within range.
As Melville said: "There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men."
© 2000 - Roger Payne