The morning of 20 November 1820 was a doomed one for the Essex. Over 1000 miles from land, she was sunk, rammed by a sperm whale. Only eight sailors survived the following three months of despair and debilitating exhaustion at sea - Owen Chase was one of these, and this is his journal of shipwreck, camaraderie and cannibalism.
The first mate of the whaleship Essex, Owen Chase, set down a chronological narrative of events that happened to himself and the crew of the Essex, after the fact. In November of 1820, the whaleboats of the ship were out trying to make progress on capturing & killing sperm whales when the Essex was rammed by another whale. This attack left a hole in the ship, and although the crew were able to board the ship & take out provisions, they were all forced to take to the whaleboats out in open sea. Twenty men started on the journey; only five survived. This book narrates what happened between the shipwreck & rescue. When you read this, you must consider that this book was a product of the times, so the reader gains the vantage point of one of the survivors, making the book all the more intriguing.
I liked this book very much; I will probably wish to reread it at some point. Highly recommended.
The main narrative, and the one Melville
As a companion read to Moby-Dick, though, it's not terribly helpful. The description of the actual fight with the whale has clear connections to Moby-Dick, particularly in a short passage describing the strength of a sperm whale's head; it's the inspiration for chapter 76, which is an entire chapter about sperm whale heads because that's how Melville rolls.
The other major narrative here is by a cabin boy named Nickerson, and it's even less useful. He goes into much greater length about the pre-ramming part of the trip, which is a little fun - he's a kid, so he's mostly interested in relating awesome stories about pirates that he heard from other people - but once the ramming happens, he basically plagiarizes Chase the rest of the way.
There are also some notes by Melville that are nowhere near as interesting as you'd like them to be - mostly concerned with starfuckerish descriptions of his own encounter with Chase - and some random other letters and bits, dimly interesting due to the lack of agreement about who exactly shot Owen Coffin.
Four stars for being a great survival story; two stars for we didn't really need all that other stuff.
This is the first-person account of the disaster of the Essex by the first mate. The Essex was sunk by a whale and all hands had to escape in the whale boats 1000 miles from land. Chase's narrative is straight forward but wow, he has you in the boat with him. The hardships they endured are astounding but so is the ingenuity and will to live that the sailors displayed. They dealt with hunger, thirst, heat, sharks and eventually had to make very tough decisions to stay alive. Eight of the initial crew of 20 made it home. If you love a good adventure story or a good survival story or just a good story, this is it. For having been written in 1821, the language is very accessible. Highly recommended.
I was fortunately able to get this book from Netgalley in exchange for review.