Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex: Introduction by Gilbert King

The Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex
By Owen Chase
Introduction by Gilbert King
Zenith Press 2015

review by Tom Miller

On November 20, 1820 a small but intrepid ship named the Essex, captained by James Pollard and out of Nantucket was hunting whales in the Pacific Ocean.  She had just dispatched her whale boats which were closing in on a pod of whales when the hunter became the prey.  A bull whale, some eighty-five feet in length, appeared on the surface of the ocean not far off the bow of the ship.  It paused as if studying a target, then started moving toward the ship at great speed and rammed the vessel with its head.  The whale proceeded underneath the Essex, swam some distance, turned and at even greater speed rammed the ship once more holing the opposite side causing it mortal damage.  After salvaging what they could Captain Pollard, First Mate Owen Chase, Second Mate Matthew P. Joy and seventeen crew members left the wreck in three small and less than substantial whale boats.  Thus began an impossible journey towards the western coast of South America some three to four thousand miles distant.  Nearly one hundred days later only seven were still alive to be rescued in three separate encounters.  Toward the end of their trials and in desperation they resorted to cannibalism. 

The Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex is First Mate Owen Chase’s account of the incident and the subsequent ordeals that ensued.  It was first published by Chase in 1821 and has been republished several times in the nearly two centuries that have elapsed since its release.  His account spawned many excellent stories of whaling, sailing, adventure and danger.  Most notable perhaps is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea which is currently in production as a movie directed by Ron Howard.  Melville’s personal copy of Chase’s book has copious handwritten notes in his own hand which indicate how much he may have relied on this original account as he constructed his novel.
Philbrick’s approach is one of an historian.  He researched the history and background of Nantucket, the whaling industry, ship building and sailing and drew both on Chase’s account and that of Thomas Nickerson who was the cabin boy and a mere teenager when the Essex cleared Nantucket in 1819.  Nickerson was finally convinced to put his recollection of the situation to paper nearly fifty years after its occurrence and that account was misplaced until 1960 when it resurfaced and lent a somewhat different perspective to the whole affair than Chase’s.

So the question must be asked, “Why release a book first published in 1821 and republished several times in subsequent years?”  A simple answer is that this edition by Zenith Press is a beautiful book.  But beyond that, Zenith has added texture with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize Winner Gilbert King as well as a number of excerpts from Moby Dick and a variety of other tales of whaling exploits.  Also there are some one hundred and fifty pages of maps, charts and photography that are absolutely stunning.  Many photographs are of the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving whaling ship of an American fleet of nearly 2,700 ships, which is today berthed at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.  There is nothing quite like the sight of a three master under sail.

This book then is a collector’s item.  It stands on its own merit for those that have a casual interest in whaling and sailing and the story of the Essex.  However, for the serious collector and historian of seafarers and those who earned their living in such endeavors this is a piece that will enhance and add value to their collection.

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