NHA University

Exploring the tragedy of the Essex this November for the
200th anniversary of the sinking

On November 20, 1820, an enraged sperm whale rammed and sank the Nantucket whaleship Essex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles from the nearest land. Twenty sailors survived the attack and quickly outfitted their three small whaleboats to make a journey to safety. They had limited food and water, and could only hope that their supplies would last them as they slowly sailed for land across miles of open water.

Three months later, five emaciated survivors were picked up by passing ships, three more remained stranded on a deserted island, and twelve men were dead—seven of them eaten in desperation by their starving shipmates. Their tale of choices, survival, and leadership would stun the maritime community, eventually serving as part of the inspiration for Moby-Dick.
Photo: Essex seaman and survivor, Thomas Nickerson (1805–83), pencil drawing from his first-hand manuscript diary of the Essex disaster, 1876. Learn more about the NHA Collection of Thomas Nickerson Material, MS106.
The Earliest Picture of the Essex Disaster
Contemporary imagery of the dramatic incident did not keep pace with the rapid and widespread press coverage. Newspapers of the day were not illustrated. Illustrated broadsides and pamphlets—the European and American precursors of newspapers since the late 1400s—had gone out of fashion. And the years of the illustrated magazine—relying on the marketing effect of the image—were yet to come. Breaking news in maritime intelligence could do, and had to do, without interesting but costly and slow-to-produce pictures. Thus, even in the country of registry of the Essex, the first images of the disaster did not appear until fourteen and fifteen years after the event, in two issues of the Mariner’s Chronicle, New Haven, 1834, and Boston, 1835.

Photo: Cyprien Gaulon (b. 1777), Sinking of the Nantucket Whaleship Essex by a Whale on 20 November 1820. Colored lithograph, (12 3/8” x 16 7/8”). Bordeaux, France, 1821/22. Barthelmess Whaling Collection, Cologne, Germany, # 1275.
The Enduring Power of Moby-Dick
with Nathaniel Philbrick
Dive into this
issue of
Historic Nantucket

Fall 2014, Vol. 64, No. 2

Featuring articles by Nat Philbrick, Betsy Tyler, Philip Hoare, and more!
Artifact Highlight
Piece of twine, 1820–21
Benjamin Lawrence (1799–1879). Natural fibers on card in ivory frame, 4 x 5 in.
Gift of Alexander Starbuck, 1914.15.1.
This 2 1/2-inch length of twine is the sole surviving artifact from the wreck of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. Twenty-one-year-old boatsteerer Benjamin Lawrence (1799–1879) made it during the long months he spent in one of the ship’s whaleboats. It may be just the remaining fragment of a much longer length of twine created by twisting odd pieces of fiber together to form a single strand to use for small jobs in the boat. Lawrence kept the fragment after his rescue as a memento.

Benjamin Lawrence returned to his native Nantucket after the disaster. He continued whaling, commanding the ship Huron of Hudson, New York, from 1832 to 1836 and then becoming part owner and master of the Nantucket brig Dromo on three voyages into the Atlantic between 1838 and 1841. He was keeper of the Quaise Asylum, the island’s poorhouse, for many years beginning in 1848, and in later life he farmed and fished from a home in ’Sconset. He married Eliza Pitman (1806–1900) in 1824, and they reared six children together. Their eldest died rounding Cape Horn in 1849 when he fell from the jib boom of the whaler Montano.

Photo: Captain Benjamin Lawrence, 1860s. GPN971.
200th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Essex Virtual Event
with Nathaniel Philbrick
Friday, November 20, at 5:30pm
Held via Zoom
$25 for Non-Members / $15 for Members /
FREE for Students

On November 20, 1820, the ill-fated whaleship Essex was struck by a whale, stranding its crew in three tiny whaleboats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles from the nearest land. In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of this tragedy, the NHA is hosting a virtual event with award-winning, best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick. Moderated by Michael Harrison, NHA Obed Macy Research Chair, the discussion will reflect on the legacy of the Essex tragedy and the fate of its survivors.
Want to learn more?
Explore a NEW Essex Portal on NHA.org
Museum Shop
Shop this NEW 432-peice puzzle!
Whaling Museum
Open 10am–4pm, Monday–Saturday
(Closed Sundays) 

Festival of Wreaths opens Thursday, November 12
at the Whaling Museum.

FREE admission to the Year-Round Community.
Nantucket Historical Association | 508.228.1894 | nha.org