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It is hard to believe that Herman Melville chose the most boring part of the wreck of the Essex whaler in 1820 to write Moby Dick . But even more so that the most exciting part has become one of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser-known works, The Story of Arthur Gordon Pym , which is also his only novel.
To become one of the great works of universal literature, in Moby Dick , the least was the whale, and the most, issues such as hierarchy, revenge, racism and, especially, obsession. In Essex , to become one of the great shipwrecks of naval history, the least important thing was the whale.
The adventure starts on the island of Nantucket , somewhat smaller than the island of El Hierro, which today has 10,000 inhabitants, and which at the beginning of the 19th century was basically inhabited by whalers. Melville described it this way: «And in all ages and oceans, they declared perpetual warfare to the most powerful lively mass that has survived the Flood , the most monstrous and the most mountainous; that Himalayan salt water mastodon, clad in such a portent of unconscious power that its very panic must be feared more than its bravest and evil assaults.
Its industry forced to visit frequently the South Pacific, where Essex left in 1819, to sink the morning of November 20, 1820, 37,000 kilometers from South America, after being attacked twice by a white sperm whale of unusual proportions.
Albino sperm whales are of a moderate rarity, as we can see on YouTube today. But it is believed that the one who attacked Essex was already very famous on the island of Mocha, on the coast of Chile, and they called him Mocha Dick . It was white as wool and with the head covered with barnacles. He had several harpoons nailed and exercised as a kind of coast guard against whalers who attacked their kind. He was hunted in 1838 when he tried to protect a female who had already lost her young at the hands of whalers.
Sperm whales, the largest dentate whale that exists, have an average size of 16 meters. Mocha Dick's body was 24 meters. The Essex had a length of 27.
After the ship was wrecked, 21 sailors embarked almost without water or food in three boats. Days later they reached the uninhabited island of Henderson , British territory. There they ate fish, birds, some vegetables and drank fresh water, but after a week they had exhausted their resources and no one had found them.
All but three bet on embarking again in two lifeboats, that as soon as they left the sea they lost each other, and where the crew members were dying one by one due to malnutrition, diarrhea and syncopes. Historians note the aggressiveness of the castaways not only because of their situation, but also because of the lack of tobacco and withdrawal symptoms , as well as the absence of magnesium in the diet.
Towards the end of the adventure, the situation became so critical that in one of the boats, the one carrying Captain Pollard, they decided to kill a crewman so that the rest would survive. There was a raffle. And he lost a young man named Owen Coffin, who was the younger cousin of Captain Pollard, who, apparently, had sworn to protect him . And then they made another raffle to decide who killed him. He won one Charles Ramsdell, who killed Coffin with one shot. Then they ate it. Pollard and Ramsdell were the only survivors of that boat.
Ninety-five days after the sinking, both were rescued by the whaler Dauphin , who also came from Nantucket, with a scene reminiscent of the rescue of Tom Hanks in Castaway, as they were so dissociated that they did not even realize the presence of the ship.
In the other boat, the first officer Owen Chase would survive with two other crew members, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson. They had been rescued by the British merchant Indian . They all met again in Valparaíso (Chile) where they reported on the three men who had stayed on Henderson Island, where they were rescued on the brink of death on April 5, 1821. Of 21 survivors, only eight reached the end of the adventure. At least seven fed the rest.
The only graphic testimony of Essex is a pencil drawing of Nickerson, in which the ship attacked by the whale is seen, with its mouth open . And then the lifeboats, also accompanied by the whale, although with no intention of finishing them off.
The story of Pollard has little to envy in drama to that of Ahab, since two years later he put himself in front of another whaler, the Two Brothers , with whom he was also shipwrecked. This time on a coral reef in Hawaii. And although he also survived that time, he was never given another boat again, as a badge .
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