Resource Library

HISTORIC ARTICLE
HISTORIC ARTICLE

Nov 20, 1820 CE: Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Nov 20, 1820 CE: Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

On November 20, 1820, the American whaling ship Essex was rammed by a sperm whale and sunk. The incident inspired Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick.

Grades

4 - 12

Subjects

Social Studies, U.S. History, World History

On November 20, 1820, the American whaling ship Essex was rammed by a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and sunk. The incident inspired Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick. The Essex had left her home port on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, United States, more than a year earlier. Nantucket and the mainland Massachusetts town of New Bedford were the whaling capitals of the world, sending out hundreds of ships and sailors across the ocean every year. Whaling was a lucrative business. Sperm whales, the species sought by the Essex and most other whalers of the time, were valued for both their blubber and waxy oil found in their huge heads. These substances were refined into oils that were used in candles, cosmetics, and lubricants for machinery. Whaling fleets had radically reduced sperm whale populations in the Atlantic Ocean, and the Essex had planned on a two-and-a-half year voyage to the rich “whaling grounds” of the South Pacific. On November 20, the Essex encountered a pod of whales, and her small whaleboats set off to harpoon the animals and tow them back to the ship for processing. After harpooning one whale, the small, open whaleboat was pulled by the giant animal in what was nicknamed a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” As her captain watched from on deck, the Essex herself—238 tons, 27 meters (87 feet)—was forcefully, purposefully rammed by an enormous sperm whale separated from the pod. There was nothing the crew could do about it—the animal was bigger, stronger, and had much, much greater agility than the ship. The ship sank, leaving 20 or 21 survivors in three leaky whaleboats. The survivors were more than 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the nearest islands (the Marquesas), without adequate food or freshwater. The boats were separated and most men resorted to cannibalism before being rescued months later. Of the 20 or 21 crew members who left Nantucket, eight survived. Most likely, so did the whale.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer
National Geographic Society
Producer
National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact ngimagecollection@natgeo.com for more information and to obtain a license. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. She or he will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to him or her, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.

Media

If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.

Text

Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.

Interactives

Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources