April 15, 2013
It may have been Charles Fort, in one of his more memorable passages, who described the strange discovery best:
London Times, July 20, 1836:
That, early in July, 1836, some boys were searching for rabbits’ burrows in the rocky formation, near Edinburgh, known as Arthur’s Seat. In the side of a cliff, they came upon some thin sheets of slate, which they pulled out.
Seventeen tiny coffins.
Three or four inches long.
In the coffins were miniature wooden figures. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin.
The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here:
That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier, the effects of age had not advanced so far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.
March 18, 2013
Ninth-century Scandinavia has had good press in recent years. As late as the 1950s, when Kirk Douglas filmed his notorious clunker The Vikings—a movie that featured lashings of fire and pillage, not to mention Tony Curtis clad in an ahistorical and buttocks-skimming leather jerkin—most popular histories still cast the Denmark and Norway of the Dark Ages as nations overflowing with bloodthirsty warriors who were much given to horned helmets and drunken ax-throwing contests. If they weren’t worshiping the pagan gods of Asgard, these Vikings were sailing their longships up rivers to sack monasteries while ravishing virgins and working themselves into beserker rages.
Since the early 1960s, though—we can date the beginning of the change to the publication of Peter Sawyer’s influential The Age of the Vikings (1962)—rehabilitation has been almost complete. Today, the early Viking age has become the subject of a History Channel drama, and historians are likely to stress that the Vikings were traders and settlers, not rapists and killers. The Scandinavians’ achievements have been lauded—they sailed all the way to America and produced the Lewis Chessmen—and nowadays some scholars go so far as to portray them as agents of economic stimulus, occasional victims of their more numerous enemies, or even (as a recent campaign organized by the University of Cambridge suggested) men who “preferred male grooming to pillaging,” carrying around ear spoons to remove surplus wax. To quote the archaeologist Francis Pryor, they “integrated into community life” and “joined the property-owning classes” in the countries they invaded.
Much of this is, of course, necessary revisionism. The Vikings did build a civilization, did farm and could work metal. But, as the medievalist Jonathan Jarrett notes, the historical evidence also shows that they took thousands of slaves and deserved their reputation as much-feared warriors and mercenaries. They could be greedy and implacable foes, and over the centuries reduced several strong and wealthy kingdoms (not least Anglo-Saxon England) to the point of collapse. Much of the time, moreover, the same men who were doing the farming and the metalworking were also responsible for the raping and looting—it was a matter of economic imperative that Vikings who planted crops in the poor soil of Norway, Orkney or northern Scotland in the spring went raiding in the summer before returning home at harvest-time. Finally, as Jarrett points out, being a well-groomed but brutal soldier is scarcely a contradiction in terms. One of the Viking fighters killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 gloried in the nickname of Olaf the Flashy, and “the era that invented and lauds James Bond really shouldn’t need telling that someone can plausibly be all of heroic, well-dressed and pathologically violent.”
March 12, 2013
The plot they hatched was as audacious as it was impossible—a 19th-century raid as elaborate and preposterous as any Ocean’s Eleven script. It was driven by two men—a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic nationalist, who’d been convicted and jailed for treason in England before being exiled to America, and a Yankee whaling captain—a Protestant from New Bedford, Massachusetts—with no attachment to the former’s cause, but a firm belief that it was “the right thing to do.” Along with a third man—an Irish secret agent posing as an American millionaire—they devised a plan to sail halfway around the world to Fremantle, Australia, with a heavily armed crew to rescue a half-dozen condemned Irishmen from one of the most remote and impregnable prison fortresses ever built.
To succeed, the plan required precision timing, a months-long con and more than a little luck of the Irish. The slightest slip-up, they knew, could be catastrophic for all involved. By the time the Fremantle Six sailed into New York Harbor in August, 1876, more than a year had passed since the plot had been put into action. Their mythic escape resonated around the world and emboldened the Irish Republican Brotherhood for decades in its struggle for independence from the British Empire.
The tale began with a letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a former senior leader with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenians. Devoy, who was born in County Kildare in 1842, had been recruiting thousands of Irish-born soldiers who were serving in British regiments in Ireland, where the Fenians hoped to turn the British army against itself. By 1866, estimates put the number of Fenian recruits at 80,000—but informers alerted the British to an impending rebellion, and Devoy was exposed, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years’ labor on the Isle of Portland in England.
After serving nearly five years in prison, Devoy was exiled to America, became a journalist for the New York Herald and soon became active with clan na gael, the secret society of Fenians in the United States.
Devoy was in New York City in 1874 when he received a letter from an inmate named James Wilson. “Remember this is a voice from the tomb,” Wilson wrote, reminding Devoy that his old Irish recruits had been rotting away in prison for the past eight years, and were now at Fremantle, facing “the death of a felon in a British dungeon.”
Among the hundreds of Irish republican prisoners in Australia, Wilson was one of seven high-profile Fenians who had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging until Queen Victoria commuted their sentences to a life of hard labor. After being branded with the letter “D” for “deserter” on their chests, the Fenians were assigned backbreaking work building roads and quarrying limestone beneath an unforgiving sun. “Most of us are beginning to show symptom of disease,” Wilson wrote. “In fact, we can’t expect to hold out much longer.”
Devoy was also feeling pressure from another Fenian—John Boyle O’Reilly, who had arrived at Fremantle with Wilson and the others, only to be transferred to Bunbury, another prison in Western Australia. O’Reilly grew despondent there and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, but another convict saved him. A few months later, with help from a local Catholic priest, O’Reilly escaped from Bunbury by rowing out to sea and persuading an American whaling ship to take him on. He sailed to the United States and eventually became a poet, journalist and editor of the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot.
But it wasn’t long before O’Reilly began to feel pangs of guilt over his fellow Fenians’ continued imprisonment in Fremantle. He implored his fellow exile John Devoy to rally the clan na gael and mount a rescue attempt.
It was all Devoy needed to hear. Escape was entirely possible, as O’Reilly had proved. And he couldn’t ignore Wilson’s letter, imploring him not to forget the other Fenians that he had recruited. “Most of the evidence on which the men were convicted related to meetings with me,” Devoy later wrote. “I felt that I, more than any other man then living, ought to do my utmost for these Fenian soldiers.”
At a clan na gael meeting in New York, Devoy read Wilson’s “voice from the tomb” letter aloud, with its conclusion, “We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”
Devoy put the letter down and in his most persuasive voice, shouted, “These men are our brothers!” Thousands of dollars were quickly raised to mount a rescue. The original plan was to charter a boat and sail for Australia, where more than a dozen armed men would spring the Fenians out of prison. But as the planning progressed, Devoy decided their odds would be better using stealth rather than force.
He convinced George Smith Anthony, a Protestant sea captain with whaling experience, that the rescue mission was one of universal freedom and liberty. Before long, Anthony concluded that the imprisoned Fenians were “not criminals,” and when Devoy offered the captain a “hefty cut” of any whaling profits they would make, Anthony signed on. He was told to set out to sea on the whaler Catalpa as if on a routine whaling voyage, keeping the rescue plans a secret from his crew; Devoy had decided that it was the only way to keep the British from discovering the mission. Besides, they were going to need to return with a full load of whale oil to recoup expenses. The cost of the mission was approaching $20,000 (it would later reach $30,000), and one clan na gael member had already mortgaged his house to finance the rescue.
Devoy also knew he needed help on the ground in Australia, so he arranged for John James Breslin—a bushy-bearded Fenian secret agent—to arrive in Fremantle in advance of the Catalpa and pose as an American millionaire named James Collins, and learn what he could about the place they called the “Convict Establishment.”
What Breslin soon saw with his own eyes was that the medieval-looking Establishment was surrounded by unforgiving terrain. To the east there was desert and bare stone as far as the eye could see. To the west, were shark-infested waters. But Breslin also saw that security around the Establishment was fairly lax, no doubt due to the daunting environment. Pretending to be looking for investment opportunities, Breslin arranged several visits to the Establishment, where he asked questions about hiring cheap prison labor. On one such visit, he managed to convey a message to the Fenians: a rescue was in the works; avoid trouble and the possibility of solitary confinement so you don’t miss the opportunity; there would be only one.
Nine months passed before the Catalpa made it to Bunbury. Captain Anthony had run into all sorts of problems, from bad weather to faulty navigational devices. A restocking trip to the Azores saw six crew members desert, and Anthony had to replace them before continuing on. He found the waters mostly fished out, so the whaling season was a disaster. Very little money would be recouped on this trip, but financial losses were the least of their worries.
Once Breslin met up with Captain Anthony, they made a plan. The Fenians they had come for had been continually shifted in their assignments, and for Breslin’s plan to work, all six needed to be outside the walls of the Establishment. Anyone stuck inside at the planned time of escape would be left behind. There was no way around it.
To complicate matters, two Irishmen turned up in Fremantle. Breslin immediately suspected that they were British spies, but he recruited them after learning that they had come in response to a letter the Fenians had written home, asking for help. On the day of the escape, they would cut the telegraph from Fremantle to Perth.
On Sunday, April 15, 1876, Breslin got a message to the Fenians: They would make for the Catalpa the next morning. “We have money, arms, and clothes,” he wrote. “Let no man’s heart fail him.”
Anthony ordered his ship to wait miles out at sea—outside Australian waters. He would have a rowboat waiting 20 miles up the coast from the prison. Breslin was to deliver the Fenians there, and the crew would row them to the ship.
On Monday morning, April 16, the newly arrived Irishmen did their part by severing the telegraph wire. Breslin got horses, wagons and guns to a rendezvous point near the prison—and waited. He had no idea which prisoners, if any, would make their way outside the walls that day.
But in the first stroke of good luck that morning, Breslin soon had his answer.
Thomas Darragh was out digging potatoes, unsupervised.
Thomas Hassett and Robert Cranston talked their way outside the walls.
Martin Hogan was painting a superintendent’s house.
And Michael Harrington and James Wilson concocted a tale about being needed for a job at the warden’s house.
Moments later, Breslin saw the six Fenians heading toward him. (It might have been seven, but James Jeffrey Roche “was purposely left behind because of an act of treachery which he had attempted against his fellows ten long years before,” when he sought a lighter sentence in exchange for cooperating with the British, Anthony later wrote. The deal was ultimately rejected, but the Fenians held a grudge.) Once on the carriages, the escapees made a frantic 20-mile horse-drawn dash for the rowboat.
They hadn’t been gone for an hour before the guards became aware that the Irishmen had escaped. Breslin and the Fenians made it to the shore where Anthony was waiting with his crew and the boat. The Catalpa was waiting far out at sea. They’d need to row for hours to reach it. They were about half a mile from shore when Breslin spotted mounted police arriving with a number of trackers. Not long after that, he saw a coast guard cutter and a steamer that had been commandeered by the Royal Navy to intercept the rowboat.
The race was on. The men rowed desperately, with the authorities and the British, armed with carbines, in hot pursuit. To spur on the men, Breslin pulled from his pocket a copy of a letter he had just mailed to the British Governor of Western Australia:
This is to certify that I have this day released
from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty
Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc., etc., six Irishmen,
condemned to imprisonment for life by the
enlightened and magnanimous government of Great
Britain for having been guilty of the atrocious and
unpardonable crimes known to the unenlightened
portion of mankind as “love of country” and
“hatred of tyranny;” for this act of “Irish assur-
ance” my birth and blood being my full and
sufficient warrant. Allow me to add that in taking
my leave now, I’ve only to say a few cells I’ve emptied;
I’ve the honor and pleasure to bid yon good-day,
from all future acquaintance, excuse me, I pray.
In the service of my country,
John J. Breslin.
The Fenians let out a cry and the crew kept rowing for the Catalpa, which they could now see looming in the distance. But the steamer Georgette was bearing down, and the wind was rising—the beginnings of a gale. Darkness fell and waves came crashing down on the overloaded boat as it was blown out to sea. Captain Anthony was the picture of confidence, giving orders to bail, but even he doubted they’d make it through the night.
By morning, the Georgette reappeared and went straight for the Catalpa. The Georgette‘s captain asked if he could come aboard the whaler.
Sam Smith, minding the Catalpa, replied: “Not by a damned sight.”
The Georgette, running low on fuel, then had to return to shore. Anthony saw his chance, and the Fenians made a dash for the whaler, this time with a cutter joining the race. They barely made it to Catalpa before the British, and the ship got under way. Anthony quickly turned it away from Australia, but the luck of the Irish seemed to run out. The wind went dead, the Catalpa was becalmed, and by morning, the Georgette, armed with a 12-pound cannon, pulled alongside. The Fenians, seeing the armed militia aboard the British ship, grabbed rifles and revolvers and prepared for battle.
Captain Anthony told the Fenians the choice was theirs—they could die on his ship or back at Fremantle. Though they were outmanned and outgunned, even the Catalpa’s crew stood with the Fenians and their captain, grabbing harpoons for the fight.
The Georgette then fired across Catalpa’s bow. “Heave to,” came the command from the British ship.
“What for?” Anthony shouted back.
“You have escaped prisoners aboard that ship.”
“You’re mistaken,” Anthony snapped. “There are no prisoners aboard this ship. They’re all free men.”
The British gave Anthony 15 minutes to come to rest before they’d “blow your masts out.”
The Catalpa was also perilously close to being nudged back into Australian waters, with no wind to prevent that from happening. It was then that Anthony gave his reply, pointing at the Stars and Stripes. “This ship is sailing under the American flag and she is on the high seas. If you fire on me, I warn you that you are firing on the American flag.”
Suddenly, the wind kicked up. Anthony ordered up the mainsail and swung the ship straight for the Georgette. The Catalpa’s “flying jibboom just cleared the steamer’s rigging” as the ship with the Fenians aboard headed out to sea. The Georgette followed for another hour or so, but it was clear the British were reluctant to fire on an American ship sailing in international waters.
Finally, the British commander peeled the steamer back toward the coast. The Fenians were free.
The Catalpa arrived in New York four months later, as a cheering crowd of thousands met the ship for a Fenian procession up Broadway. John Devoy, John Breslin and George Anthony were hailed as heroes, and news of the Fremantle Six prison break quickly spread around the world.
The British press, however, accused the United States government of “fermenting terrorism,” citing Anthony’s refusing to turn over the Fenians, and noted that the captain and his crew were only “laughing at our scrupulous obedience to international law.” But eventually, the British would say that Anthony had “done us a good turn; he has rid us of an expensive nuisance. The United States are welcome to any number of disloyal, turbulent, plotting conspirators, to all their silly machinations.”
The Fremantle Six still carried the torment from their ordeals at the Convict Establishment, and despite their escape, the men remained broken, Devoy noted. He’d known them as soldiers, and he was not prepared for the changes that ten years under the “iron discipline of England’s prison system had wrought in some of them.”
Still, the Fenians had reinvigorated the spirits of their fellow Irish nationalists at home and abroad, and the tale of their escape inspired generations to come through both song and story.
So come you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away.
* The Real McKenzies “The Catalpa,” 10,000 Shots, 2005, Fat Wreck Chords
Books: Zephaniah Walter Pease, Capt. George S. Anthony, Commander of the Catalpa: The Catalpa Expedition, New Bedford, Mass, G. S. Anthony Publication, 1897. Peter F. Stevens, The Voyage of the Catalpa: A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom, Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2002. John DeVoy, Edited by Philip Fennell and Marie King, John Devoy’s Catalpa Expedition, New York University Press, 2006. Joseph Cummins, History’s Great Untold Stories: Larger Than Life Characters & Dramatic Events that Changed the World, National Geographic Society, 2006.
Articles: “The Escaped Fenians,” New York Times, June 11, 1876. “The Rescued Irishmen,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1876. “The Fenian Escape,” by J. O’Reilly, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 23, 1876. “The Arrival,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 20, 1876. “Irish Escape,” Secrets of the Dead, PBS.org, Thirteen/WNET New York, 2007, http://video.pbs.org/video/1282032064/ “Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel,” Ask About Ireland, (John Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel: A Personal Narrative by John Devoy, Chase D. Young Company, 1929.) http://www.askaboutireland.ie/aai-files/assets/ebooks/ebooks-2011/Recollections-of-an-Irish-rebel/DEVOY_RECOLLECTIONS%20OF%20AN%20IRISH%20REBEL.pdf ”Over the Sea and Far Away: The Catalpa and Fenians,” by J.G. Burdette, September 13, 2012, http://jgburdette.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/over-the-sea-and-far-away-the-catalpa-and-fenians/ “Catalpa (The Rescue) A Brief Compilation of the Major Points of the Catalpa Rescue Story,” by Paul T. Meagher, Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, http://friendlysonsofsaintpatrick.com/2010/09/catalpa-the-rescue/.
March 8, 2013
Tom Johnson was one of those extraordinary characters that history throws up in times of crisis. Born in 1772 to Irish parents, he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves and was earning his own living as a smuggler by the age of 12. At least twice, he made remarkable escapes from prison. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, his well-deserved reputation for extreme daring saw him hired–despite his by then extensive criminal record–to pilot a pair of covert British naval expeditions.
But Johnson also has a stranger claim to fame, one that has gone unmentioned in all but the most obscure of histories. In 1820–or so he claimed–he was offered the sum of £40,000 [equivalent to $3 million now] to rescue the emperor Napoleon from bleak exile on the island of St. Helena. This escape was to be effected in an incredible way–down a sheer cliff, using a bosun’s chair, to a pair of primitive submarines waiting off shore. Johnson had to design the submarines himself, since his plot was hatched decades before the invention of the first practical underwater craft.
The tale begins with the emperor himself. As the inheritor of the French Revolution–the outstanding event of the age, and the one that, more than any other, caused rich and privileged elites to sleep uneasy in their beds–the Corsican became the terror of half of Europe; as an unmatched military genius, the invader of Russia, conqueror of Italy, Germany and Spain, and architect of the Continental System, he was also (in British eyes at least) the greatest monster of his day. In the English nursery he was “Boney,” a bogeyman who hunted down naughty children and gobbled them up; in France he was a beacon of chauvinism. His legend was only burnished when, defeated, apparently conclusively, in 1814 by a grand coalition of all his enemies, he was imprisoned on the small Italian island of Elba–only to escape, return to France, and, in the campaign famously known as the Hundred Days, unite his whole nation behind him again. His final defeat, at Waterloo, left the British determined to take no further chances with him. Exile to St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic 1,200 miles from the nearest land, was intended to make further escape impossible.
March 1, 2013
In July of 1852, a 32-year-old novelist named Herman Melville had high hopes for his new novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, despite the book’s mixed reviews and tepid sales. That month he took a steamer to Nantucket for his first visit to the Massachusetts island, home port of his novel’s mythic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod. Like a tourist, Melville met local dignitaries, dined out and took in the sights of the village he had previously only imagined.
And on his last day on Nantucket he met the broken-down 60-year-old man who had captained the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident that had inspired Melville’s novel. Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.
Melville had written about Pollard briefly in Moby-Dick, and only with regard to the whale sinking his ship. During his visit, Melville later wrote, the two merely “exchanged some words.” But Melville knew Pollard’s ordeal at sea did not end with the sinking of the Essex, and he was not about to evoke the horrific memories that the captain surely carried with him. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”
Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”
The trouble for Essex began, as Melville knew, on August 14, 1819, just two days after it left Nantucket on a whaling voyage that was supposed to last two and a half years. The 87-foot-long ship was hit by a squall that destroyed its topgallant sail and nearly sank it. Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.
To restock, the Essex anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard’s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the Essex had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called “Nantucket sleigh rides.” Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the Essex to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale—85 feet in length, he estimated—lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the Essex, “coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would recall—at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.”
The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, “Here he is—he is making for us again.” Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed—this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.
The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the Essex turned over on its side.
Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the Essex in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.
Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, “had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.”
The men were unwilling to leave the doomed Essex as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men. They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them—but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew’s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands. (According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, although rumors of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.)
Thus they left the Essex aboard their 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard’s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land—Henderson Island—two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they’d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.
By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.
Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.
Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.
Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”
By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.
Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”
The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island; three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.
Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)
Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.
By 1852, Melville and Moby-Dick had begun their own slide into obscurity. Despite the author’s hopes, his book sold but a few thousand copies in his lifetime, and Melville, after a few more failed attempts at novels, settled into a reclusive life and spent 19 years as a customs inspector in New York City. He drank and suffered the death of his two sons. Depressed, he abandoned novels for poetry. But George Pollard’s fate was never far from his mind. In his poem Clarel he writes of
A night patrolman on the quay
Watching the bales till morning hour
Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.
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Books: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale, 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers. Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, 2000, Penguin Books. Thomas Nickerson, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, 2000, Penguin Classics. Owen Chase, Narrative of the Whale-Ship Essex of Nantucket, 2006, A RIA Press Edition. Alex MacCormick, The Mammoth Book of Maneaters, 2003, Carroll & Graf Publishers. Joseph S. Cummins, Cannibals: Shocking True Tales of the Last Taboo on Land and at Sea, 2001, The Lyons Press. Evan L. Balkan, Shipwrecked: Deadly Adventures and Disasters at Sea, 2008, Menasha Ridge Press.
Articles: “The Whale and the Horror,” by Nathaniel Philbrick, Vanity Fair, May, 2000. “Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?” by Susan Beegel, The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/hn/HN-fall1991-beegel.html. ”Herman Melville and Nantucket,” The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/faq/melville.html. Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, “Biography: Herman Melville,” American Experience, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/whaling-melville/. “No Moby-Dick: A Real Captain, Twice Doomed,” by Jesse McKinley, New York Times, February 11, 2011. “The Essex Disaster,” by Walter Karp, American Heritage, April/May, 1983, Volume 34, Issue 3. “Essex (whaleship),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_(whaleship). ”Account of the Ship Essex Sinking, 1819-1821., Thomas Nickerson, http://www.galapagos.to/TEXTS/NICKERSON.HTM