August 8, 2013
The USS Indianapolis had delivered the crucial components of first operational atomic bomb to a naval base on the Pacific island of Tinian. On August 6, 1945, the weapon would level Hiroshima. But now, on July 28, the Indianapolis sailed from Guam, without an escort, to meet the battleship USS Idaho in the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines and prepare for an invasion of Japan.
The next day was quiet, with the Indianapolis making about 17 knots through swells of five or six feet in the seemingly endless Pacific. As the sun set over the ship, the sailors played cards and read books; some spoke with the ship’s priest, Father Thomas Conway.
But shortly after midnight, a Japanese torpedo hit the Indianapolis in the starboard bow, blowing almost 65 feet of the ship’s bow out of the water and igniting a tank containing 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel into a pillar of fire shooting several hundred feet into the sky. Then another torpedo from the same submarine hit closer to midship, hitting fuel tanks and powder magazines and setting off a chain reaction of explosions that effectively ripped the Indianapolis in two. Still traveling at 17 knots, the Indianapolis began taking on massive amounts of water; the ship sank in just 12 minutes. Of the 1,196 men aboard, 900 made it into the water alive. Their ordeal—what is considered the worst shark attack in history—was just beginning.
As the sun rose on July 30, the survivors bobbed in the water. Life rafts were scarce. The living searched for the dead floating in the water and appropriated their lifejackets for survivors who had none. Hoping to keep some semblance of order, survivors began forming groups—some small, some over 300—in the open water. Soon enough they would be staving off exposure, thirst—and sharks.
The animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. Though many species of shark live in the open water, none is considered as aggressive as the oceanic whitetip. Reports from the Indianapolis survivors indicate that the sharks tended to attack live victims close to the surface, leading historians to believe that most of the shark-related causalities came from oceanic whitetips.
The first night, the sharks focused on the floating dead. But the survivors’ struggles in the water only attracted more and more sharks, which could feel their motions through a biological feature known as a lateral line: receptors along their bodies that pick up changes in pressure and movement from hundreds of yards away. As the sharks turned their attentions toward the living, especially the injured and the bleeding, sailors tried to quarantine themselves away from anyone with an open wound, and when someone died, they would push the body away, hoping to sacrifice the corpse in return for a reprieve from a shark’s jaw. Many survivors were paralyzed with fear, unable even to eat or drink from the meager rations they had salvaged from their ship. One group of survivors made the mistake of opening a can of Spam—but before they could taste it, the scent of the meat drew a swarm of sharks around them. They got rid of their meat rations rather than risk a second swarming.
The sharks fed for days, with no sign of rescue for the men. Navy intelligence had intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that had torpedoed the Indianapolis describing how it had sunk an American battleship along the Indianapolis’ route, but the message was disregarded as a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush. In the meantime, the Indianapolis survivors learned that they had the best odds in a group, and ideally in the center of the group. The men on the margins or, worse, alone, were the most susceptible to the sharks.
As the days passed, many survivors succumbed to heat and thirst, or suffered hallucinations that compelled them to drink the seawater around them—a sentence of death by salt poisoning. Those who so slaked their thirst would slip into madness, foaming at the mouth as their tongues and lips swelled. They often became as great a threat to the survivors as the sharks circling below—many dragged their comrades underwater with them as they died.
After 11:00 a.m. on their fourth day in the water, a Navy plane flying overhead spotted the Indianapolis survivors and radioed for help. Within hours, another seaplane, manned by Lieutenant Adrian Marks, returned to the scene and dropped rafts and survival supplies. When Marks saw men being attacked by sharks, he disobeyed orders and landed in the infested waters, and then began taxiing his plane to help the wounded and stragglers, who were at the greatest risk. A little after midnight, the USS Doyle arrived on the scene and helped to pull the last survivors from the water. Of the Indianapolis’ original 1,196-man crew, only 317 remained. Estimates of the number who died from shark attacks range from a few dozen to almost 150. It’s impossible to be sure. But either way, the ordeal of the Indianapolis survivors remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. naval history.
Sources: Richard Bedser. Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever [Documentary]. Discovery Channel: United States, 2007; Cathleen Bester. “Oceanic Whitetip Shark,” On the Florida Museum of Natural History. Accessed August 7, 2013; Nick Collins. “Oceanic whitetip shark: ten facts,” On Telegraph UK, December 6, 2010. Accessed August 6, 2013; Tom Harris. “How Sharks Work,” On How Stuff Works, March 30, 2001. Accessed August 6, 2013; Alex Last. “USS Indianapolis sinking: ‘You could see sharks circling’” on BBC News Magazine, July 28, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2013; Raymond B. Leach. The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000; Marc Nobleman. The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishers, 2006; “Oral History -The Sinking of USS Indianapolis,” On Naval Historical Center, September 1, 1999. Accessed August 7, 2013; “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis, 1945.” On Eyewitness to History, 2006. Accessed August 6, 2013; Doug Stanton. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. New York, NY: Macmillan, 2003; “The Story.” On the USS Indianapolis CA-35, March 1998. Accessed August 6, 2013; Jennifer Viegas. “Worst Shark Attack,” On Discovery Channel. Accessed August 6, 2013.
June 20, 2013
There has always been something otherworldly about Hokkaido. It is the most northerly of the four great land masses that make up Japan, and although separated from the mainland, Honshu, by a strait only a few miles wide, the island remains geologically and geographically distinct. Spiked with mountains, thick with forests, and never more than sparsely populated, it has a stark and wintry beauty that sets it apart from the more temperate landscapes to the south.
Hokkaido is such a familiar feature on maps of Japan that it is easy to forget what a recent addition it is to both the nation and the state. It does not appear in Japanese chronicles until around 1450, and was not formally incorporated into greater Japan until 1869. As late as 1650, the island was known as “Ezo,” and was a distant frontier zone, only tenuously controlled from Edo (modern Tokyo). Even in the 1740s, Tessa Morris-Suzuki notes, maps of the region still showed it “disappearing over the horizon and petering out in a splash of unconvincing islands.” And while it seems always to have possessed a small population of Japanese hunters and merchants, Hokkaido was home to, and for the most part run by, a significantly larger group of indigenous tribes known collectively as the Ainu.
It was not until the 1660s that Japan asserted its dominance over Hokkaido, and when it did it was as a result of one of the most self-evidently doomed rebellions known to history. Shakushain’s revolt, they called it, after the octogenerian Ainu chief who led it, pitting 30,000 or so ill-organized tribesmen against a nation of 25 million, and stone age military technology against the modern firearms of Japan. He lost, of course; just one Japanese soldier died fighting the rebels, and Shakushain himself was ruthlessly assassinated as soon as a peace treaty was signed. But while the Ainu suffered in the short term–enduring an influx of Japanese onto their island, and ever harsher terms of trade–it no longer seems quite so clear who the real victors were in the long run. Today, Shakushain has become an inspiration to new generations of Ainu nationalists.
The roots of Shakushain’s revolt lie buried in Japan’s prehistory. The Ainu–the word means “most humanly beings”–are a people of obscure origins whose closest links are with the natives of Siberia. Yet at some point in the distant past there must have been wars between the Ainu and the Japanese, which the Ainu lost. There is evidence, in the form of place-names, that their range once extended deep into the mainland, perhaps even as far south as the latitude of Tokyo itself–but by the first years of the 17th century they were confined to Hokkaido and the Kuril chain, and found themselves under increasing pressure to yield what remained of their commerce to the merchants and the warriors of Japan.
As for the causes of Shakushain’s revolt: There can be no doubt that trade–specifically, Japan’s determination to ensure it got the best of every deal made in Hokkaido–was the trigger. But as tensions on the island rose, threats were made by the outnumbered local Japanese that amounted to promises of genocide. For that reason, the main dispute between historians who study this little-noticed episode revolves around a single question: Is the Ainu’s struggle best be seen as an economic or a racial conflict–or even as a war of independence?
It does not help that the centuries separating the development of an Ainu culture in Hokkaido after 660 from Shakushain’s rebellion in 1669 are only sketchily illuminated, more so by anthropology and archaeology than by the historian’s craft. But it is now generally agreed that the Ainu moshir–”Ainu-land”–remained culturally distinct throughout this period. The Ainu were hunters, not gatherers; they fished for salmon and tracked bear and deer. Religious life centered on shamans and an annual bear festival, during which (it was believed) the divine spirit of a captured bear was freed by sacrificing it. The main exports of Ainu-land were hawks, bears’ livers and dried fish, which were exchanged for metalware, lacquer bowls, sake and the rice that was so hard to grow in northern latitudes. Meanwhile, the Japanese presence on Hokkaido remained almost entirely confined to a tiny enclave on the island’s southernmost promontory.
It was only after 1600 that relations between the Ainu and the Japanese reached a tipping point, and Japan became distinctly the senior partner in both diplomacy and trade. The change coincided with momentous events in Honshu. The Tokugawa shogunate, established in 1603, restored peace, stability and unity to the country after more than a century of war and civil war; the new ruling family shifted the capital to Edo (now Tokyo), thoroughly reorganized the feudal system, and suppressed Christianity. The mid-1630s saw the introduction of the policy of sakoku–which may be roughly translated as “locking the country”–under which practically all trade with the outside world was prohibited, foreigners were expelled from Japan, and others were forbidden, on pain of death, from entering imperial territory. The Japanese were not permitted to leave, and trade with the outside world was permitted only through four “gateways.” One of these was Nagasaki, where Chinese vessels were cautiously admitted and the Dutch were permitted to unload a handful of vessels annually on an artificial island in the harbor. Another, on Tsushima, conducted business with Korea; a third was located in the Ryukyu Islands. The fourth gateway was the Japanese enclave on Hokkaido, where trade was permitted with Ainu-land.
Sakoku, the historian Donald Keene notes, exacerbated a Japanese tendency
to see foreigners (and particularly Europeans) as a special variety of goblin that bore only superficial resemblance to a normal human being. The usual name given to the Dutch was komo or “red hairs,” a name intended more to suggest a demonic being than to describe the actual coloring of the foreigners’ hair. The Portuguese had also at one time been declared by the shogunate to possess “cat’s eyes, huge noses, red hair and shrike’s tongues.”
The Ainu, likewise, were objects of suspicion. They were typically shorter and stockier than most Japanese, and had considerably more body hair. Ainu men cultivated long beards, a most un-Japanese trait. They were also not disposed to yield to increasing pressure from the south. There was fighting between the Ainu and the Japanese in 1456-57 (an outbreak known as “Koshamain’s rebellion“), from 1512 until 1515, and again in 1528-31 and 1643. In each case, the issue was trade. And each time, the Ainu lost.
This growing imbalance of power accelerated after 1600. By then, the Japanese had firearms in the shape of matchlock muskets, which they had acquired from the Portuguese, while the Ainu still depended on spears and bows and arrows. Japan had also become a unified state at a time when the people of Hokkaido still lived in warring tribal groupings, lacking (Shinʼichirō Takakura notes) an economy large enough to support any “permanent political organization”–or, indeed, a standing army. The largest Ainu polity of the 17th century was only 300 people strong.
The shogun’s authority, admittedly, was not absolute. Rather, it was exercised through several hundred daimyo–feudal lords who lived in castles, collected taxes and maintained order in their districts with the help of samurai. For the most part, the daimyo maintained a sort of semi-independence that became more entrenched the further from the capital they were based. Certainly Japan’s representatives in the northernmost parts of Honshu, the Matsumae clan, were reluctant to invite interference from Edo, and a missionary who visited their territory in 1618 was curtly informed that “Matsumae is not Japan.”
Japan’s feudal system helped to shape the course of Shakushain’s revolt. Matsumae was the smallest and the weakest of all Japan’s lordships. It could muster only 80 samurai, and, uniquely among all the daimyo, lived by trade rather than agriculture. Matsumae imported the rice it needed from the south, and the Ainu were, thus, vital to its survival; the trade in hawks alone–sold on to other daimyo further to the south–accounted for half the clan’s annual revenues. It was the urgent need to make money that led Matsumae to carve out an enclave north of the Tsugaru Strait, which was ruled from Fukuyama Castle. The creation of this small sliver of Japan in Hokkaido was, in turn, the proximate cause of the Ainu rebellion, and had Shakushain confronted only Matsumae, it is possible that his people might have triumphed by sheer weight of numbers. As it was, however, the shogunate was unwilling to tolerate the possibility of military defeat. Two neighbouring daimyo were ordered to go the Matsumae’s aid, and it is thanks to the records kept by one of them that we have a tolerably independent account of what transpired on Hokkaido in the 1660s.
As late as the 1590s, Hokkaido’s natives had retained almost complete control over the resources of their island; they caught hawks, speared fish, shot deer and trapped bears, paddled their canoes to Japanese ports, and there chose the merchants to whom they were prepared to sell their salmon, furs and birds of prey. The trade was quite profitable. “Many Ainu families,” Morris-Suzuki says, “acquired collections of lacquer-ware and Japanese swords which would have been far beyond the reach of the average Japanese farmer.”
All this changed, though, in the 17th century. First gold was discovered on Hokkaido in 1631, leading to a rapid influx of Japanese miners and the establishment of mining camps in the island’s interior–the first time that any Japanese had settled there. These incomers were not policed by Matsumae, and behaved toward the Ainu as they pleased. Then, in 1644, the shogunate granted Matsumae a monopoly over all trade with Hokkaido. This was a catastrophic decision from the Ainu point of view, since–by dealing selectively with several daimyo–they had hitherto managed to keep the prices of their products high. Matsumae wasted no time in exploiting its new rights; after 1644, Ainu canoes were forbidden to call at Japanese ports. Instead, Matsumae merchants began setting up fortified trading bases on Hokkaido itself, from which they made take-it-or-leave-it offers to buy what they wanted.
Some Ainu resisted, advocating a retreat to the interior and a return to their traditional way of life. But the lure of imported rice and metal was too much. Trade therefore continued on the new terms, and it was not long before the situation deteriorated further. Matsumae began netting the mouths of rivers, catching salmon before they could ascend to the spawning grounds where the Ainu speared them. The islanders were also angered to discover that Matsumae had unilaterally changed the exchange rate for their goods. As one chieftain complained:
Trading conditions were one sack of rice containing two to [10 gallons] for five bundles of dried salmon [100 fish]. Recently they have started giving us only seven or eight sho [4 gallons] of rice for the same amount of fish. Since we people have no power of refusal we are obliged to do as they please.
This combination of lower prices and fewer resources quickly caused a crisis in Ainu-land. By the 1650s, tribes along Hokkaido’s eastern coast, where most of Matsumae’s trading forts were located, had begun to turn upon one another. This sporadic warfare encouraged dozens of small communities scattered along the banks of Hokkaido’s rivers to coalesce. By 1660 there were several powerful chieftains on the island, and of these, the two greatest were Onibishi (who led a confederation known as the Hae) and Shakushain, who as early as 1653 ruled over the Shibuchari. The two men lived in villages only eight miles apart, and there had been rivalry between them for years; Onibishi’s father had fought with Shakushain’s, and Shakushain’s immediate predecessor had been killed by Onibishi. Shakushain’s tribe was the larger, but gold had been found on Onibishi’s land, and Matsumae thus favored the Hae.
Little is known of Shakushain himself. The one Japanese eyewitness to describe him wrote that he was “about 80 years old, and a really big man, about the size of three ordinary men.” But most historians of the period trace the origins of his revolt to sporadic conflict between the Hae Ainu and the Shibuchari that began as early as 1648 and came to a head in 1666, when Shakushain’s tribe committed the unforgivable sin of refusing to provide a cub for sacrifice by the Hae during the annual bear festival. The plea that Onibishi made on this occasion reflects decades of gradually worsening economic prospects: “My land is very unhappy, as we have not been able to capture even one bear.”
The increasing scarcity of resources probably explains the determination of both Ainu tribes to prevent poaching on their territory, and this escalated the conflict. In the summer of 1667, a Hae Ainu hunter related to Onibishi ventured onto Shakushain’s land and trapped a valuable crane. When the trespass was discovered, the hunter was killed, and when Onibishi demanded 300 tsugunai (compensatory gifts), Shakushain sent a miserly 11.
The result was what amounted to a blood feud. The Shibuchari raided their neighbors, killing two of Onibishi’s brothers; soon, Onibishi and his remaining men were surrounded in a Japanese mining camp. Shakushain gave the order to attack, and Onibishi was killed and the camp burned to the ground. The Hae retaliated in kind, but in July 1668 their main fortress fell and the Ainu’s civil war was over.
Shakushain must have realized that by attacking a Matsumae mining camp he was in effect declaring war on Japan, but his defeat of the Hae opened up fresh possibilities. The Shibuchari followed up their victory by assembling a coalition of other Ainu tribes that they hoped would be strong enough to resist the inevitable counterattack. Many Ainu were feeling so desperate by the late 1660s that the members of 19 eastern tribes were willing to set aside their differences and form a formidable coalition that probably mustered at least 3,000 fighting men.
What set Shakushain apart from other Ainu rebels is what he did with the force he had assembled. Ainu resistance hitherto had been almost entirely defensive; the odd arrogant merchant might be ambushed and killed, but the Ainu seem to have recognized the likely futility of launching an all-out attack on the Japanese. In June 1669, however, Shakushain decided to ignore the lessons of history. He ordered an attack on all the isolated mining camps, Matsumae trading forts and Japanese merchant ships in Hokkaido–and it says much for the Ainu’s improving organization, and his own standing as a leader, that the result was a well coordinated assault that rained down destruction all along Hokkaido’s coasts.
More than 270 Japanese died in the attacks, and 19 merchant ships were destroyed. Half the coast was devastated, and only about 20 of the Japanese living outside Matsumae’s enclave on Hokkaido survived the massacres. Once word got out, officials at Fukuyama Castle were faced with general panic among the merchants and civilians living in the enclave.
It was only at this point that Matsumae seems to have realized that things were getting out of hand in Ainu-land. The destruction of the mining camp was not only a blow to trade and a direct challenge to the clan’s assumed supremacy in Hokkaido; the mustering of a substantial Ainu army also represented a genuine threat to its security. That Matsumae was forced–albeit reluctantly–to report the disasters of 1669 to Edo and accept help from the neighboring daimyo seems proof that the position was considered serious. The first preparations for war, moreover, show how uncertain the Japanese were of their position; a good deal of effort was plowed into the construction of defensive positions, and there seems to have been no thought yet of taking the offensive.
Meanwhile, Shakushain did his best to retain the initiative. An Ainu army advanced south and covered about half the distance to Fukuyama Castle before it encountered an advance guard of Japanese troops near Etomo. A few days later the two forces met further south, at Kunnui, but poor weather and high rivers dented the Ainu assault. When Shakushain’s men came under sustained musket fire from the Matsumae’s samurai, they were forced to retreat. This skirmish proved to be the main engagement of the war.
The Japanese army was not large; at first it was only 80 strong, and even after reinforcements arrived from other daimyo in northern Honshu it numbered no more than 700. In terms of arms and armor, though, Matsumae’s advantage was decisive. As “peasants,” the Ainu had no right to bear arms in feudal Japan. Their most effective weapons were aconite-tipped poison arrows, which they made by dipping arrowheads first in fir resin and then in a bowl of dried, ground wolfsbane. These arrows had long caused consternation among the Japanese, who expended significant effort, unsuccessfully, to uncover the secret of their manufacture. In action, however, they proved ineffective, since the Ainu’s under-powered bows were unable to penetrate samurai armor, or even the cotton-wadded jackets worn by ordinary foot-soldiers.
With Shakushain now in retreat, the revolt was ended a month or so later by the arrival of substantial reinforcements from Honshu. Counterattacks burned a large number of Ainu forts and canoes, and by October, Shakushain had been surrounded; at the end of that month, he surrendered. The Ainu threat was ended shortly thereafter when, at a drinking party held to celebrate peace, an old Matsumae samurai named Sato Ganza’emon arranged the murder of the unarmed Shakushain and three other Ainu generals. “Being unable to fight back,” an eyewitness reported, “Shakushain arose [and] gave a big glare in all directions, shouting loudly, ‘Ganza’emon, you deceived me! What a dirty trick you pulled.’ [He then] squatted on the ground like a statue. Keeping this posture, Shakushain was killed without moving his hands.” The Shibuchari’s main fortress was then burned down.
Even so, it took three years for Matsumae to complete the pacification of Ainu-land, and although the outcome was scarcely in doubt, it was nonetheless a compromise. The peace treaty bound the Ainu to swear allegiance to Matsumae and to trade solely with the Japanese. There was a considerable expansion in the Japanese presence in the far north, and soon 60 new Matsumae trading posts were operating in Hokkaido, driving such hard bargains that several Ainu settlements were reported to be on the verge of starvation. On the other hand, the Ainu retained formal autonomy through most of their island, and even won some important concessions on the rice-fish exchange rate that had sparked the uprising in the first place.
Why, though, murder Shakushain? His forces had been defeated; it was clear that, even united, the Ainu were no match for the armies of the northern daimyo, much less a threat to Japan itself. The answer seems to lie in the shogunate’s sketchy knowledge of the outside world–a problem that must surely have been exacerbated by the sakoku edits of the 1630s. Brett Walker explains that the Japanese were swayed by fantastic rumors that the Ainu had established an alliance with a much more dangerous “barbarian” kingdom, the Tatars of Orankai, who wielded power in southern Manchuria; for a while there seemed to be a threat that they and the Jurchens might combine forces and lead an invasion of Japan that would succeed where Kublai Khan had failed four centuries earlier. For Edo, this must have seemed no empty threat; another northern people, the Manchus, had only recently completed their conquest of China, overthrowing the Ming dynasty.
Certainly relations between Japan and Ainu-land shifted fundamentally after 1669. Thenceforth, while the Ainu retained much of their old de facto independence, it was rendered increasingly worthless by the de jure peace settlement they had signed. ”What is clear from the historical record,” writes Danika Medak-Saltzman, “is that what was once a relationship of mutual exchange…turned into a system of tribute and then into a trade monopoly.” The Ainu were compelled to sell what they had–both goods and labor–at prices determined by the Japanese. Their canoes no longer appeared in Honshu ports, and those unable to support themselves by hunting were compelled to work as what amounted to forced labor in fish-processing plants on the mainland at about a seventh of the rate paid to Japanese.
The thing that made the greatest difference, though, was the ever-widening gap between Japan’s perception of the Ainu and its perception of itself. After 1854, Medak-Saltzman notes–when Japan was forced by a U.S. Navy squadron to reopen its frontiers–its government was prone to see Hokkaido as the Japanese equivalent of the American Wild West, complete with its own “Indian problem.” It took only the few weeks of Shakushain’s revolt to cement this reputation; it has taken the best part of two more centuries to dispel it, and for Ainu history to be perceived as something worth studying in its own right.
Stuart Eldridge. “On the arrow poison in use among the Ainos of Yezo.” In Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 4 (1888); David Howell. Capitalism From Within: Economy, Society and the State in a Japanese Fishery. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; Kiyama Hideaki. “Shakushain’s Revolt of 1669: A Study of a War between the Ainu and the Japanese.” In Bulletin of the College of Foreign Studies I (1979); Donald Keene. The Japanese Discovery of Europe: 1720-1830. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969; Danika Fawn Medak-Saltzman. Staging Empire: The Display and Erasure of of Indigenous Peoples in Japanese and American Nation-Building Projects (1860-1904). Unpublished University of California, Berkeley PhD dissertation, 2008; Tessa Morris-Suzuki. “Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan’s Far North.” In East Asian History 7 (1994; Sir George Sansom. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958 Richard Siddle. Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan. London: Routledge, 1996; Tom Svensson. “The Ainu.” In Richard B. Lee and Richard Daly (eds). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge: CUP, 1999; Shinʼichirō Takakura. “The Ainu of northern Japan: a study in conquest and acculturation.” In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 50 (1960); Brett Walker. The Conquest of the Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; Brett Walker, “Foreign affairs and frontiers in early modern Japan: a historiographical essay.” In Foreign Affairs & Frontiers, 2002.
June 17, 2013
Along the Los Angeles beach between Venice and Ocean Park, a small group of mourners wandered aimlessly, occasionally dropping to the sand to pray—unable to stop their tears. “Aimee is with Jesus; pray for her,” they chanted. A Coast Guard cutter patrolled just offshore as deep-sea divers plunged into the water. Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist, faith-healer, founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church and builder of the Angelus Temple, was believed to have disappeared during a swim on May 18, 1926. In the hours that followed, rescuers were sparing no effort to find her.
“God wouldn’t let her die,” one of her believers told a reporter. “She was too noble. Her work was too great. Her mission was not ended. She can’t be dead.”
Already, one young church member had drowned herself in her grief. Soon after that, a diver died while trying to find McPherson’s body.
In the coming days, her followers would dynamite the waters of Santa Monica bay, hoping to raise her body from the depths. Yet the blasts surfaced only dead fish, and the passing time merely gave rise to countless rumors. She’d disappeared to have an abortion. Or plastic surgery. Or an affair. As the days turned to weeks, McPherson’s body, much to the chagrin of police and the California Fish and Game Commission, remained missing. Soon, witnesses were coming forward to contradict the report, given by McPherson’s secretary, Emma Shaeffer, that the evangelist had vanished shortly after entering the water.
There were accounts from a detective in San Francisco that McPherson was spotted at a railway station there. “I know her well by sight,” the detective said, “and I know that I am not mistaken.” A ransom note delivered to McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, demanded $50,000 for the safe return of her daughter and warned, “Mum’s the word—keep police away.” Meanwhile, some faithful church members, convinced that the evangelist was dead, clung to the belief that she would be resurrected by supernatural powers.
Newspaper headlines trumpeted alleged McPherson sightings in cities across the United States. Another ransom letter surfaced—this one promising to sell the evangelist into “white slavery” unless a half-million dollars was paid in cash. Convinced her daughter was already dead, Minnie Kennedy threw away the letter. By the summer of 1926, no woman in America commanded more headlines than the vanished “Sister Aimee.”
The woman at the center of this media storm was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 to a religious family on a farm in Ontario, Canada. But unlike her Methodist parents, she questioned her faith at a young age and began to rebel against her “tambourine-thumping Salvation Army” mother by reading novels and attending movies.
Yet when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution made its way into Canadian schools, Aimee rebelled again—this time, against evolution. (In 1925, she would support the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial.) Before her 18th birthday, she married an Irish Pentecostal missionary named Robert Semple, became pregnant, and set off for Asia on an evangelical tour. But the young couple contracted malaria, and Robert succumbed to the disease in August 1910. Aimee gave birth one month later to Roberta Star Semple and returned to the United States.
In 1912, she married an accountant, Harold Steward McPherson, but after giving birth to a son, Rolf McPherson, and trying to settle into a life as a housewife in Providence, Rhode Island, Aimee felt a sudden calling to preach the Gospel. In 1915, she ran out on her husband, taking the children, and hit the road in a Packard touring car (“Jesus is Coming Soon—Get Ready” painted on the side), preaching in tent revivals and churches across the country.
As a female preacher and something of a Pentecostal novelty, Aimee Semple McPherson learned to whip up crowds by speaking in tongues and delivering faith-healing demonstrations in which crutches were tossed aside and the blind were made to see. By 1922, she was breaking attendance records set by the biggest evangelical names at the time, such as Billy Sunday, the former baseball star. In San Diego, more than 30,000 people turned out for one of her events, and the Marines had to be called in for crowd control. There, McPherson laid hands on a supposedly paralyzed woman who rose from her chair and walked. The audience reached a frenzy.
The constant travel began to take its toll, and McPherson decided to settle down in Los Angeles, where she raised funds to build the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. She packed the 5,300-capacity building in services held seven days a week. Her style was light-hearted and whimsical at times, yet she spoke and sang with power and passion.
By the spring of 1926, McPherson had become a phenomenon—a household name across America. So it came as a surprise to the faithful on May 18, 1926, when McPherson did not arrive at the temple to preach the scheduled sermon and her mother stood in. By the next day, the entire nation was in shock at the news that Sister Aimee had disappeared and likely drowned.
But the prayers of many were soon to be answered: After a month of mourning and unending rumor, McPherson turned up in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a small Mexican town just south of Douglas, Arizona. She claimed to have walked across the “burning sands” of the desert to flee kidnappers and then collapsed. She was taken to a hospital, and in a phone call with the staff, Minnie Kennedy confirmed her daughter’s identity by telling them of the location of a scar on her finger and of her daughter’s ability to provide the name of her pet pigeon.
Once she’d recovered from her “state of collapse,” McPherson gave a bedside interview, saying she’d been lured to a car after swimming and taken across the border by three Americans, including a man named Steve and a woman named Rose. She’d been drugged and held in a Mexican shack for weeks, she said, and her captors had planned on keeping her until they’d received a ransom of half a million dollars. But she foiled the plan, she claimed, when she sawed through the ropes that were restraining her and staggered 20 miles through the desert to Agua Prieta.
Minnie Kennedy rushed to Arizona to reunite with her daughter. “My God, Sister McPherson is alive,” she told followers. “Run up the flag on the temple and send out the word broadcast. The Lord has returned his own.”
When McPherson came home, a throng of more than 50,000 showed up at the train station to welcome her. In a massive parade featuring airplanes that dropped roses from the skies, the evangelist made a grand re-entrance. But despite the attendance of Los Angeles officials and dignitaries, not everyone was thrilled. The Chamber of Commerce viewed the event as “gaudy display,” and Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes called for an investigation into the evangelist’s account of a kidnapping.
Within two weeks, McPherson voluntarily appeared before a grand jury as newspapers continued to trumpet accusations of fraud, accompanied by witness “spottings” in Northern California. Gaining the most traction was a story that centered on the fact that Kenneth Ormiston, a married engineer at the Christian radio station KFSG (owned by McPherson’s church) disappeared just when McPherson did. The two worked together on McPherson’s regular broadcasts. Police were dispatched to a cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Ormiston had been seen with an unidentified woman during McPherson’s disappearance. (Ormiston admitted to having an adulterous affair at the time of McPherson’s disappearance, but denied that the stranger known as “Mrs. X” was her.) After dusting the cottage for fingerprints, however, police found none that matched the evangelist’s.
The headlines, gossip and innuendo continued throughout the fall, until a judge determined that there was enough evidence to proceed with the charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice against McPherson. A jury trial was scheduled for January the following year. However, Keyes had begun to determine that some of his witnesses were unreliable, and he decided to drop the charges.
The kidnapping remained unsolved, and the controversy over a possible hoax went unresolved. Critics and supporters alike thought McPherson should have insisted on a trial to clear her name; instead, she gave her account of the kidnapping in her 1927 book, In the Service of the King: The Story of My Life. She would be mocked in the media for years, but the scandal did not diminish her popularity.
McPherson continued to build her church right up until her death in Oakland, California, in 1944, from what the coroner described as most likely an accidental overdose (Seconol was found in the hotel room where she died) “compounded by kidney failure.” The Foursquare Gospel Church was worth millions at the time, and today claims nearly 9 million members worldwide. But when Aimee Semple McPherson’s estate was sorted out, the evangelist had just $10,000 to her name.
Articles: “Divers Seek Body of Woman Preacher,” New York Times, May 21, 1926. “No Trace Found of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, May 29, 1926. “Cast Doubt on Evangelist’s Death in Sea,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1926. “Bay Dynamited to Locate Body of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1926. “Faithful Cling to Waning Hope,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1926. “$25,000 Reward for Evangelist’s Return,” Boston Globe, May 29, 1926. “Kidnap Hoax Exposed,” The Baltimore News, July 26, 1926. “Los Angeles Hails Aimee McPherson,” New York Times, June 27, 1926. “Evangelist Found: Tells Story of Kidnapping,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 24, 1926. “Missing Woman Pastor Found in Douglas, Arizona,” Boston Globe, June 23, 1926. “Aimee Semple McPherson,” Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aimee_Semple_McPherson. “Aimee’s Life,” “Aimee’s Message,” “Aimee’s Religion,” by Anna Robertson, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug00/robertson/asm/background.html. “Sister Aimee,” The American Experience,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/sister/filmmore/index.html
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 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.
Sign up for our free newsletter to receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.
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