In the 19th century, whaling was an extremely dangerous occupation. On November 20th, 1820, the American whaler Essex was just about to find out how dangerous it could be, when nine months into her last voyage, a huge sperm whale, evidently 85 feet long attacked the ship. It smashed into the Essex causing her to sink in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As a result her 20-man crew were left adrift in three rowboats (which were used to hunt whales with hand-thrown harpoons) with little food and water.
Soon after the disaster, the Essex’s crew was left with an important decision, whether to set sail for the nearest islands, a thousand miles to the west or plot a course for South America, even further away at some two thousand miles. It is said that the fear of island cannibals in the Pacific, eventually drove them to take the longer route to South America.
The dangerous journey didn’t go so well for the crew of the Essex. During a period of some three months at sea in their makeshift sailboats, the threat of starvation forced the seasoned whalers to eat the bodies of crewmen who had died. Later when everything else felt completely lost, desperation saw the remaining survivors draw lots to see who would be eaten next. In total, seven crewmen were cannibalized before eight survivors were eventually rescued.
The fate of the old whaler Essex and the record of the ordeal of its crew is one of the most famous maritime stories of the 19th century. In short, its account inspired Herman Melville to write his famous 1851 novel Moby Dick.