The sinking of the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket, Massachusetts, was the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Illustration by Thomas Nickerson, courtesy the Nantucket Historical Association

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

    suitable or good enough.

    agility Noun

    ability to move quickly, easily, and with flexibility.

    blubber Noun

    thick layer of fat under the skin of marine mammals.

    Encyclopedic Entry: blubber
    cannibal Noun

    organism that eats the meat of members of its own species.

    cosmetics Noun

    substances applied to the body to make it appear more attractive.

    encounter Verb

    to meet, especially unexpectedly.

    enormous Adjective

    very large.

    fleet Noun

    group of ships, usually organized for military purposes.

    freshwater Noun

    water that is not salty.

    harpoon Noun

    long, sharp tool mostly used for hunting whales and large ocean fish.

    incident Noun

    event or happening.

    inspire Verb

    to influence to act.

    island Noun

    body of land surrounded by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: island
    lubricant Noun

    substance (such as grease or oil) used to reduce friction.

    lucrative Adjective

    profitable or money-making.

    machinery Noun

    mechanical appliances or tools used in manufacturing.

    novel Noun

    fictional narrative or story.

    oil Noun

    slippery, greasy liquid that is usually flammable and does not mix with water. Oils can be processed from plants, animal fats, minerals, and man-made substances.

    pod Noun

    group of whales or dolphins.

    population Noun

    total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

    port Noun

    place on a body of water where ships can tie up or dock and load and unload cargo.

    Encyclopedic Entry: port
    radically Adverb

    completely or extremely.

    ram Verb

    to shove or push forcefully.

    reduce Verb

    to lower or lessen.

    refine Verb

    to make more pure or clean.

    sleigh Noun

    vehicle on flat runners, pulled by animals and used for transport across snow or ice.

    substance Noun

    physical material.

    survive Verb

    to live.

    voyage Noun

    long journey or trip.

    whaling Noun

    industry of hunting whales.