The World of the Essex -Spring 2015

by: John Stanton

In the end all that remained was a harrowing story, a nightmare of survival in the Pacific Ocean. Soon after the survivors returned home, the story of their journey to the edge of the known world, the aggressive whale, the fateful decisions, the cannibalism they resorted to in a desperate struggle to stay alive, was carried into pamphlets and books.

First mate Owen Chase finished his book, “Narrative of the Wreck of the Whale-Ship Essex,” with the help of a ghostwriter only nine months after his rescue. That book inspired Herman Melville as he wrote and rewrote “Moby-Dick” in the years leading up to its 1851 publication. It took years for Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, to write his account. By then he was the proprietor of an island boarding house. The notebook containing his account was lost, and not found again until 1960. It was not until 1984 that “The Loss of the Ship Essex; Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats,” was finally published.

Almost two centuries after the fate of the whaling ship unfolded, island author Nat Philbrick pored over Nickerson’s book while crafting his own retelling of the story called “In the Heart of the Sea.” The book won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000, and this December director Ron Howard will bring his Hollywood movie, based on Philbrick’s book, to the big screen.

The story of the Essex has been told and retold almost from the moment the survivors made it back home.

“There are both historians and people interested more in entertainment and they pick up this story and tell it in ways to suit their purposes,” said Michael Harrison, the Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator at the Nantucket Historical Association.

“There are children’s books from the 19th century that tell the story of the Essex and use it as a moral tale,” he said. “One of the survivors who ended up on Henderson Island was picked up by a British ship and a version of this story is told by the religious tract society in England and it has a very religious, moralistic bent to it, because that suited the needs of those publishers. The story gets used and reused.”

On April 24, the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum will open an exhibition based around the ill-fated Nantucket whaling ship. As he prepares the exhibition, Harrison, who is creating and overseeing his first exhibition for the museum, is faced with an interesting dilemma: How do you create a museum exhibition around an event that lives on more through story than through artifacts?

“An exhibition relies on you walking through a space looking at real objects, reading a few words but not too many,” Harrison said.

“An exhibition needs to be worth standing up and walking through and committing to real things. That’s the central challenge of doing this story. The NHA is lucky to have all the objects we know about from this disaster, but that amounts to three or four.”

Those artifacts include a length of twine that crew member Benjamin Lawrence made to keep himself busy during the ordeal, and a trunk that was found by another whaling ship, in the area where the Essex sank, reputed to be from the ship.

We chose to tell a story about what happened to these men, but also look at the context in which they were working and sailing,” Harrison said. “If you look at Nantucket in 1819 and 1820, the place these guys were sailing from, then we have a great deal of artifacts.”

Such a contextual approach, he said, begins with everyday life in the days before the Essex sailed away from her homeport, and how that society influenced the kind of men who would return to the sea so quickly after such a harrowing experience. Captain George Pollard and his first mate Chase were soon back at sea in command of whaling ships. Nickerson sailed with his former captain on the whaler Two Brothers, which was also wrecked on French Frigate Shoals northwest of Hawaii in 1823.

“I think reactions to this event on Nantucket are reflections of who they were,” Harrison said. “It does say something about Nantucket as a place of work and industry, heavily influenced by Quaker thought about thrift and good works and industry, that this happens and nobody lets it get to them, they keep going. I think that’s an important point. And the men involved, we can only imagine it was traumatic, but they’re professional sailors, they need to work, they have a set of skills. What else are they going to do?”

Artifacts from Nantucket in 1819 include both the stuff of everyday life and the powerful connection to the ocean: portraits, silver spoons and samplers commemorating marriages and births, Walter Folger’s astronomical instruments, and fragments from the newly-rebuilt Great Point Lighthouse, which had been destroyed in a fire.

“There were other Nantucket whaling vessels out in the Pacific at the same time,” Harrison said. “So we’re going to have an interactive display about those boats and what happened to them. Nantucket whalers knew a lot about certain parts of the Pacific and less about other parts. This is just at a time when they are heading into the off-shore grounds to hunt, so the scope of the Pacific that Nantucketers knew about is rapidly changing.”

That balance between what they knew about the whaling grounds off the coast of South America and what they were only just learning about the more remote South Pacific whaling grounds is one of the triggers of the story. As they left the sinking Essex and headed off in the whaleboats, Chase talked Pollard into making a disastrous mistake. The Marquesas Islands were considerably closer, but the decision was made to try to sail twice as far and against the wind to South America because Chase had heard there were cannibals on the Marquesas.

“No matter how you look at this, they are not stranded or lost. They know right where they are and are professional sailors who knew they could sail and save themselves,” Harrison said. “But they decide to go back to the land they’re familiar with instead of going to islands they didn’t know very well. And that is the place where the tragedy starts.”

“What I find interesting in all of this and want to stress in the exhibition, is that there were real men involved in this, real men making the decisions through their own experience and knowledge,” he said. “So with the exhibition we are foregrounding who these men were, the decisions they made, and how those decisions were influenced by what they knew.”

The connection to the Marquesas Islands opens up the potential for added artifacts.

Howard’s film version of the sinking of the Essex was originally scheduled to premiere in early March. Warner Brothers has now slated it for a mid-December release. The Whaling Museum exhibit had been planned to coincide with the film’s release. Harrison said the new timing, which means the film will premiere in the middle of the exhibition’s run, may provide a chance for museum visitors to learn the history and then see the film. The exhibition will remain in place through 2015 and then from April 24 to November 2016.

“Hopefully we’re giving visitors a new set of eyes for looking at the film,” he said. “If you know what happened to these men in these boats and then you go watch the film, then maybe you’ll enjoy the film in a different way.”

The Hollywood version of the story will be slightly different than the museum’s version. The biggest swerve away from history is that the narrative of the film is hinged on the conceit that Melville was inspired to write “Moby-Dick” after coming to the island and meeting the now-older Nickerson, who tells him the story of the Essex.

That scene, of course, never happened. “MobyDick” was published in 1851 and Melville did not set foot on the island until 1852. When he was here he sought out Pollard for a chat. Melville’s novel had been very poorly received by both critics and the public, and Pollard, having lost two more ships, was now the island’s night watchman.

Philbrick writes in “In the Heart of the Sea” that Melville would later write of Pollard, “To the islanders he was a nobody – to me the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming even humble – that I have ever encountered.”

Harrison will watch the movie with an eye toward historic accuracy – how can a museum curator not? – although he understands why movies often set aside accuracy in favor of drama. Sometimes the history that is twisted into a different shape for a film is not a dramatic moment, but simply one that seems true to the popular imagination.

Scrimshaw, for example, was such a huge part of American whaling in the popular imagination that you only have to show somebody etching out a scene on a whale tooth to place your film in the whaling days – unless your film is set in 1820.

“Can you imagine doing a movie about whaling that doesn’t have scrimshaw as a background activity?” Harrison said. “Except that there is no scrimshaw going on, by and large, in 1820. We’re showing one piece of scrimshaw in the show from 1819 and it is rare as gold dust. It is not until 10 years later that most whalers are doing scrimshaw. But my guess is we’ll see it in the film, because it suits a dramatic purpose.”

The goal of a Hollywood movie is, of course, entertainment, and the responsibility of a museum exhibition is history. Harrison is comfortable with that idea and sees the movie as both a marketing opportunity and a teaching opportunity. He added that the exhibit will include a section on the retelling of the story of the Essex.

“The museum’s approach is it’s beholden on us to tell facts and acknowledge the fact that other people telling the story may take liberties to suit their purposes,” he said. “We definitely have this opportunity to do something with real objects and real objectivity to do something that coincides with the film.” ///

John Stanton is a writer and award-winning documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. He writes often for Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror.

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