Although extremely rare, whales attacked ships during the 19th century. The first-known encounter happened in November of 1820 when a sperm whale (cachalot) attacked the Essex, a Nantucket-based whaleship. This image depicts a woodcut illustration from The Mariner’s Chronicle of Shipwrecks, Fires, Famines, and other Disasters at Sea, Volume 1 (Boston, 1835).
The waters were gathered together,
the floods stood upright as a heap,
and the depths were congealed
in the heart of the sea.
In the 18th century, the oil capital of the world was Nantucket.
It’s not that the ground contained oil. Rather, sailing men of Nantucket left their offshore island on ships to hunt the most highly prized source of oil at the time: The oil contained in a sperm whale’s body.
Especially valuable was the oil located in a sperm whale’s gigantic head.
How much oil could whalers extract from a sperm whale? The head and body of a really large male could produce around 100 barrels of oil (at a time when each barrel held between 30-35 gallons).
A whaling ship, called the Essex, left this oil capital of the world in August of 1819. Onboard was a crew of 21 men, including seven African-Americans and a cabin boy.
Expecting to return home within 24 months, or so, the crew and their ship met a very different fate. The Essex happened to be a vessel which a great cachalot (an alternative name for a sperm whale) fatally rammed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
In the heart of the sea, with too little drinkable water and too little edible food, the Essex crew endured the unimaginable.
Many of them did not survive.
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