Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Essex: So That's What Karma Is...

I do believe I mentioned the fate of the crew of the Nantucket whale ship Essex in my previous post. I have continued to read the glorious book on the subject and have decided that I will indeed make mention of a few of the interesting historical tidbits, along with some moral lessons I picked up along the way. Ah, this post may get a bit long, I'll try to keep it a managable length, but if you just can't hang in there for the whole post, I understand. I can be impatient too sometimes. And a short note, I'm not a historian. If I get the facts wrong then I get them wrong. All I did was read a book about the damn thing.
The theme? Karma - with an Old Testament wrath of God flavor.
A short digression about Karma, I use the term loosely here. It's really that 'reap what you sow' or 'what comes around goes around' sense of the term I mean. No reincarnation is implied.
But, for those of us who don't know. In the early years of the 19th century Nantucket was the whaling capital of the western hemisphere. When much of the Pacific was still shrouded in mystery, whaling vessels from Nantucket were sailing around the southern tip of South America to get access to the Pacific ocean and the wondrous Sperm whales that still lived unencumbered there.
I think back to my previous post about feeling vaguely guilty about knowing that the gloriously yummy steak I eat from time to time comes at the death of a cow (or a moo cow). The oil that was in high demand from most every corner of the globe came straight from the innards of the Sperm whale (so named because the oil looks very... sperm-like).
In what strikes me as ridiculously horrid, these 65 - 80 ton beasts, by all accounts much smarter than most mammals, would be harpooned, stabbed, and eventually sliced open for access to the oil producing region of the brain, which I believe could produce a few hundred gallons of the precious oil, without any thought to the possiblility that the beastie might still be alive when the butchering started.
After the oil was retrieved, the carcass was then discarded, nothing else about it having any value.
This crew of the Essex, visiting the Galapagos islands not long after making one such slaughter, as part of a prank gone wrong, burned the island down.
The whole damn island. Geez, these guys were hell on wheels, er, hell on a rudder.
So, one evening, the crew come upon a whale, the largest any of the crew have ever seen (so large in fact, that later observers would doubt Sperm whales ever grew that large, but other evidence seems to point to the conclusion that it most likely was truly enormous, even among giant whales). This whale eyes the 250 ton whaling ship and decides to teach it a lesson.
I pulled this from the internet. I don't think it's an actual picture of the attack
In an act that later inspired Moby Dick, the great white beast rammed the ship repeatedly until it sank. The crew abandoned the vessel and salvaged what supplies they could and filled their whaling boats (used to chase down the Whales since they were too swift to be easily followed by the large ship) and found themselves stranded in the largest ocean on earth, about as far from any known land as is possible to be on the this planet, literally thousands of miles from... well, from anywhere.
At this point it would be tempting to call it bad luck. In the history of whaling, it was unprecedented to have a whale attack a vessel, the whale boats were sunk or damaged frequently, but those by accident by a desperate and frightened whale. An actual ship was never, ever, attacked. Ever. The crew must have figured that it was just a maladjusted animal, with the seagoing equivalent of rabies.
Imagine the horror they all felt, a few days later, after cowering as powerful storms nearly sank their small craft in the dead of night, when the weather finally starts to clear they get attacked again. This time not by a Sperm whale, but instead by a Killer whale.
Seriously? They end up having to beat the thing with their oars, and I believe they had a lance or two that they poked it with several times, after the boat was nearly splintered, they finally succeeded in forcing it to leave.
Whew. What's up with the whales? Looks like they took that whole harvesting them for their brain oil thing personal.
Poor guys, ravaged, dehydrated, starving after a month on the open ocean, they finally stumble onto an island, uncharted, and it looks like they finally have caught a break. The six square miles of land was stocked full of docile birds, crabs, fish that are easily caught and a spring of fresh water (granted, a very hard to access spring, but still). Although still thousands of miles from the nearest port, they at least could fill their casks with water and restock all their provisions.
In less than a week, every living thing on the island was eaten and the crew were again looking at starvation. Oops.
A few brave souls (or cowardly, depending on how you look at it) stayed behind, but the rest carried on towards South America and at least had more water for their journey.
Shortly thereafter they were attacked in the open water... by a GREAT WHITE SHARK.
If anyone made this up, no one on earth would be able to take this story seriously. How is it possible to get attacked by everything in the ocean? At this point the men huddled into the bottom of the boat and waited to die. I thought of a passage I had read earlier when the men were caught by surprise when a flock of flying fish started flying into their faces. They thought it was good fortune that meals were jumping into their boat. I think the flying fish where hurtling themselves at the men in hopes of pummeling them to death with their tiny little fish bodies.
The point I got from all this? If you piss off the universe, it will make your life a living hell. In order to appease the cow gods, I had a chicken sandwich today instead of a hamburger, I hope that evens things out for me.
To make what has become a pretty long story short, as their food ran out, folks started dying, the thinnest men first. At first they began to cannibalize the dead to avoid starvation, but once they started eating and death was no longer imminent for the men, they started drawing lots to see who would be killed and eaten next. Sigh. Things only got worse from there.
Ugh. The moral of this part of the story - be fat, if you have to go months without food, you have a better chance at survival.

A few of the crew survived, including the poor souls that stayed on the island. The whaleboats got separated at sea and one of the small boats, when eventually discovered, had the captain of the Essex and another crew member busily sucking the marrow out of the bones of a crewmate, oblivious to their rescuers. Bizarre.

And what about the Sperm whale that attacked? No one really knows what happened to it, but something of interest did happen. Over the course of the next few decades Sperm whale attacks on whaling vessels began to happen more and more often. Crippling some, and even sinking others altogether. I like to think that the enterprising whale that discovered the joy of violence spread the news to his comrades and they fought back.

As for the Captain of the Essex, as soon as he was well enough to return home, he was given another vessel to command right away. That vessel also sank whilst deep in the Pacific. He retired after than and became a night watchman.

The moral here - history is bizarre.


Stephen Tremp said...

After a second sinking I would retire too. I use "karma" with a wrath of God theme too. Sow to the wind, reap the whirlwind. I love plotting the demise of the villains.

Stuck In A Window said...

I don't believe in karma. I think sometimes crazy shit just happens. Or maybe the sperm whales evolved an aquaman-like ability to communicate and command the rest of the sea critters and told them to attack these guys on sight. Who knows?

Rusty Webb said...

Thanks Stephen - When done well, the demise of a villan due to a consequence of previous decisions can be very satisfying.

Stuck - If I were being entirely honest I would agree with you. However, poetic liscense and all that makes me use Karma. It just bowties the story for me.