Storyteller dives into Essex disaster

1820 whaleship incident comes to life in Bend

By David Jasper, The Bulletin

If you go

What: Storyteller Lawrence Howard presents “The Essex”

When: 7:30 p.m. April 17

Where: Cascades Theatre, 148 NW Greenwood Ave., Bend

Cost: Advance tickets are $15, plus service fees, at link below; $18 at the door

Contact: www.solospeak.com

In 1819, the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket, Massachusetts, heading south and around Cape Horn to the South Pacific, where, in 1820, it was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale.

The ship’s captain, George Pollard, and 19 sailors set off in three small whaling boats, as they navigated thousands of miles east toward South America, on just ounces per day in water and bread rations.

Making their ordeal tougher, they sailed against the prevailing winds, wanting to reach the coast of South America for fear of cannibals in islands to the west.

By the time their journey was through, they were down to two boats, and their surviving occupants had turned to cannibalism themselves. Just eight survived.

The notoriety of the Essex and its crew’s tribulation struck 19th-century imaginations, including American author Herman Melville, who worked on a whaling ship himself and whose novel “Moby- Dick” was partly inspired the tale of the Essex.

Captivated by the Essex

The story is still stoking imaginations. This year will see the release of “In the Heart of the Sea,” a Ron Howard film about the Essex, based on the book of the same name, which won the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction. The film stars Chris Hemsworth and had been slated for release this month; it’s now scheduled to arrive in theaters in December, during Oscar season.

The tale of the Essex also got to Portland storyteller Lawrence Howard. On April 17, he’ll appear on stage to tell the story of the voyage and the aftermath for the few who survived (see “If you go”).

Howard grew up on Long Island, New York, about 20 miles from Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum, which captivated him as a young boy.

“I (grew) up with a lifelong love of 18th- and 19th-century whaling. My dad and I must have watched ‘Moby-Dick’ together a hundred times; it was our favorite movie,” Howard said.

Howard has been called “a master of nonfiction on the stage,” and is co-founder of Portland Story Theater, a nonprofit that puts on storytelling events. Since 2008, he’s created an annual series for the company called The Armchair Adventurer.

Last year, Howard came to Bend to share his story of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. He’s also crafted a story about Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson and still another about Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 race to the South Pole titled “Polar Opposites.”

After his Antarctic stories, Howard was in search of a new subject when a friend of a friend sent him a DVD of “Into the Deep,” a two-hour PBS movie that plumbed the depths of American whaling history, in 2013.

Despite his interest in whaling, “That’s how I first became aware of it,” Howard told The Bulletin. “I was just fascinated by it, and I decided that this would be my next Armchair Adventurer.”

Whale oil is energy, big money

“People don’t realize it, but whale oil is the energy industry of the 1820s. Whale oil is what lights the lamps and lubricates the machinery of the industrial revolution,” Howard said. “Whale oil is energy. Whale oil is big money.”

Because of the high demand, the search took whalers farther and farther out to sea.

“The whaling is poor. Whales are getting scarcer because we’d been overfishing the whales. We’d been over harvesting them, and the voyages were having to go further and further out to sea to find whales.”

The Essex sailed toward the equator, to a newly discovered whale fishery called the offshore grounds.

“The whalers were sort of the astronauts of this time. They boldly went where nobody else had gone,” he said.

That’s where the Essex was hunting when it was rammed by a sperm whale.

“They have no reason to suspect that a whale might ever harm their ship. That has never happened, but this whale just keeps coming and coming,” Howard said. “By the time they realize it’s about to hit them, it’s too late to turn or do anything.”

The whale rammed the ship, then crossed back in front of it and again hit the Essex in the same spot.

“It’s happened since, but this was the first time that a sperm whale actually rammed a ship, seemingly intentionally, and sank it,” Howard said.

His dive into the available literature included reading books by two Essex survivors.

Accounts of the Essex

Owen Chase, who was first mate on the Essex, wrote his account, “Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex,” soon after being rescued.

“The Essex left Nantucket in August 1819, 11 days after Herman Melville was born. So this story happened between the years that Melville was 1 and 2 years old, and he grew up with it. The story was just in the air,” Howard said. “Everyone in New England knew it. Everyone who was even remotely connected with the whaling industry knew it.”

Melville served on a whaling ship in the early 1840s, where he met, at sea, a 16-year-old sailor named William Henry Chase, son of Owen Chase, who had a copy of his father’s book with him.

“It was published, but … it was hard to get a hold of (and) he lent a copy of his father’s book to Herman Melville overnight. Melville stayed up all night long reading it, and that is what set his imagination on fire, and … the story started taking shape in his mind right after he read the actual book that Owen Chase had written.”

The other book was written years later by Thomas Nickerson, who’d been a 14-year-old cabin boy on the Essex. “And he didn’t write down his story about what had happened until he was in his 70s. And then it was lost for another 100-and-some years,” Howard said.

Nickerson’s book, “The Loss of the Ship ‘Essex’ Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats,” surfaced in 1960, “and even then it took another 20 years before it fell into the hands of someone who recognized what it was, and got it published,” Howard said. “It was published in 1984, 164 years after the events that it records.”

Chase’s book may have been “a little self-serving. There are a few things that came to light in Thomas Nickerson’s book that’s like, ‘Oh, right. That’s probably … how that happened,” Howard said.

Human survival

Asked why he’s drawn to adventure tales, Howard said, “I think in many, many ways, life has become very easy for us — maybe not emotionally, but physically. And I think that many of us, if not all of us, wonder ‘If I were tested in that way, if I were put into a life-or-death situation, what resources of strength would I find within myself? What am I made of? What could I endure? What could I suffer? Would I find that will to live?’ I think that’s an elemental human question.”

As it turns out, Howard has some insight into that question that goes beyond his research of others travails. His battle with cancer two years ago made the Essex crew’s trials hit closer to home than they might have at other times in his life.

“It’s a story about hunger and thirst, right? That’s kind of the theme of the survival,” said Howard. “When my friend sent me that ‘Into the Deep’ DVD, I was recovering from cancer surgery and radiation.”

“Head and neck radiation … produces some side effects that are unique. One of those is that radiation to the head and neck kills your saliva glands. I was terribly thirsty,” he said.

As he read of the men sailing through the tropics on rations of one cup of fresh water a day, he could relate. “They’re tormented by thirst. And as I’m reading this story, I too am tormented by thirst.”

His appetite also took a hit.

“When I went in for surgery, I weighed 240 pounds. Now I weigh 160. I lost a third of my body weight. I was very weak and very debilitated,” Howard said. “Of course the men in the boats are living on 6 ounces of bread a day, and then 3 ounces, and eventually they become so hungry that as they began to die, they’re reduced to eating human remains of their former shipmates.”

Howard, of course, never faced such dire circumstances, but he did feel that he “had to look deeper … to an emotional plane to find the will to hang on, and to survive,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

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