In August 1819, the Essex
embarked from Nantucket on a lengthy whaling voyage to the South Pacific, where on November 20 the following year it encountered a whale that gave as good as it got. After the ship was rammed twice, it sank, and the twenty-one strong crew were forced to take to the lifeboats, such as they were.
They landed on Henderson Island, which along with its neighbors the Pitcairns is the most isolated island in the world. It was also uninhabited, and remains so to this day. Three of the survivors decided to remain on the island and fend for themselves as best they could, but the others decided the lesser of the evils lay in taking their chances on the open sea, so returned to the boats, and when the food ran out...
As their crewmates died, they were at first buried at sea, but then the dwindling band of doomed souls turned to cannibalism, and finally murder, if one may use that word to describe the actions they took in this impossible situation.
If it was murder, then it was carried out democratically, the men drew lots, and Owen Coffin, the cabin boy and nephew of the captain, drew the short straw, so to speak. Captain Pollard volunteered to take the youth's place, but Coffin insisted it was his "right" to die, thus adding heroism and self-sacrifice to this tale of unspeakable horrors.
Coffin was shot by Charles Ramsdell, the executioner like his victim being decided by drawing lots. Eventually, only eight of the crew survived and were rescued, including the three who had remained on Henderson Island.
Owen Chase, who had been the First Mate on the Essex
published a book about their ordeal, and this in turn inspired the novel Moby Dick
, which of course leant its name to an instrumental by Led Zeppelin
. Here is a photo of Chase