The Whisper of Necessity

BEFORE THEY LEFT Henderson Island, Chase loaded a flat stone and an armful of firewood into each boat. That first evening back on the water, as both the island and the sun slipped below the western horizon behind them, they put the stones to use as platforms for cooking fires. “[W]e kept our fires going,” Chase wrote, “and cooked our fish and birds, and felt our situation as comfortable as could be expected.”

For a month they had been driven south and even west; now they hoped to sail almost directly east to Easter Island. For this to happen they needed two weeks of westerly breezes. However, at latitude 24° south, they were still in the trades, where for more than 70 percent of the year the wind blows out of the southeast. But that night, as if in answer to their prayers, a strong breeze sprang up out of the northwest, and they steered straight for Easter.

If they were to keep track of their progress east, they needed to find a way to estimate their longitude-something they had not done during the first leg of the voyage. A month of sailing without knowing their east-to-west position had proved to them the necessity of at least attempting to determine it. Before leaving Henderson, they decided to maintain what Chase called “a regular reckoning.” Their noon observation told them their latitude, and by doing as Captain Bligh had done before them-using an improvised log line to gauge their speed and their compass to determine their direction-they could calculate their longitude. The Essex boats were no longer sailing blind.

For three days the northwesterly breeze held. Then, on December 30, the wind shifted into the east-southeast, and for two days they were forced to steer a course well to the south of Easter Island. But by the first day of the new year, 1821, the wind had shifted to the north, and they were once again back on track.

On January 3 they sailed into what Nickerson called “hard weather.” Squalls blasted them from the southwest. “The seas had become so rough,” Nickerson remembered, “that we were fearful that each successive gust would swamp our boats... Every squall was attended with the most vivid flashes of lightning and awful thunder claps, which seemed to cause the very bosom of the deep to tremble and threw a cheerless aspect upon the face of the ocean.”

The next day, the capricious wind shifted to the east-northeast. With their sails trimmed in tight on the port tack, they steered as close to the wind as possible but were still unable to fetch Easter Island. Pollard and Chase came to the same distressing conclusion: they were now too far to the south to have any hope of reaching the island. They searched their Navigator copies for the next closest island “where the wind would allow of our going.” About eight hundred miles off the Chilean coast are the islands of Juan Fernandez and Masafuera. Unfortunately there were more than 2,500 miles between them and these islands-farther than they had sailed since leaving the Essex forty-four days before.

On the same day that they abandoned all hope of reaching Easter Island, they ate the last of their fish and birds. It was back to their daily ration of a cup of water and three ounces of hardtack per man.

For the next two days, the wind deserted them. The sun beat down with the same withering force that had so oppressed them prior to their arrival at Henderson. The conditions were the hardest on Matthew Joy, whose bowels had ceased to function. Ever since leaving the island he had continued to deteriorate, and his glassy, distracted eyes had taken on the unmistakable look of death.

On January 7, a breeze rose up out of the north. Their noon observation revealed that they had slipped almost six degrees of latitude, or 360 nautical miles, to the south. But it was their progress to the east that most concerned them. They estimated that they were now only six hundred miles closer to the mainland than when they had left Henderson eleven days before.

The next day Matthew Joy made a request. The twenty-seven-year-old second mate asked if he might be moved to the captain's boat. The transfer was effected, Chase wrote, “under the impression that he would be more comfortable there, and more attention and pains be bestowed in nursing and endeavoring to comfort him.” But all knew the real reason for the second mate's removal. Now that he was reaching the end, Joy, who had been on a boat with five coofs, wanted to die among his own people.

Joy came from an old Quaker family. Near the town hall on Nantucket his grandfather had owned a large house that was still referred to as the Reuben Joy homestead. In 1800, when Matthew was only seven years old, his parents moved the family to Hudson, New York, where Nantucketers had established a whaling port soon after the Revolution. Matthew remained a Friend until 1817, when he returned to his native island to wed nineteen-year-old Nancy Slade, a Congregationalist. As was customary in such cases, he was disowned that year by the Nantucket Monthly Meeting for “marrying out.”

Joy was no longer a Quaker, but on January 10, a hot, windless day in the Pacific, he demonstrated a Friend's sense of duty and devotion. For the last two days his boat-crew had been left leaderless; he now asked to be returned to them. His loyalty to his crew was in the end greater than his need for comfort from his fellow Nantucketers. The transfer was made, and by four o'clock that afternoon Matthew Joy was dead.

Nantucket's Quaker Graveyard was without worldly monuments of any kind, and many had compared its smooth, unmarred sweep to the anonymous surface of the sea. Like that graveyard thousands of miles away, the sea that morning was calm and smooth-not a breath of air ruffled the Pacific's slow, rhythmic swell. The three boats were brought together, and after sewing Joy up in his clothes, they tied a stone to his feet and “consigned him in a solemn manner to the ocean.”

Even though they knew Joy had been ill for quite some time, his loss hit them hard. “It was an incident,” Chase wrote, “which threw a gloom over our feelings for many days.” The last two weeks had been particularly difficult for the men on the second mate's boat. Instead of drawing strength and inspiration from their leader, they had been required to expend valuable energy nursing him. Making it even harder was the absence of Joy's boatsteerer, Thomas Chappel. To fill the void, Pollard ordered his own boatsteerer, the twenty-one-year-old Obed Hendricks, to take command of the second mate's shaken and dispirited crew.

Soon after taking over the steering oar, Hendricks made a disturbing discovery. Joy's illness had apparently prevented him from closely monitoring the distribution of his boat's provisions. As best as Hendricks could determine, there was only enough hardtack in his boat's cuddy to last two, maybe three more days.

Throughout the morning and afternoon of the following day-the fifty-second since the men had left the Essex-the wind built out of the northwest until by nightfall it was blowing a full gale. The men took in all sail and steered their boats before the wind. Even without a stitch of canvas set, the boats surfed wildly down the crests of the waves. “Flashes of lightning were quick and vivid,” Chase wrote, “and the rain came down in cataracts.” Instead of being terrified, the men were exhilarated to know that each fifty-knot gust was blowing them toward their destination. “Although the danger was very great,” Nickerson remembered, “yet none seemed to dread this so much as death by starvation, and I believe none would have exchanged this terrific gale for a more moderate head wind or a calm.”

Visibility was low that night in the driving rain. They had agreed that in the event they became separated, they would steer a course of east-southeast in the hope that they would be within sight of one another come daybreak. As usual, Chase was in the lead. Every minute or so, he turned his head to make sure he could see the other two boats. But at around eleven o'clock he glanced back and saw nothing. “It was blowing and raining at this time as if the heavens were separating,” he wrote, “and I knew not hardly at the moment what to do.” He decided to head up into the wind and hove to. After drifting for about an hour, “expecting every moment that they would come up with [us],” Chase and his men resumed their agreed-upon course, hopeful that, as had happened before, they would sight the other boats in the morning.

“As soon as daylight appeared,” Nickerson wrote, “every man in our boat raised [himself] searching the waters.” Grabbing the masts, and one another, for support, they stood up on the seats, craning their necks for a glimpse of their lost companions on the wave-fringed horizon. But they had disappeared. “It was folly to repine at the circumstances,” Chase commented; “it could neither be remedied, nor could sorrow secure their return; but it was impossible to prevent ourselves feeling all the poignancy and bitterness that characterizes the separation of men who have long suffered in each other's company, and whose interests and feelings fate had so closely linked together.”

They were at latitude 32°16' south, longitude 112 °20' west, about six hundred miles south of Easter Island. Nineteen days from Henderson, with more than a thousand miles still left to go, Chase and his men were alone. “For many days after this accident, our progress was attended with dull and melancholy reflections,” he wrote. “We had lost the cheering of each other's faces, that, which strange as it is, we so much required in both our mental and bodily distresses.”

The squalls and rain continued through the next day. Chase decided to take an inventory of their remaining provisions. Thanks to his rigorous supervision, they still had a considerable store of bread left. But they had been fifty-four days at sea, and there were more than 1,200 miles between them and the island of Juan Fernandez. “Necessity began to whisper [to] us,” Chase wrote, “that a still further reduction of our allowance must take place, or we must abandon altogether the hopes of reaching the land, and rely wholly on the chance of being taken up by a vessel.”

They were already on half provisions, eating only three ounces of bread a day. “[H]ow to reduce the daily quantity of food, with any regard to life itself, was a question of the utmost consequence.” Three ounces of hardtack provided them with only two hundred and fifty calories a day, less than 15 percent of their daily needs. Chase told his men that they had no choice but to cut these half rations once again-to only one and a half ounces of bread a day. This, he knew, “must, in short time, reduce us to mere skeletons again.”

It was a terrifying dilemma, and Chase did not arrive at the decision easily. “It required a great effort to bring matters to this dreadful alternative,” he wrote. “[E]ither... feed our bodies and our hopes a little longer, or in the agonies of hunger to seize upon and devour our provisions, and coolly await the approach of death.” Somewhere to the north of them, their companions were about to discover the consequences of taking the latter course.

The men in Pollard's and Hendricks's boats were just as gravely affected by the separation. They continued on, however, almost confident that they would once again meet up with Chase's boat. That day, January 14, Obed Hendricks's boat ran out of provisions. For Hendricks and his five crew members-Joseph West, Lawson Thomas, Charles Shorter, Isaiah Sheppard, and William Bond-the question was whether Pollard would be willing to share his boat's provisions.

Having placed Hendricks in command of the second mate's boat only three days before, Pollard could not easily deny his former boat-steerer some of his own stock of food. And if he was willing to feed Hendricks, he would have to feed the other five. So Pollard and his men shared with them what little bread they had, knowing full well that in only a few more days there would be nothing left.

Chase's separation from Pollard and Hendricks saved the first mate from having to face this painful predicament. From the beginning, Chase had strictly, even obsessively, attended to the distribution of rations aboard his boat. To throw open his sea chest of provisions to Hendricks's men, all of them off-islanders who had begun the ordeal with the same amount of bread as his crew, would have been, from Chase's perspective, an act of collective suicide. Earlier in the ordeal the men had discussed the possibility of having to share their provisions if one of the crews should lose their stock. “[S]uch a course of conduct,” Chase wrote, “was calculated to weaken the chances of a final deliverance for some, and might be the only means of consigning every soul of us to a horrid death of starvation.” For Chase, intent on getting himself and his boat-crew to safety, no matter what, the separation from Pollard's and Hendricks's boats could not have been better timed.

On the same day that Chase cut his crew's daily ration of bread in half, the wind gradually died to nothing. The clouds thinned until the sun's rays once again became overwhelming. In desperation, Chase and his men tore the sails from the spars and hid beneath the salt-encrusted canvas. Swaddling themselves in the sails, they lay down in the bottom of the boat and “abandoned her,” the first mate wrote, “to the mercy of the waves.”

Despite the severity of the sun, the men did not complain of thirst.

After a week of drinking their fill at Henderson Island, they had been rehydrated to the extent that food had replaced water as their most desperate need. In fact some of the men were now suffering from diarrhea-a common symptom of starvation-which Chase attributed to the “relaxing effects of the water.” As he put it, “we were fast wasting away.”

While the body can rebound quite quickly from dehydration, it takes a frustratingly long time to recover from the effects of starvation. During World War II, the University of Minnesota's Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene conducted what scientists and relief workers still regard today as a benchmark study of starvation. Partly funded by religious groups, including the Society of Friends, the study was intended to help the Allies cope with released concentration-camp internees, prisoners of war, and refugees. The participants were all conscientious objectors who volunteered to lose 25 percent of their body weight over six months.

The experiment was supervised by Dr. Ancel Keys (for whom the K-ration was named). The volunteers lived a spare but comfortable existence at a stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Although meager, their carefully measured rations of potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, dark bread, and macaroni (similar to the kinds of foods refugees might scavenge during war time) possessed a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Yet, despite the clinically safe circumstances of the experiment, the volunteers suffered severe physiological and psychological distress.

As they lost weight, the men became lethargic in both body and spirit. They became increasingly irritable. Concentration became difficult. They were appalled at their lack of physical strength and coordination, and many suffered blackouts when they stood up quickly. Their limbs swelled. They lost their sexual desire and would indulge instead in a kind of “stomach masturbation,” describing favorite meals to one another and poring over cookbooks for hours at a time. They complained of losing all sense of initiative and creativity. “Many of the so-called American characteristics,” a chronicler of the experiment wrote, “abounding energy, generosity, optimism-become intelligible as the expected behavior response of a well-fed people.”

For many of the men, the most difficult part of the experiment was the recovery period. Weeks after increasing their food intake, they still felt hunger cravings. In some cases, they actually lost weight during their first week off the starvation diet. If the findings of the Minnesota study apply, the Essex crew's week on Henderson did little to restore their bodies' reserves of muscle and fat. Now, three weeks later, the sailors were as close to starving to death as they'd ever been.

The symptoms the men suffered as their boats lay becalmed on January 14, 1821, were similar to those experienced by the conscientious objectors in 1945. Chase reported that they barely had the strength “to move about in our boats, and slowly perform the necessary labors appertaining to [them].” That evening, when they sat up from the bottom of the boat, they experienced the same kind of blackouts that afflicted the men at the University of Minnesota. “Upon [our] attempting to rise again,” Chase wrote, “the blood would rush into the head, and an intoxicating blindness come over us, almost to occasion our suddenly falling down again.”

Chase's sufferings were so severe that he forgot to lock the lid of his sea chest before falling asleep in the bottom of the boat. That night one of the crew awoke the first mate and informed him that Richard Peterson, the old black man from New York who had led them all in prayer, had stolen some bread.

Chase leaped up in a rage. “I felt at the moment the highest indignation and resentment at such conduct in any of our crew,” he wrote, “and immediately took my pistol in my hand, and charged him if he had taken any [bread], to give it up without the least hesitation, or I should instantly shoot him!” Peterson immediately returned the provisions, “pleading,” Chase wrote, “the hard necessity that urged him to do it.” Almost three times the age of anyone else in the boat, Peterson was reaching the end of his endurance, and he knew that without more bread, he would soon die.

Nonetheless, the first mate felt that an example had to be made. “This was the first infraction,” he wrote, “and the security of our lives, our hopes of redemption from our sufferings, loudly called for a prompt and signal punishment.” But, as Nickerson observed, Peterson “was a good old man, and nothing but the cravings of a starved appetite could have induced him to be guilty of so rash an attempt.” Chase finally decided to grant him mercy. “I could not find it in my soul to extend towards him the least severity on this account,” he wrote, “however much, according to the strict imposition which we felt upon ourselves it might demand.” Chase warned Peterson that if he attempted to steal again, it would cost him his life.

Light breezes persisted throughout the next day and into the following night. The tensions among Chase's crewhadbegun to ease, but their individual suffering continued unabated, their bodies wracked by a hunger that the daily ration of an ounce and a half of bread hardly began to alleviate. Still, the distribution of provisions remained the most important part of the day. Some of the men attempted to make their portion last as long as possible, nibbling it almost daintily and savoring each tiny morsel with what little saliva their mouths could generate. Others ate their ration virtually whole, hoping to provide their stomachs with at least some sensation of fullness. Afterward, all of them fastidiously licked the residue from their fingers.

That night the placid waters around Chase's boat suddenly erupted into pale foam as something enormous slammed into the stern. Clinging to the gunwales, the men rose up from the bottom of the boat and saw that a shark, nearly as large as the killer whale that had attacked Pollard's boat, was “swimming about us in a most ravenous manner, making attempts every now and then upon different parts of the boat, as if he would devour the very wood.” The monster snapped at the steering oar, then tried to get its massive jaws around the boat's sternpost, as if possessed by the same gnawing hunger that was consuming all of them.

In the bottom of the boat was a lance just like the one Chase had been tempted to hurl at the whale that sank the Essex. If they could kill this giant shark, they'd have enough food to last them for several weeks. But when Chase attempted to stab the creature, he discovered that he did not have the strength even to dent its sandpaper-like skin. “[H]e was so much larger than an ordinary [shark],” Chase wrote, “and manifested such a fearless malignity, as to make us afraid of him; and our utmost efforts, which were at first directed to kill him for prey, became in the end self-defense.” There was little the men could do as the shark pushed and slapped their whaleboat's thin sides. Eventually, the shark grew bored with them. “Baffled ... in all his hungry attempts upon us,” Chase wrote, “he shortly made off.”

The next day a group of porpoises replaced the shark. For almost an hour Chase's men did everything they could to catch one of these playful creatures. Whenever a porpoise surfaced near the boat, they tried to stab it with the lance. But as had been true with the shark, they could not, in Nickerson's words, “muster strength sufficient to pierce through their tough hide.” While a shark is a primitive killing machine, a porpoise is one of the most intelligent mammals on earth. The porpoises' mastery of their environment was now cruelly obvious to this boatload of starving land-dwellers. “[T]hey soon left us,” Nickerson wrote, “apparently in high glee[,] leaping from the water and ... in full exercise of every enjoyment. Poor devils, how much they are now our superiors and yet not... know it.”

For the next two days, January 17 and 18, the calms returned. “ [T]he distresses of a cheerless prospect and a burning hot sun were,” Chase wrote, “once again visited upon our devoted heads.” As they approached their sixtieth day since leaving the Essex, even Chase had become convinced that it was their destiny to die. “We began to think that Divine Providence had abandoned us at last,” the first mate wrote, “and it was but an unavailing effort to endeavor to prolong a now tedious existence.” They could not help but wonder how they would die: “Horrible were the feelings that took possession of us!-The contemplation of a death of agony and torment, refined by the most dreadful and distressing reflections, absolutely prostrated both body and soul.”

Chase called the night of January 18 “a despairing era in our sufferings.” Two months of deprivation and fear had reached an unbearable climax as they anticipated the horrors to come. “[O]ur minds were wrought up to the highest pitch of dread and apprehension for our fate,” Chase wrote, “and all in them was dark, gloomy, and confused.”

At around eight o'clock, the darkness came to life with a familiar sound: the breathing of sperm whales. It was a black night, and the noise that had once signaled the thrill of the hunt now terrified them. “[W]e could distinctly hear the furious thrashing of their tails in the water,” Chase remembered, “and our weak minds pictured out their appalling and hideous aspects.”

As the whales surfaced and dove around them, Richard Peterson “took an immediate fright” and pleaded with his companions to row them to safety. But no one had the strength even to lift an oar. After three whales passed the stern in rapid succession, “blowing and spouting at a terrible rate,” the pod disappeared.

When Peterson's panic had receded, he talked with Chase about his religious beliefs. Although he knew his own death was imminent, Peterson's faith in God remained undiminished. “[H]e reasoned very sensibly,” Chase wrote, “and with much composure.” Peterson had a wife back in New York City, and he asked Chase to contact her if the first mate should ever reach home alive.

The next day, January 19, the wind blew so fiercely that they had to take in their sails and lie to. Lightning flashed and the rain poured down as the wind shifted through “every point of the compass.” As their little craft tossed in the confused seas, Peterson lay between the seats of the boat, “utterly dispirited and broken down.” That evening the wind finally settled into the east-northeast.

On January 20, exactly two months since the sinking of the Essex, Richard Peterson declared that it was his time to die. When Chase offered Peterson his daily ration of bread, he refused it, saying, “It may be of service to someone but can be of none to me.” Soon after, he lost the power of speech.

Modern-day proponents of euthanasia have long endorsed the combined effects of starvation and dehydration as a painless and dignified way for a terminally ill patient to die. In the final stages, hunger pangs cease, as does the sensation of thirst. The patient slips into unconsciousness as the deterioration of his internal organs results in a peaceful death. This was apparently how Richard Peterson passed away. “ [T]he breath appeared to be leaving his body without the least pain,” Chase reported, “and at four o'clock he was gone.”

The next day, at latitude 35°07' south, longitude 105 °46' west, a thousand miles from Juan Fernandez, Peterson's body joined Joy's in the vast burial ground of the sea.

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