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From The Editors: Feast or Perish

Larry Bean

Funny how a recollection can strike at the most convenient time, at the precise moment in a narrative that allows for a seamless advancement and enhancement of the story. In this issue, we have a golfer, in the middle of a game, recalling a Mark Twain witticism ("Discovery in the Desert"), and a McLaren driver, about to test the car’s capabilities, remembering a speed-bump incident ("Desert Storm"). We also have an anxious whale-watcher off the coast of Chilean Patagonia pondering Melville when he learns that a sperm whale is in the vicinity of his RIB—his rigid inflatable boat ("Nomads in No-Man’s-Land").

As associate editor Mike Nolan, author of the latter story, notes, Melville based Moby Dick on a true incident involving the Nantucket whale ship Essex, which in 1820 was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale far off the coast of South America. Nathaniel Philbrick describes the crew’s ensuing three-month ordeal in his 2000 book In the Heart of the Sea.

Philbrick also makes use of the recollection device. He wonders if, at some point after the Essex had sunk, while the 20 crew members were drifting across the ocean in three 25-foot-long whale boats, they remembered the Medusa. "Whether or not they had heard of the Medusa," Philbrick writes, "the men of the Essex were all too aware of what might happen if sufficient discipline was not maintained."

In 1816, the French frigate Medusa was en route to Senegal, a colony of France, when it struck a reef and became stranded. Lacking a sufficient number of lifeboats to hold all 400 people on board, the crew constructed a raft from the remains of the ship. One hundred fifty of the passengers, mostly settlers and soldiers, were relegated to the raft, which was briefly towed by the lifeboats until the ship’s captain ordered it cut adrift. Those on the raft were left with no food or water, only a small ration of flour and a relatively generous supply of wine. A series of mutinies and other violence soon ensued.

When the raft was rescued two weeks later, it carried only 15 survivors. Two of them, J.B. Henry Savigny and Alexander Corréard, published their account in 1818. Their story informed The Raft of the Medusa, the 1819 painting by Théodore Géricault that today hangs prominently in the Louvre. As graphically as the 16-by-23-foot canvas depicts the survivors’ suffering, the painting does not show them tossing the weak and wounded overboard and resorting to cannibalism, which some participated in as early as the third day adrift.

"Those whom death had spared in the disastrous night which we have just described, fell upon the dead bodies with which the raft was covered, and cut off pieces, which some instantly devoured," wrote Savigny and Corréard. By the start of the fourth day, a dozen more passengers had died from the wounds they sustained in one of the battles between the raft’s various factions. "We gave their bodies to the sea for a grave; reserving only one, destined to feed those who, the day before, had clasped his trembling hands, vowing him an eternal friendship."

Those passengers’ torment likely was surpassed by that which the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, experienced on February 6, 1821, nearly three months after the whale had rammed his ship and 17 days before he would be rescued. Having consumed all of their food, the four men left in his boat drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed so that the others might survive. The lot fell to one of the young sailors, Owen Coffin. He was the captain’s cousin. "A year and a half earlier," writes Philbrick, "his aunt had entrusted [Pollard] with the care and protection of her oldest son, Owen. Pollard had not only presided over his cousin’s execution but had eaten his flesh."

In all, eight of the Essex’s 20 crew members were rescued—two from Pollard’s boat, three from the boat commanded by first mate Owen Chase, and three who elected to remain at Henderson Island in the Pacific, where the trio of whale boats had spent a week in late December 1820. Each of those rescued from the boats ultimately resorted to eating the bodies of mates who had perished from starvation. (From Henderson Island, the whale boats easily could have reached the Society Islands, which include Tahiti. But Pollard elected instead to sail for South America, some 3,000 miles away, for fear of encountering cannibals on the islands.)

We trust that our whale-watcher actually was recalling Moby Dick and the misfortunes of the Pequod and the Essex as he drifted in the Pacific. However, we don’t know whether or not, while he was considering the fate of the RIB, he also was contemplating the prospects for his and his boat mates’ limbs.

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