Sunday, June 18, 2017

What links the survivors of the whale ship ESSEX to the mutineers of Bligh’s BOUNTY?

On reading, “The Pitcairners” by R.B Nicolson (1965)* I discovered a connection between the wreck of the whale ship “Essex” (inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”) and the mutineers from HMS BOUNTY. These must surely be two of the greatest true-life adventure/survival stories ever.

Having cast Captain Bligh adrift in a small boat, Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers sailed 7,800 miles** in search of an island to live on. Pitcairn’s Island was where they settled (1790), married their Tahitian wives and raised their families. By 1800, after the murders of all the other mutineers, and Ned Young’s death from asthma, only Alexander Smith (known as John Adams) remained. Then, from 1806 onward, a new generation of islanders was born (from the sons and daughters of the original mutineers). By the early 1820s there were 40 descendants of the seamen and their Polynesian wives.

At the same time, the new British colony of New South Wales was facing famine and starvation.  Having sailed from London to Sydney as master of the SURRY (310 ton merchantman), Captain Thomas Raine decided to assist the situation by sailing to Valparaiso, Chile, by picking up a cargo of wheat for the young colony. On departing Sydney, he was given a consignment of books and seeds to deliver to the islanders on Pitcairn.
After arriving in Valparaiso and loading the wheat, Captain Raine was ready to head back to Sydney (March 1821) when he encountered Captain George Pollard and one of his crewmen who had survived the wreck of the Nantucket whale ship ESSEX.

“From Captain Pollard himself, Raine heard how the ESSEX has been wrecked by a whale ‘about 80 or 90 feet long’” – how, with seven of his crew, he had happened upon Ducie Island where he had left three of his men. Sailing east, Pollard then described how he and the other survivor had eaten their other three companions to keep themselves alive***.
Once back aboard SURRY, Captain Raine, heading for Pitcairn’s Island, decided to detour and pick up the three men from Ducie Island, if they were still alive but, on searching, he could find no trace of them. However, on 8 April, Elizabeth Island was sighted and three men were seen on the beach. There were indeed the survivors from the ESSEX left behind by Captain Pollard.
Three days later, after rescuing the survivors, the SURRY arrived at Pitcairn’s Island. With no natural harbour and a sea running, the visitors were met by a man named Quintal (son of Matthew Quintal) who swam out to meet them and direct them safely to the beach. Once on shore, the British party were greeted and feasted while the Captain delivered the books and seeds be was carrying.
During the visit, John Adams related the facts of the BOUNTY mutiny to the ship’s doctor claiming it was caused when “the crew became infatuated with the females and disgusted with Bligh’s tyranny”.
In 1856, the descendants of the Bounty Mutineers were re-settled on Norfolk Island. Their names can be seen on the stones in the graveyard.
On 12 April 1821, Captain Raine of the SURRY sailed from Pitcairn with the three whalemen from the wreck of the ESSEX aboard her. Of the three men, one made his way to London while the other two returned to the United States.
The encounter is described by Nicholson in a few short paragraphs but the fact two of the greatest real-life survival and adventure stories had a connection, I find quite remarkable.

Note: The wreck of the whale ship “Essex” out of Nantucket – stove by a massive white whale – was the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s classic tale: MOBY DICK. It was recently released as a feature movie “The Heart of the Sea”.
While Melville’s story is pure fiction, the movie “The Heart of the Sea” endeavours to portray the truth and, towards the end, reveals three survivors left on what was thought to be Ducie Island. The name of the ship and the captain who picked them up is omitted. That ship was the SURRY captained by Captain Raine.
It would also appear from Nicolson’s account, that is was Captain Pollard, and not Owen Chase (as credited in the movie), who arranged for the three whalemen to be picked up.

* “The Pitcainers” by R.B. Nicolson (first published 1965) is now available on Amazon in paperback.
**H.E. Maude in 1958 wrote that after 9 months aboard BOUNTY: “Christian and his followers…had criss-crossed the Pacific three times…sailing over 7,800 miles from the day they left Bligh and Tofua.” 
While Bligh's navigation was a remarkable achievement, it is evident, Fletcher Christian was also a skilled seamen.
*** Thanks to Chris Double for this interesting snippet: "And one of the crew of the Essex, Owen Coffin, was a descendant of the same Coffin family as Philip Cook Coffin that ended up shipwrecked on the Acadia and the origin of the Coffin surname on Pitcairn. Owen was unfortunately eaten when the Essex survivors ran out of food"

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