1820 - Thomas Chapple, Second Mate of the Whaleship Essex
Henderson, Pacific Ocean
[The crew of twenty of the Whaleship Essex sunk by a Whale, arrived in three small boats at the island.]
On the twenty-fouth day after leaving the Essex they saw an island, discovered a few years since, and called Elizabeth's Isle (Henderson Island). It is about eight or nine miles round, low and flat, nearly covered with trees and underwood.
The shore was rocky and the surf high; the crew were very weak, so that they did not land without considerable difficulty. Their first search was for water; and their joy was great at finding a spring of fresh water among the rocks; they were, however, disappointed on examining the island, as it was almost destitute of the necessaries of life, and no other fresh water could be discovered. These painful feelings were greatly increased the following day, for the sea had flowed over the rocks, and the spring of fresh water could not be seen, and did not again appear. In this extremity they endeavoured to dig wells, but without success; their only resource was a small quantity of water which they found in some holes among the rocks.
For six days they continued to examine the island, when finding their situation desperate, the captain and most of the crew determined to put to sea again. The continent of South America was seventeen hundred miles distant, and in their destitute condition they could scarcely expect to reach land: their hopes were rather directed to the possibility of falling in with some vessel.
Thomas Chapple, the second mate, being in a very weak state, thought he might as well remain on the island, as attempt such a voyage; William Wright and Seth Weeks also determined to remain with him.
On the 26th of December the boats left the Island: this was indeed a trying moment to all: they separated with mutual prayers and good wishes, seven-teen venturing to sea with almost certain death before them, while three remained on a rocky isle, destitute of water, and affording hardly anything to support life. The prospects of these three poor men were gloomy: they again tried to dig a well but without success, and all hope seemed at an end, when providentially they were relieved by a shower of rain. They were thus delivered from the immediate apprehension of perishing by thirst. Their next care was to procure food, and their difficulties herein were also very great; their principal resource was small birds, about the size of a blackbird, which they caught while at roost. Every night they climbed the trees in search of them, and obtained, by severe exertions, a scanty supply, hardly enough to support life. Some of the trees bore a small berry which gave them a little relief, but these they found only in small quantities. Shell-fish they searched for in vain; and although from the rocks they saw at times a number of sharks, and also other sorts of fish, they were unable to catch any, as they had no fishing tackle. Once they saw several turtles, and succeeded in taking five, but they were then without water; at those times they had little inclination to eat, and be-fore one of them was quite finished the others were become unfit for food.
Their sufferings from want of water were the most severe, their only supply being from what remained in holes among the rocks after the showers which fell at intervals; and sometimes they were five or six days without any; on these occasions they were compelled to suck the blood of the birds they caught, which allayed their thirst in some degree; but they did so unwillingly, as they found themselves much disordered thereby.
Among the rocks were several caves formed by nature, which afforded a shelter from the wind and rain. In one of these caves they found eight human skeletons, in all probability the remains of some poor mariners who had been shipwrecked on the isle, and perished for want of food and water. They were side by side, as if they had laid down, and died together! This sight deeply affected the mate and his companions; their case was similar, and they had every reason to expect ere long the same end; for many times they lay down at night, with their tongues swollen and their lips parched with thirst, scarcely hoping to see the morning sun; and it is impossible to form an idea of their feelings when the morning dawned, and they found their prayers had been heard and answered by a providential supply of rain.
In this state they continued till the 5th of April following; day after day hoping some vessel might touch at the island; but day after day, and week after week passed by, and they continued in that state of anxious expectation which always tends to cast down the mind and damp exertion, and which is so strongly expressed in the words of Scripture, "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick." […]
To return to these poor men. On the morning of April 5th, 1820, they were in the woods as usual, searching for food and water, as well as their weakness permitted, when their attention was aroused by a sound which they thought was distant thunder, but looking towards the sea, they saw a ship in the offing, which had just fired a gun. Their joy at this sight may be more easily imagined than described: they immediately fell on their knees and thanked God for his goodness, in thus sending deliverance when least expected; then hastening to the shore, they saw a boat coming towards them. As the boat could not approach the shore without great danger, the mate being a good swimmer, and stronger than his companions, plunged into the sea, and narrowly escaped a watery grave at the moment when deliverance was at hand; but the same Providence which had hitherto protected, now preserved him. His companions crawled out further on the rocks, and by the great exertions of the crew were taken into the boat, and soon found themselves on board the Surry, commanded by Captain Raine. They were treated in the kindest manner by him and his whole crew, and their health and strength were speedily restored, so that they were able to assist in the duties of the ship.
Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex
Reprint New York 1999