Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex: The Complete Illustrated Edition

Written by Owen Chase
Review by Eva Ulett

The primary narrative in Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex is the real-life account of the first mate of the vessel, Owen Chase. Chase tells a tale of survival and faith after a sperm whale rams and sinks the American whaler Essex in the Pacific. Essex’s crew survives and is forced to take to the vessel’s boats. The initial attack by the whale, the starvation, and the desperation endured during three months of sail and drifting in the southern Pacific are described in Chase’s narrative, a memoir “that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick,” according to the book’s subtitle.

Interspersed with Chase’s narrative are selections on whaling, accounts of whale attacks, and shipwreck survival stories. These rather interrupt Chase’s interesting account than add to it. Some contain repeats, or are cut off in a misleading way, as though the text of this Complete Illustrated Edition is meant to be only skimmed. There are many interesting photographs, illustrations, and maps included, though some may consider the depictions of the hunting, killing, and flensing of whales objectionable. Contemporary sensibility tends to be equally with the whale as with those 19th-century men Chase describes in “their gallant exploits among the whale.”