The Essex left Nantucket in 1819 on a two-and-a-half-year voyage to the whaling grounds of the South Pacific. On November 20, 1820, the Essex encountered a whale that was much larger than normal, which rammed the ship twice and sank it while the men were pursuing and killing other members of the whale's pod. The ship sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of the western coast of South America. The twenty-one sailors set out in three smaller whaleboats (in this case, used as rescue boats which were carried aboard the Essex) with wholly inadequate supplies of food and fresh water, and landed on uninhabited Henderson Island, within the modern-day British territory of the Pitcairn Islands.
On Henderson Island, the men gorged on birds, fish, and vegetation. They found a small freshwater spring. However, after one week, they had exhausted the island's natural resources, and concluded the island would not sustain them any longer. Most of the Essex crewmen got back into their whaleboats, but three men (William Wright, Seth Weeks, and Thomas Chapple) opted to stay behind on Henderson.
Excessive sodium in the sailors' diets and malnutrition led to diarrhea, blackouts, enfeeblement, boils, edema, and magnesium deficiency which caused bizarre and violent behavior. As conditions worsened, the sailors resorted to drinking their own urine and stealing and mismanaging their food. All were smokers and suffered severe tobacco withdrawal once their supply ran out.
One by one, the men of the Essex died. The first were sewn in their clothes and buried at sea, as was the custom. However, with food running out, the men resorted to cannibalism in order to survive, consuming the corpses of their dead shipmates. Towards the end of the ordeal, the situation in Captain Pollard's boat became quite critical. The men drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed for the survival of the crew. A young man named Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard's young cousin, whom he had sworn to protec...