Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Life of Thomas Nickerson                                                                                                                                                                                             

A Biographical Sketch By D. E. Allen

Thomas was born in 1805 in Cape Cod Massachusetts. His family soon moved to Nantucket Island, the heart of the whaling industry.  At the age of 14, young Thomas went to work aboard a whaling ship.  He signed on as a Cabin Boy aboard the whaler Essex. Thomas would play his part in supplying America with whale oil. 

Whale oil was used as lamp oil, as an ingredient in candles, and in soap; Whales also supplied baleen a.k.a. whalebone, used for corset stays, umbrella ribs, skirt hoops and even as carriage springs. Thomas had to sign on for the entire 2 and a half to 3 year voyage.  His compensation would be a negotiated share of the voyages profit.  The cabin boy on the Essex’ last voyage made the tidy sum of $150 for his efforts.  Thomas’ future looked bright.  He would return home to Nantucket aboard the Essex as a 17 year-old with $150 or more in his pocket.

The Essex was 87 feet long.  She was captained by a 28 year old named George Pollard Jr., before he would return home, Capt. Pollard would wish he had a bigger boat. There were 21 on board when she sailed out of Nantucket on August 12, 1819.  She would lose her first crewmember when an escaped slave serving as a deck hand jumped ship in the Azores.

There was no Panama Canal in 1819. Napoleon Bonaparte, the ruler of continental Europe when Thomas was born, was now living in exile on St. Helena, as Thomas was sailing South, past the Cape Verde Islands, past St. Helena, past the Falklands, and through the dreaded Drakes Passage to get around Cape Horn, and out to the rich whaling grounds of the South Pacific… God willing.

God did so will it. On November 20, 1820, while whaling almost 3 thousand miles off the coast of present day Chile, the Whales took their revenge.  A Sperm Whale estimated to be 80 feet long and weighing 80 tons or more, rammed the Essex broadside, then repeatedly smashed into her bow pushing the ship backwards.  The Essex sunk slowly, alone, 3,000 miles out to sea.  Capt. Pollard had enough time to load stores and fresh water on 3 whaleboats, plenty of supplies for the men to row and sail their tiny whaleboats back to South America, or so he thought.

Almost a week after abandoning Essex, Pollard’s whaleboat was attacked and damaged by a Killer Whale.  Pollard was able to get all 3 whaleboats to Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn Islands, to make repairs and restock his water.  3 crewmen decided to remain behind to try to live off the sparse vegetation of Henderson Island.  17, including Thomas, set out again for South America in their restocked and repaired whaleboats.  Thomas was assigned to the whaleboat commanded by the First Mate, Owen Chase.  Thomas would be on that whaleboat for 80 more torturous days.

The food ran out after a few weeks at sea. The first to die, were buried at sea with dignity.  But after months of starvation, those who lived on… ate those who died.  Over on the Captains whaleboat they drew lots, and shot the unlucky crewmen who drew the Black Spot. The Captains own cousin was one of those shot so that others would live.  

The ships drifted apart. One was never found. 89 days after abandoning the Essex, Thomas, Owen, and one other crewmen were found alive in their derelict whaleboat. 5 days later, Capt. Pollard and one other surviving seaman were rescued by another ship 300 miles to the south. The 3 men who remained behind on Henderson Island were also found, barely alive.  First Mate Owen Chase, and Cabin Boy Thomas Nickerson lived to write their stories.  Captain Pollard was chastised by the people of Nantucket, but never charged with a crime.

Thomas Nickerson went back to sea.  In time he worked his way through the ranks to become the captain of a merchant vessel. When he grew too old for the demands of the sea, he ran a boarding house on Nantucket Island, where he died in 1883, and was there laid to his eternal rest.


  1. If this isn't the outline for your next novel, it should be. What a grand adventure story... and doing the research would be fun too. Get going.

    1. That would be active project #5. I am going to be working exclusively on active projects 1, 2 and 3 until they reach fruition. Mr. Nickerson will just have to sit still and be patient for a while longer, something he is obviously good at!