The ship Dauphin was the first of only six whaleships to be built on the west bank of the Pawcatuck River in Westerly by Joseph Barber in 1804. She was a small ship of 216 tons capacity; her principal dimensions were: length 82 feet; breadth 24 feet; depth of hold 12 feet. After her launch, the Dauphin joined the whaling fleet that sailed out of New London, Connecticut. Her first commander was Captain Sprague Barber. The Dauphin became one of the most successful whalers of the time and only a few years after her launch she would take part in the biggest news story of the nineteenth century.
The Dauphin wasconsidered a lucky ship and she always returned with a full cargo. She made three voyages out of New London before being sold to a whaling company out of East Greenwich, Rhode Island where she made two voyages before the War of 1812. During the war of 1812 many whalers were captured or sunk but the Dauphin’s luck held out and she made it through the war.
After the war, the Dauphin was registered out of the port of Nantucket. Her luck continued with a 17-month voyage in 1815, returning with 1,020 barrels of sperm oil, a full cargo for a ship of her size. The same year she set forth again for 29-month whaling voyage that netted 1,041 barrel of sperm oil and 148 barrels of whale oil.
In 1820, the Dauphin was given a new captain, Zimri Coffin of Nantucket and he sailed to the newly discovered whaling grounds off South America in the South Pacific Ocean. It was while on this voyage off the coast of South America that the Dauphin was to participate in the rescue of two of the crewmen from the doomed whaleship Essex. The whaleship Essex had been attacked and sunk by a giant sperm whale. This unusual event has become the basis for numerous books and movies including Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick.
The story begins in Nantucket as the Essex was being prepared for sea. A comet appeared and as seamen are a superstitious lot this was considered a bad omen. Shortly after leaving Nantucket the Essex suffered a severe knockdown in a squall and sustained damage. Many of the crew took this to be another bad sign. Sailing south she crossed the equator and by January 1820 rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific to a newly discovered whaling ground. This ground was more than 2,500 miles out from the coast of South America in the vast Pacific Ocean.
It was a bright clear day with only a slight breeze when the lookout spotted spouts, a perfect day for a hunt. Three whaleboats were lowered and rowed toward the whales. Owen Chase, the first mate, waited for the whale he was pursuing to surface and when it did the whale boat’s side was stove in. Stuffing coats and shirts in the hole, with one man bailing, they rowed back to the ship. Angry that he was missing out on the hunt, Chase worked to repair his boat when he noticed something strange.
It was a large sperm whale, probably over 80 tons, the largest they’d seen. It was acting strangely as if it was watching them. After spouting a few times it dove and surfaced only thirty yards from the ship. The whale swam toward the Essex and gathering speed rammed into the ship. Everyone was knocked off their feet.
After the attack, the whale seemed stunned and Chase ordered the crew to rig the pumps. While engaged in that he heard a crewman cry, “Here he is. He’s making for us again.” Chase looked up and saw a picture of fury and vengeance he would never forget. “I turned around and saw him about 500 yards directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way, he came upon us, and again struck the ship.” The Essex began to settle almost immediately as the whale swam off never to be seen again.
The crews in the other two whaleboats saw the Essex fall over on her side and rowed back to the ship, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” Captain Pollard asked. Chase answered, “We have been stove by a whale.” After watching the Essex sink, a decision was made to sail east against the prevailing winds to the coast of South America. They believed incorrectly that the islands to their west were inhabited by cannibals. Had they sailed west they could have reached the Society Islands in a week.
For 95 days the crews struggled eastward in the three whaleboats. To survive they ate the bodies of five fellow crewmen who’d died along the way. When that was insufficient, members of the crew drew lots to determine whom they would sacrifice so the others could live. A total of seven crew members were cannibalized before the survivors were rescued from the two remaining whaleboats. The third mate’s boat was never heard from again.
That’s when the Dauphin came on the scene. By the time the ship rescued the survivors on Captain Pollard’s boat the men were starving and delirious. Hearing voices and looking up they saw the crew of the Dauphin looking down at them. It was February 23 when the Dauphin made the gruesome discovery of two skeleton like men in a boat filled with human bones. Later the story was told that the two men, Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell, were still busy sucking on their shipmate’s bones when rescued. Pollard later remembered the days as “days filled with horror and despair.”
After being brought aboard the Dauphin given food and rest Captain Pollard recovered enough to pour out his harrowing tale to the Dauphin’s Captain, Zimri Coffin. Pollard told him how they’d been reduced to cannibalism to survive.
News of the whale attack on the Essex, subsequent cannibalism, and rescue of eight survivors, when it reached New England, became the biggest story of the 19th-century. When Captain Pollard returned to Nantucket months later there were 1,500 people waiting on the wharf to meet the ship. As he stepped onto the dock the crowd was absolutely silent, as if he was an apparition. As he walked up the road to his home the crowd parted before him, nobody uttering a word.
As time went by the community, as a whole, came to accept what the captain and crew had done as a dire necessity. But some, like Owen Coffins mother who he had promised to bring her son back, could not bear the thought of the captain eating him, his own cousin. Even so, many thought well enough of Pollard for him to get another command, this time of the whale ship Two Brothers, the same ship that brought him home.
Captain Pollack was certainly an unlucky man as misfortune continued to follow him. After taking command of the Two Brothers he set sail on another whaling voyage, less than a year after eating his cousin. Before departing Pollard had said he believed “lightning never strikes in the same place twice,” but he would prove that to be wrong. The Two Brothers rounded Cape Horn on its way to newly discovered whaling grounds off Japan. On February 11, 1823, the shiphit a reef 600 miles from Honolulu and quickly broke in two in the heavy surf. The crew was rescued but Pollard’s career as a ship’s captain was over.
In Nantucket Captain Pollard was now avoided. He was known as a Jonah, a man who brings misfortune on a ship. He went from being a respected ship captain to lowly night watchman, the only job he could get. Many years later Herman Melville met with the broken-down 60-year old Pollard and wrote, “To the islanders, he was a nobody, to me, the most impressive man, though wholly unassuming, even humble, that I ever encountered.”
After the rescue of the crew of the Essex the Dauphin continued its voyage and returned to Nantucket 34 months later with another valuable cargo of 1,272 barrels of sperm oil and an incredible story to tell. She would continue to fish successfully for another six years until August, 1829 when she sailed from Nantucket under the command of Captain Benjamin Hussey.
While at anchor in Saldhana Bay off the southern coast of Africa the Dauphin was hit by a sudden squall which parted her anchor cable and she was driven into the breakers. The next day Captain Hussey came down to view the wreck and said, “That if he pulled his hair out and set it on fire, it wouldn’t bring his ship back.” The Dauphin’s long adventurous road from the shores of Westerly was finally over.