I’ve been thinking quite a lot about karma of late. To oversimplify, it means that whatever happens to you happens because of your actions. It’s a comforting theory. Be good, and good things will happen to you. Be bad, and you’ll get yours, eventually.
There are days when my belief in karma is the only thing that keeps me from imploding under the sheer weight of my righteous indignation. I may have been screwed over by despicable people (most notably, Andy Johnson), and I may be able to do very little about it other than shine a light on them through this blog, but I have to believe that, by dint of the rot in their very souls, they’re going to get tripped up sooner or later.
But mine is a scientific mind, and so I know on some level that this is all magical thinking. It would be wonderful if justice were that straightforward, but quite often it is not. The world is a random, chaotic place, and we aren’t in control at all. Not even a little bit.
Because of this, I know that a lot of the politicians who have perpetrated so much hate, discord and crime in recent years will get off scot-free. The insurrectionist traitors who stormed our capitol may be pursued and tried, but no sentences will be enough to pay for what they’ve done to this country. My only hope is that they keep making idiotic choices that come back to bite them in the butt, hopefully without taking any more lives with them in the process. (Five was already too many.)
Karma. A nice dream. I’ll leave you with a true story that is either the most beautiful example of karma or the most beautiful example of the random and chaotic essence of our world. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
This is the story of the Essex. It was an American whaleship that, on August 12, 1819, sailed out of Nantucket, MA and straight into infamy. In my opinion, the only vessel worse (and in fact it’s much, much worse) than a whaler is a slave ship. The horrors we humans can visit upon this world never cease to amaze me.
But this last journey of the Essex would turn out to be either karma or chaos for its crew. The 21 men anticipated a 2 ½ year trip to catch whales in the South Pacific. But within 2 days their bad luck began when they ran into a storm that nearly sank the ship and damaged the sail as well as destroying two of the six whaleboats, and damaging a third. Captain Pollard chose to press on without getting replacements.
They hunted for whales that following spring and summer, and eventually made it to what is now Ecuador. Running out of whales to slaughter, they decided to go further south and west, where there was very little land, and that land was rumored to be inhabited by cannibals. But hey, there should be more whales there, so why not?
They stopped in at the Galapagos Islands, where they managed to take 360 giant tortoises aboard alive, thinking these creatures could go a year without food and water, and they could simply eat them as needed. These tortoises immediately began to starve. But, hey, the crew got to eat really well for a while there.
While island hopping for tortoises, a helmsman thought it would be funny to set fire to an island. That fire raged out of control and burned every living plant and animal to death, leaving a desolated, ash-covered wasteland and driving two species to near extinction. (The Floreana Island tortoise and the Floreana mockingbird, because I know you’ll ask.)
When they reached their whaling grounds, the first whale they saw came up under one of the whaleboats and completely shattered it. That left them with three.
During the next hunt one of the boats was damaged, again by a whale, and had to go back to the ship for repairs. Both of the others harpooned whales and were dragged by them over the horizon.
Those who were on the ship noticed a whale as long as their vessel acting really weird. It was just lying there on the surface, staring at them. And then it charged them and rammed the ship. The current theory is that the whale heard the hammering that was going on to repair the whaleboat, and it sounded like a rival bull sperm whale’s echolocation to him. We’ll never know.
Needless to say, ramming the ship stunned the whale. The crew thought of harpooning it, but was afraid that this would cause the whale to thrash and might damage the ship further. The whale finally perked up and swam away.
And then it turned. It was now facing the ship’s bow. It charged again, at twice its normal speed, and hit the Essex head on, shattering the bow. The crew scrambled to put provisions into the half repaired whaleboat when the captain’s whaleboat showed up. That must have come as one heck of a shock to the Captain.
Needless to say, the ship was toast. There were 20 crew members (one had deserted) to divide between, basically, 2 ½ boats. And they were in the middle of nowhere. The closest land was the Marquesas Islands, and that’s where Captain Pollard wanted to go, but his crew remembered those cannibal rumors, and wanted to go back to South America instead, which was twice as far away. And that’s what they tried to do, bailing all the while.
There was very little food and water to begin with, but the situation was made worse when most of the food got soaked by seawater, which of course rendered it very salty, which meant that every time they ate, they became more dehydrated and thirsty. (I’m getting thirsty just writing about it.) They soon resorted to drinking their own urine.
By a huge stroke of luck, a month later they landed on a deserted atoll called Henderson Island. Ironically, it’s situated just 120 miles from Pitcairn Island, where the descendants of the 1789 Bounty mutineers still live to this day.
On Henderson, the crew was able to find fresh water, and ate birds, crabs, eggs, and peppergrass. But they pretty much had wiped out the island within a week, and decided to move on. Three men remained behind, and actually managed to survive for a year before being rescued.
The other 17 men, in their 2 ½ boats, attempted to head to Easter Island. Within a week they once again ran out of food, and were only left with saltwater soaked bread yet again. They totally missed Easter Island, and began to die one by one.
The first two that died were buried at sea. One boat, carrying three men, got separated from the other two, and it is assumed it was the whaleboat later found washed up on Ducie Island with three skeletons inside.
As the last 12 started dying, some were eaten by their crewmates. So the people scared of encountering cannibals became cannibals themselves. Imagine.
By February, they were out of bodies to eat and were forced to draw lots as to who would be sacrificed. The ironically named Owen Coffin, the 17-year-old first cousin of Captain Pollard, drew the short straw. To Pollard’s credit, he offered to take his place, but Coffin felt that his lot wasn’t any worse than theirs. His best friend on the ship shot him.
The two remaining boats became separated, and one was rescued 89 days after the Essex had sunk. On it were three survivors.
Four days later, when Pollard’s boat was finally rescued, nearly in sight of South America, he and another crewman were so delirious, and so desperately sucking on the bones of dead men, they didn’t even notice the ship draw near, and were extremely terrified when they finally did.
So 8 men survived, and 7 bodies were eaten. But here’s what I find even more astounding. After all that trauma, all 8 men were back at sea within a few months. Captain Pollard kept having such bad luck at sea that eventually no one would sail with him, and he had to retire to Nantucket.
Nantucket is a small place, and he had to share it with the mother of the cousin whom he had eaten. Needless to say, relationships were rather strained. He became a night watchman. He would lock himself up in his room and fast every year on the anniversary of the sinking of the Essex. He never married or had children. He lived to be 78.
The first mate, Owen Chase, also survived, and went on to write a book about the experience, which inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Chase had a very successful sailing career as a sea captain, and eventually built his own whaler. He also had many wives and many children. But the ordeal haunted him, and he was eventually institutionalized after he was found to be hiding food in the attic of his Nantucket house. He lived to be 73.
All the other survivors, save one, lived long lives and died in a variety of sailor ways. And so it goes. Karma? Chaos? Or just the circle of life?
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