Essex was an American whaler from Nantucket, Massachusetts, launched in 1799. The ship was 88 feet (27 m) long and measuring about 239 tons burthen, she was small for a whaleship.
On 20 November 1820, a sperm whale attacked and sank her. The ship sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of South America. The sinking stranded the twenty-man crew in the southern Pacific Ocean with little food and water.
During the 95 days that the survivors were at sea, they ate the bodies of five crewmen who had died. When that was insufficient, members of the crew drew lots to determine who they would sacrifice so that the others could live.
A total of seven crew members were cannibalized before the eight survivors were rescued. First mate Owen Chase and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson wrote accounts of their ordeal; these accounts inspired Herman Melville to write his famous 1851 novel Moby-Dick.