February 16, 1961 Mountain Home

As the most destructive war in human history unfolded between Nazi and Germany and Soviet Russia, an apocalypse known simply as the Ostfront, two more children were born in the wild. Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia, in 1943. The Lykovs missed World War 2 entirely without the slightest idea, of the outside world.

The Taiga occupies the high latitudes of the world’s northern regions, a vast international belt line of coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches between the high tundra, and the temperate forest.  An enormous community of plants and animals, this trans-continental ecosystem comprises a vast biome, second only to the world’s oceans.

The Eastern Taiga is a region in the east of Siberia, a vast, unexplored wilderness more than half again, the size of the continental United States. With snows lasting until May and resuming in September, there are no nearby oceans or seas to moderate temperature. Extremes are capable of summertime highs over 100° Fahrenheit (40c) to a wintertime low of -80° (-62c).

For all its size the region is all but unpopulated. Outside of a few towns the Siberian Taiga is home to no more than a few thousand. Siberia is also the source of vast Russian wealth in the form of oil, gas and minerals. In a wilderness capable of swallowing whole phalanxes of explorers there is hardly a district which hasn’t been overflown, at least once.

Helicopters and fixed wing aircraft cross huge tracts of arboreal forest carrying prospectors, workers and surveyors to and from remote backwoods camps.

So it was in 1978, the chopper descending with its team of geologists. Looking for a place to land near some unnamed tributary of the Abakan river, that trackless waterway with a name derived from the Khakas word, for “bear’s blood”. Treetops swayed in the propwash as the pilot peered downward, looking for a place to put down. And then he saw it. 100 miles from the Mongolian border and a good 150 miles from the nearest settlement. If those weren’t signs of human habitation, they sure looked like it.

Circling back, the pilot took another pass. And another. The Soviet government had no record of anyone living out here but, there it was. The clearing, 6,000 feet up the mountainside. The long furrows of a large garden. Someone had been growing here, for a very long time.

The Lykovs’ homestead seen from a Soviet reconnaissance plane, 1980. H/T Smithsonian

Ten miles away a four-person team of geologists, was there to explore for iron ore. The scientists thought they’d check it out. Packing what small gifts they could think of the team set out to investigate. The Russian writer, traveler and ecologist Vasily Peskov had once written, “It’s less dangerous to run across a wild animal (in these parts) than a stranger.” Geologist Galina Pismenskaya knew as much, and packed a gun.

As the four approached the spot described by the helicopter crew, there began to be signs. A worn path. A log laid across a stream. A rough shed filled with birchbark containers, with potatoes.

Pismenskaya describes what came next:

The Lykovs lived in this hand-built log cabin, lit by a single window “the size of a backpack pocket” and warmed by a smoky wood-fired stove. H/T Smithsonian

“…beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.

The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’

The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’

From the inside, the old man’s shanty was like something medieval. Dark, cramped and filthy, this was a single room under a roof propped up by sagging joists and a bare dirt floor covered with potato peelings, and pine nuts. Most astonishing of all this forest hovel out of a Grimm’s fairy tale turned out to be home, for a family of 5.

 As eyes adjusted to the darkness the intruders spotted two women. Hysterical, quietly sobbing with terrified eyes and sinking to the floor, one of them praying, over and over. ‘This is for our sins, our sins. This is for our sins, our sins. This is for our’ 

Agafia Lykova (left) with her sister, Natalia. H/T Smithsonian

This wasn’t working. The four scientists quickly backed out and regrouped at a spot, a few yards away. Sitting down to eat they waited. A half-hour later the door once again, creaked open. Wary but curious like some wild thing the three emerged, and sat down with their visitors. There were small offerings, jam, tea, and bread, but always the same response. A shaking of the head and waving of the hand. “We are not allowed that“.

The old man spoke haltingly. The two sisters spoke to one another, in a manner which sounded like some kind of “blurred cooing”.

The story that emerged that day and over several more visits became more astonishing, by the minute. The old man, his name was Karp Lykov, was part of an old, fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the time, of Czar Peter the great. Things went from bad to worse following the Russian Revolution, for the “Old Believers”. As the atheist Bolsheviks took power, countless numbers of Old Believers had fled into the wilderness, to escape persecution. Sometime in the 1930s a communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother while Karp knelt beside him, working.

Dmitry (left) and Savin in the Siberian summer H/T Smithsonian

The Lykov family numbered 4 in 1936: Karp, his wife Akulina, a boy nine-year-old Savin, and Natalia, who was only two. Karp Lykov had to do something. The family scooped up some seeds and a few possessions and fled, into the forest. Over the years the family moved ever deeper, into the Taiga.

As the most destructive war in human history unfolded between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, an apocalypse known simply as the Ostfront, two more children were born in the wild. Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia, in 1943. The Lykovs missed World War 2 entirely without the slightest idea, of the outside world.

Life in the Taiga stood forever, at the brink of starvation. Roots, grass, potato tops. Every year the family meeting, whether to eat or save some of what they had, for seed. Dmitri grew hard, hunting barefoot in winter and possessed of preternatural stamina, capable of running wild animals to exhaustion and killing them, with his bare hands. With neither bow nor firearm, this was their only meat.

It snowed in June in 1961, killing their vegetables and setting the course, for famine. That was the year Akulina starved to death, preferring that her children eat. A single grain of rye managed to survive which the family guarded day and night, lest some wild animal eat their only hope.

A Russian press photo of Karp Lykov (second left) with Dmitry and Agafia, accompanied by a Soviet geologist. H/T Smithsonian

Imagine. 42 years in that place without so much as a glimpse, into civilization. Nobody meant for it to happen but it was the outside world, which finally destroyed them.

Karp tried to keep it all, on the outside. The only gift he would accept was salt but, over time, the younger Lykovs gave in. Here a knife and fork and there an electric flashlight. None of them could take their eyes off the television, at the geologist’s camp.

The family went into decline. In the fall of 1981, three of the Lykov children died within days of each other. Savin and Natalia suffered from kidney failure, probably as the result of their harsh change in diet. Dmitri, the consummate outdoorsman who knew the Taiga in all her moods, succumbed to pneumonia, probably begun as an infection contracted from one of his new friends.

Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia, wearing clothes donated by Soviet geologists not long after their family was rediscovered. H/T Smithsonian

They tried to call him a helicopter but Dmitry would not leave his family. “We are not allowed that,” he murmured, just before he died. “A man lives for howsoever God grants.”

The geologists tried to persuade Karp and Agafia to come out of the wilderness, to rejoin those of their relatives who had survived the purges, of the Stalin regime. The answer was always, “no”.

Karp Lykov died in his sleep on February 16, 1988. 27 years to the day from his wife, Akulina. Agafia buried him with the help of the geologists, on the mountainside, and then returned home.

Nothing lasts forever . There came that day when the visitors had to take their leave. One of the geologists, a driller named Yerofei Sedov, remembered: I looked back to wave at Agafia. She was standing by the river break like a statue. She wasn’t crying. She nodded: ‘Go on, go on.’ We went another kilometer and I looked back. She was still standing there.

Much of this tale comes from a 2013 article, in Smithsonian magazine. That’s where I got most of these images. At that time Agafia Lykova lived and perhaps yet lives, now approaching eighty, this child of the Taiga living alone, high above the Abakan.

The Lykovs’ graves. Today only Agafia survives of the family of six, living alone in the taiga. H/T Smithsonian

November 20, 1820 Call me Ishmael

Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked. What was happening now was unmistakable.


The whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in August 1819, the month Herman Melville was born.  The 21-man crew expected to spend 2-3 years hunting sperm whales, filling the ship’s hold with oil before returning to split the profits of the voyage.

Whaleship at sea

Essex sailed down the coast of South America, rounding the Horn and entering the Pacific Ocean.  There they heard that the whaling grounds near Chile and Peru were exhausted so they sailed for the “offshore grounds”, almost 2,000 miles from the nearest land.

That’s exactly where they were there on November 20, 1820, with two of Essex’ three boats out hunting whales.  The lookout spotted a huge bull sperm whale, behaving oddly, lying motionless on the surface with his head facing the ship. He was a large animal, much larger than most, estimated at 85 feet long and 80 tons.  In moments, he began to move. Picking up speed it soon became clear, this beast was charging the ship.   

The powerful tail churned the water to froth as the great beast closed the distance, striking the port side so hard, it shook the ship.

Wreck of the whale ship Essex

Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked. What was happening now was unmistakable.

The huge animal seemed dazed at first by the impact, floating to the surface and resting near the ship’s side.  He then turned and swam away for several hundred yards before turning to resume the attack.  He came in at the great speed of 24 knots according to First Mate Owen Chase, ramming the port bow and driving the stern into the water.  Oak planking cracked and splintered as the whale worked his tail up and down, driving the 238-ton vessel backward.  Essex had already started to go down when the whale broke off his attack, diving below the surface, never to return.

Essex_photo

Captain George Pollard’s boat was the first to make it back. Staring in disbelief, Pollard asked “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” The first mate replied:   “We have been stove by a whale”.

The whale ship Essex was dying. No force on earth could save her. The crew divided into groups of seven and boarded the three boats.  It wasn’t long before Essex sank out of sight. 21 men now alone, stranded in 28-foot open boats, about as far from land as it was mathematically possible to be.

The whalers believed that cannibals inhabited the Marquesa islands, 1,200 miles to the west. So they headed south, parallel to the coast of South America.  Before the ordeal was over, they themselves were destined to become the cannibals.

With good winds, they might reach the coast of Chile in 56 days.  There were enough rations to last 60 provided they were distributed at starvation levels, but much of it turned out to be ruined, by salt water.  There was a brief reprieve in December, when the three small boats landed on a small island in the Pitcairn chain.  There they were able to get their fill of birds, eggs, crabs, and peppergrass. Within a week the island was stripped clean.  The men decided to move on save for three who refused to get back in the boats and were left behind.

Essex

None of them knew it but this was Henderson Island, only 104 miles from Pitcairn Island where survivors from the 1789 Mutiny on HMS Bounty had managed to survive for the past 36 years.

After two months at sea, the boats had long separated from one another.  Starving men were beginning to die and the survivors came to an unthinkable conclusion.  They would have to eat their own dead.

When those were gone, the survivors drew lots to see who would die, that the others might live.  Captain Pollard’s 17-year-old cousin Owen Coffin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot.   Pollard protested, offering to take his place, but the boy declined. “No”, he said, “I like my lot as well as any other.”  Again, lots were drawn to see who would be Coffin’s executioner.  Owen’s friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot.

On February 18, the British whaleship Indian spotted a boat containing Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson.  It was 90 days sink Essex sank out of sight.  Five days later, the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin pulled alongside another boat, to find Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell inside.  The pair was so far gone they didn’t even notice at first, gnawing on the bones of their comrades.

The three left on Henderson Island were later rescued.  The third whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island several years later, with four skeletons on board.

The Essex was the first ship recorded to have been sunk by a whale, though she would not be the last.  The Pusie Hall was attacked in 1835. The Lydia and the Two Generals were both attacked by whales a year later. The Pocahontas and the Ann Alexander were sunk by whales in 1850 and 1851.

31 years after the Essex’ sinking a sailor turned novelist published his sixth work, beginning with these words: “Call me Ishmael”.

May 23, 1928 Wreck of the Airship Italia

The little fox terrier Titina would accompany Captain Nobile on his every mission. This time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried some 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, a crew of 13, two journalists, three scientists and an expedition mascot.

A favorite of the rising Fascist party in Italy, Captain Umberto Nobile was never far from his beloved dog, a little Fox Terrier he called Titina.

Before each mission, Nobile would pay close attention to the mood and demeanor of the terrier.  Some said even more so, than to that of his men.

Titina would accompany Nobile on his every mission but this time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.ItaliaTwo years earlier, the Norge (“NOR-gay”) had demonstrated that such an airship, could reach the north pole.  This time they were coming back, for further exploration.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near-blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in virtually perfect weather conditions with unlimited visibility.  The craft covered 4,000 km (2,500 miles), setting the stage for the third and final trip.

At 04:28 on May 23, 1928, the airship Italia departed on her final voyage.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen.

Though wind conditions prevented scientists from descending onto the ice sheet, the midnight arrival was itself, a victory.  Nobile dropped an Italian flag at the pole and a cross, personally given him by the Pope.  Jubilant radio messages were sent as the triumphant crew polished off a bottle of cognac, in celebration.

Trouble began almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds heading south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle complicated the task. Seconds later, the airship hit the jagged ice below, smashing the control cabin and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier, onto the ice.

“The wide 50-meter-long red strip of aniline paint that had seeped from the spherical containers the airship’s crew used for measuring altitude resembled a bloodstained trail left by an injured beast”. – Czechoslovakian physicist, Frantisek Behounek

With a broken leg and feeling as though his intestines were damaged beyond repair, Captain Nobile thought to himself, at least he wouldn’t have to witness the prolonged death agonies, of his comrades.  Senior Cecione likewise suffered a broken leg.  Engine operator Vincenzo Pomella was already dead.

Now relieved of the gondola’s weight, the envelope of the ship began to rise with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a pure act of selfless heroism, a remarkable display of calm under the most extreme sort of pressure. As the airship italia-crashfloated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino threw everything he could get his hands on, down to the men on the ice. These were supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death.

Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Ten men and a dog were stranded on the drifting ice pack.

Those who were able to  do so immediately set about, searching for supplies.  They scavenged across the ice and found a radio, and jury-rigged a mast from crash debris.  A tent was set up and dyed a bright red, using that same aniline paint.

A colt revolver was found along with a box of cartridges.  Five days later, Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren would use it to kill a polar bear, adding considerably to their food supplies.

The aftermath of the Italia disaster is a story in itself, a rescue unfolding over nearly two months and involving six countries, 18 vessels, 21 aircraft and 1,500 men.  Many would-be rescuers became stranded themselves or vanished into the arctic, never to be seen again.  Rescue operations were brought to a halt with seventeen dead, between Italia’s crew and her rescuers.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

The American woman Bess Magids, engaged to be married to Amundsen, was already on the way to Norway, for the wedding that would never take place.

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Forty-nine days would come and go, before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers, would be found.  The red tent was relocated several times to avoid getting wet, on the shrinking ice pack

Umberto Nobile was a subject of scorn, for allowing himself to be rescued before his men.  And for bringing Titina, thus elevating the life of the dog over the lives of his men.   Titina herself was sick with scurvy when rescued from the ice and went to a dentist, to have several teeth removed.  Rumor has it that Nobile had them replaced, with gold teeth.

The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia remains a mystery, to this day.

May 19, 1944 The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where an entire family lived to tell the tale.

Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a Romanian rabbi, and a WWI-era “merrymaker’ or traveling entertainer.  He was also a man afflicted with pseudoachondroplasia.  Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a dwarf.  Ovitz fathered 10 children by two normal sized wives:  Brana Fruchter and Batia Bertha Husz.  All ten survived to adulthood.  Three grew to normal height.  The other seven were “little people”, the largest dwarf family unit, in history.

On her death bed in 1930, Batia gave the kids a piece of advice that stuck with them, all their lives: “through thick and thin” she said, “never separate. Stick together, guard each other and live for one another”.

war2_1687882aCircus-like performing dwarves were common enough at this time but the Ovitz siblings were different.  These were talented musicians playing quarter-sized instruments, performing a variety show throughout the 1930s and early ’40s as the “Lilliput Troupe”.  The family performed throughout Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, with their normal height siblings serving as “roadies”.   And then came the day.  The whole lot of them were swept up by the Nazis and deported to the concentration camp and extermination center, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The train arrived around midnight on May 19, 1944.  Thoroughly accustomed to a degree of celebrity, one of them began to give out autographed cards. The family would soon be disabused of any notions of celebrity.

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The “death gate” of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Even so, cultural currents run deep.  Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves.   Knowing of his perverse fascination with the malformed and what he called “blood” (family) experiments, Dr. Josef Mengele was immediately awakened.  The “Angel of Death”was delighted, exclaiming “I now have work for 20 years!”

The ten siblings were spared from the gas chamber that night, along with two more family members, a baby boy and a 58-year old woman. Families of their handyman and a neighbor were also spared, as all insisted they were close relatives.    All told, there were 22 of them.

the-dwarves-of-auschwitz-4
Ovitz family performers, before the war

The family was housed in horrific conditions, yet seven dwarves didn’t come along every day.  Where others were directed to the gas chambers, these were kept alive for further use.  As bad as it was, the food and clothing was better than that received by most camp inmates. Mengele even allowed them to keep their hair, and arranged special living quarters.

The bizarre and hideous “experiments” Mengele performed in the name of “science” were little more than freakish torture rituals.  Three dwarf skeletons were on prominent display, the bones of earlier arriving little people, ever-present reminders of what could be.  Boiling water was poured into their ears, followed by freezing.  Eyelashes and teeth were pulled without anesthesia.  Blood was the holy grail in the mind of Josef Mengele, and the stuff was drawn until each would throw up and pass out, only to be revived to have more blood drawn.the-ovitzs-leaving-the-ca-008On one occasion, the Angel of Death told the family they were “going to a beautiful place”. Terrified, the siblings were given makeup, and told to dress themselves. Brought to a nearby theater and placed onstage, the family must have thought they’d be asked to perform.  Instead, Mengele ordered them to undress, leaving all seven naked before a room full of SS men.  Mengele then gave a speech and invited the audience onstage, to poke and prod at the humiliated family.

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where an entire family lived to tell the tale.

Auschwitz_I_(22_May_2010)
Before becoming an industrialized extermination center, Auschwitz I was a slave labor camp for Polish and later Russian prisoners. The words over the gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, translate: “Work Makes You Free”.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Traveling by foot to their Transylvanian home village of Rozavlea, the family found the place ruined.  The gold coins buried for safekeeping before the war were right where they had left them.  Otherwise, there was no future in this place.

ba132f2b89040eef0fb0b59e29512baf Only 50 of the 650 Jewish inhabitants of the village ever returned.  In 1949, the family emigrated to Israel and resumed their musical tour, performing until the group retired in 1955.

Josef Mengele never did face justice. The man who had directed victims by the hundreds of thousands to the gas chamber, fled to South America after the war.  He was living under a false name in Brazil in 1979 when he suffered a stroke, while enjoying an afternoon swim.  The cause of death for one of the great monsters of modern history, was accidental drowning.

The youngest and last of the Ovitz dwarves, Piroska or “Perla” to her friends, passed away two days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. She spoke for the whole family, I think, when she said “I was saved by the grace of the devil”.

The hour-long film “Standing Tall at Auschwitz” fills in a lot of the details.  It’s worth watching.

February 2, 1709 A Real Life Robinson Crusoe

“One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was”.

The Royal House of Habsburg takes the name from Habsburg Castle, built in the 1020s in modern-day Switzerland. It was Otto II who died somewhere around 1111AD who first added the name to his titles, calling himself Graf (Count) of Habsburg. The Habsburg line would grow into a dynasty, one family producing Kings and Emperors ruling over dominions from Bohemia to England and Ireland, to the Second Mexican Empire.

The Habsburg Royal Line ruled from the Kingdom of Portugal in the West to Germany, Hungary, Croatia and several Dutch and Italian principalities.  The throne of the Holy Roman Empire was continuously occupied by a member of this one family from 1438 until the extinction of the male line, in 1740.

Rey_Carlos_II_de_España
King Charles II of Spain

Political alliances were often sealed during this period, by marriage. The family sought to consolidate power through a number of political unions, such marriages being by definition, consanguineous. Inside the family. Marriages between first cousins or uncles and nieces, were commonplace. Such inbreeding produced any number of genetic disorders and almost certainly brought about the extinction of the line.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the Spanish Habsburgs. A study by the University of Santiago de Compostela examined some 3,000 family members over 16 generations and concluded the end of the Spanish line, Charles II, possessed a genome not dissimilar to that of the offspring of a brother and sister.

King Charles II of Spain was weak and sickly from birth. Known as El Hechizado (the Bewitched), Charles was the recipient of any number of deleterious but recessive alleles, made dominant through generations of inbreeding.

The “Habsburg jaw” was so pronounced, Charles spoke and ate, only with difficulty.  He couldn’t talk until age four.  The man was eight before he learned to walk.  He was “short, lame, epileptic, senile and completely bald before 35, always on the verge of death but repeatedly baffling Christendom by continuing to live.

777px-carlos_segundo801The male line of the Spanish Habsburgs came to an end on November 1, 1700, when Charles II died without heir, five days before his 39th birthday. The will named 16-year-old Philip of Anjou successor, grandson of the Bourbon King Louis XIV of France and Charles’ half-sister, Maria Theresa.

Such an ascension would have consolidated the Spanish and French crowns and disrupted the balance of power, in Europe. The Grand Alliance of England, the Dutch Republic and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold preferred Leopold’s younger son Archduke Charles.  The War of Spanish Succession, was on.

The English dispensed “Letters of Marque and Reprisal”, authorizing private persons to conduct acts of war against French and Spanish interests. Similar to mercenary soldiers, except “Privateers” were not paid, directly. They were in it for plunder.

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East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray

The sixteen-gun Cinque Ports was one such privateer, the English vessel departing in 1703 accompanied by the 26-gun St. George under overall command of William Dampier, the first man to thrice, circumnavigate the globe.

Intending to attack Spanish shipping, the pair rounded the horn and cruised the South American coast as far as Panama, capturing several enemy vessels along the way. The two privateers separated in 1704, when 21-year-old Captain Thomas Stradling put ashore at Más a Tierra island in the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago for fresh water, and meat.  They were 420 miles off the Chilean coast.

Juan Fernandez Archipelago, off the coast of Chile

An 18th century Sailing Master was not so much a military title as a professional seaman, and navigator.  Cinque Ports’ Sailing Master Alexander Selkirk was gravely concerned about the vessel’s seaworthiness.  The hull was deeply worm eaten and Selkirk wanted to stay for repairs.  Stradling would have none of it.  The argument became heated, and Selkirk stated that he’d rather be put ashore, than continue on.

Selkirk would come to regret the comment but that was it for the hot tempered Captain.  He was mocked as a mutineer, put ashore with a musket, a hatchet, knife, some oats, tobacco and a cooking pot, a Bible, bedding and some clothes.  It was October, 1704.

RainerCrusoe

Selkirk was right.  Cinque Ports would founder, her shipwrecked survivors picked up by their enemy and entering a brutal period of captivity.

Marooned and alone, Selkirk subsisted for a time on spiny lobster.  He spent his days on the shoreline, hoping and praying for a sail.  None came.  He’d shoot the occasional sea lion, but powder and shot soon gave out.  Hordes of these raucous creatures gathered for mating season soon drove him inland, where Selkirk discovered wild turnips, cabbage leaves and pepper berries.  Feral goats left behind by earlier sailors provided milk and meat while he learned to fashion tools out of old barrel hoops, found on the beach.

Selkirk_reading_his_Bible
Selkirk reads his Bible in one of two huts he built on a mountainside. Drawing by anonymous

Rats attacked him by night, until Selkirk found common cause with feral cats.  They would receive their morsels and he, a sound night’s sleep.

Selkirk built two huts out of pepper trees.  One for sleeping, the other for cooking.  When his clothes wore out he’d fashion replacements from goat skins, sewn together using an old nail.  His old shoes wore out but those needed no replacement.  The man’s feet were as tough as that old nail.

alexander-selkirk-robinson-crusoeVessels came twice to the island, but both proved to be Spanish.  A Scottish privateer could count on torture and worse at the hands of his enemy, and so he hid.  Selkirk was spotted one time and chased by a Spanish search party.  Several stopped for a leak under a tree in which he was hiding, but they never knew.  In time they became bored, and sailed away.

On February 2, 1709, the English privateer Duke spotted a fire where there should be none, and stopped to investigate.  After 52 months alone, Selkirk was incoherent with joy.  Though his language skills were all but gone, Captain Woodes Rogers was impressed with his demeanor.

“One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was”.

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Selkirk, Seated right, is brought aboard the Duke

William Dampier was pilot aboard Duke and vouched for Selkirk’s seamanship.  The agile castaway even ran down several goats, restoring health to a crew then in the grips of scurvy.

Alexander Selkirk was made second mate aboard Duke and returned to a life at sea.  He died on December 13, 1721 off the coast of Africa, a victim of yellow fever.  When Daniel Defoe published his famous novel in 1719, few could miss the resemblance to Alexander Selkirk.

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In the 1960s, Chile changed the name of Más a Tierra, to Robinson Crusoe Island.   National Geographic writes that Defoe’s character was more an amalgamation of shipwreck stories, than one based solely on Selkirk.  The idea makes sense.  The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was based not in the mid-latitudes of the South Pacific but on a Caribbean island, some 2,700 miles distant. Crusoe’s goatskin attire seems ill suited to the heat of the Spanish Main but, no matter. It makes for one hell of a story.

Feature image, top of page: Alexander Selkirk, inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, sculpture by Scottish artist Thomas Stuart Burnett. Located at Selkirk’s birthplace of Lower Largo in Fife.

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November 14, 1851 The Real Moby Dick

The eighty-foot bull sperm whale charged in at the great speed of 24 knots according to First Mate Owen Chase, ramming the port bow and driving the stern into the water. Oak planking cracked and splintered as the whale worked his tail up and down, driving the 238-ton vessel backward. Essex had already started to go down when the whale broke off his attack, diving below the surface, never to return.

The whale ship Essex set sail from Nantucket in August of 1819, the month Herman Melville was born. The 21-man crew expected to spend two to three years hunting sperm whales, filling the ship’s hold with oil before returning to split the profits of the voyage.

Essex sailed down the coast of South America, rounding the Horn and entering the Pacific Ocean. The word from other whalers, was that the fishing grounds off the Chilean coast were exhausted, so Essex sailed for the “offshore grounds”, almost 2,000 miles from the nearest land.

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Essex was plying the offshore grounds on November 20, 1820, with two of three boats out hunting whales. The lookout spotted a huge bull sperm whale, much larger than normal, estimated at 85 feet long and 80 tons. The animal was behaving oddly, lying motionless on the surface with his head facing the ship. In moments the whale began to move, slowly at first and then picking up speed as he charged the ship. Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked. This one hit the port side so hard, it shook the entire ship.

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The huge animal seemed dazed by the impact, floating to the surface and resting by the ship’s side. He then turned and swam away for several hundred yards, before turning to resume his attack. He charged in at the great speed of 24 knots according to First Mate Owen Chase, ramming the port bow and driving the stern into the water. Oak planking cracked and splintered as the whale worked his tail up and down, driving the 238-ton vessel backward. Essex had already started to go down when the whale broke off his attack, diving below the surface, never to return.

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Captain George Pollard’s boat was the first to make it back, and he stared in disbelief. “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” he asked. “We have been stove by a whale” came the reply.

No force on earth could save the stricken whale ship. The crew divided into groups of seven and boarded the three boats. It wasn’t long before Essex sank out of sight and they were alone, stranded in 28-foot open boats, and about as far from land as it was mathematically possible to be.

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The whalers believed that cannibals inhabited the Marquesa islands 1,200 miles to the west, so they headed south, parallel to the coast of South America. Before their ordeal was over, they themselves would become the cannibals.

With good winds, they might reach the coast of Chile in 56 days. They had taken enough rations to last 60, provided they were distributed at starvation levels, but most of it had been ruined by salt water. There was a brief reprieve in December, when the three small boats landed on a small island in the Pitcairn chain. There they were able to get their fill of birds, eggs, crabs, and peppergrass, but within a week the island was stripped clean. They decided to move on, except for three who refused to get back in the boats.

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They never knew that this was Henderson Island, only 104 miles from Pitcairn Island, for eighteen years the refuge of the last survivors from the 1789 Mutiny on HMS Bounty.

After two months at sea, the boats had long since separated. Starving men were beginning to die, and the survivors came to an unthinkable conclusion. The living, would have to eat their own dead.

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When those were gone, survivors drew lots to see who would die, that the others might live. Captain Pollard’s 17-year-old cousin Owen Coffin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot. Pollard protested, offering to take his place, but the boy declined. “No”, he said, “I like my lot as well as any other.” Again, lots were drawn to see who would be Coffin’s executioner. Owen’s friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot.

On February 18, the British whale ship Indian spotted a boat containing Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson. It was 90 days after Essex’ sinking. Five days later, the Nantucket whale ship Dauphin pulled alongside another boat, to find Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell. The pair was so far gone they didn’t notice at first, gnawing on the bones of their comrades.

The three who were left on Henderson Island were later rescued.  Several years later, the last whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island, four skeletons on board.

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The Essex was the first ship recorded to have been sunk by a whale.  She would not be the last. The Pusie Hall was attacked in 1835. The Lydia and the Two Generals were both sunk by whales in 1836, and the Pocahontas and the Ann Alexander came under attack in 1850 and ’51.  The clipper ship Herald of the Morning was struck by a sperm whale off Cape Horn in 1859, but not fatally.

On this day in 1851, a sailor-turned novelist published his sixth volume, beginning with the words, “Call me Ishmael”.  Thirty-one years nearly to the day, after the sinking of the whale ship Essex.

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