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Thomas Nickerson

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Thomas Nickerson

Sketch of the Essex being struck by a whale on 20 November 1820; Sketched later in life by Thomas Nickerson

Thomas Gibson Nickerson (March 20, 1805 – February 7, 1883) was an American sailor. In 1819, the fourteen-year-old Nickerson served as cabin boy on the whaleship Essex. On this voyage, the ship was sunk by a whale it was pursuing, and the crew spent three months at sea before the survivors were rescued. In 1876 he wrote The Loss of the Ship "Essex", an account of the ordeal and of his subsequent experiences at sea. The manuscript was lost until 1960, and was first published in 1984.


Born on the island of Nantucket off the Massachusetts coast, Nickerson made his first sea voyage in 1819, at the age of fourteen, on the ill-fated whaler Essex. When the ship was struck by a whale on November 20, 1820, he joined the boat of the first mate, Owen Chase, who later wrote about the incident in the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, the book that would inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.

Nickerson returned to sea after his rescue, serving on other whale ships and eventually working his way up to captain of a merchant vessel. Upon retiring he ran a boarding house in Nantucket, which was visited by the writer Leon Lewis, who encouraged him to write down his story of the three months he was lost at sea with the Essex survivors. Nickerson did this, and in 1876, he sent the 80 page manuscript, as well as accounts of other adventures he had later in life, to Lewis for editing. Lewis, however, was having a personal crisis, and the manuscript was abandoned.[1] When Lewis journeyed to England, he left a trunk in the care of Rhea Ogden, a neighbor at his summer cottage on Lake Keuka, Penn Yan, New York. The trunk containing the manuscript was then given by Rhea to her nephew, Mr James M. Finch, Jr. of Hamden, Conn. The trunk's contents were finally inspected in 1980. Mr. Finch's wife, Ann, recognizing the manuscript's importance contacted the Nantucket Whaling Museum. Edouard Stackpole authenticated the manuscript and the Finches arranged to donate the manuscript to the Museum.

Nickerson died in 1883, but it was only in 1960 that his unedited manuscript The Loss of the Ship "Essex" Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats was discovered. It took another twenty years before it was authenticated by Edouard A. Stackpole; an abridged version was published by the Nantucket Historical Association in 1984, a century after Nickerson's death.[1]

Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction work In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is partly based on Nickerson's account.[2]

In 2015, a film (In The Heart of the Sea) will be released, being directed by Academy Award® Winner Ron Howard, in which Thomas Nickerson is portrayed by Brendan Gleeson (old) and Tom Holland (young). The movie also stars Chris Hemsworth and is expected to be released in December 11, 2015.


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