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In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Author : Nathaniel Philbrick
Published : 2001-05-01

Growing up, Moby-Dick was a great book of fiction, one freighted with allegories, metaphors, and symbolism wrapped up around a story of a great white whale and the captain of a whaleship overwhelmed by a need for revenge.

Should we be surprised that there's more than a shred of truth to the inspiration for Herman Melville's classic?

Weaving together first-person narratives from more than a century ago, interspersed with his own research into the past and the present, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the backstory of Moby-Dick, a story that ravels out from a real case of a sperm whale attacking an early 19th-century whaleship.

In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, was published more than a decade ago, in 2000, but that doesn't make it any less relevant or riveting today. In telling this story of the ill-fated Captain George Pollard, Jr., and his crew and how they turned to cannibalism, Mr. Philbrick deepens our knowledge of the whaling industry and its one-time capital, Nantucket, and touches on New Bedford, Massachusetts, (home of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park) and how it came to overtake Nantucket as the nation's foremost whaling port. 

Of course, Mr. Melville and the historical park remain tied together today. Visit the park and you can sit in the same pew in the Seamen's Bethel where Mr. Melville sat before departing on his own whaling odyssey on January 1, 1841, 21 years after the tragedy of the Essex.

If you're a fan of seafaring novels, In the Heart of the Sea is for you. Mr. Philbrick covers the history of Nantucket, the nuances of 19th-century whaling, and the fate of the sailors and officers of the Essex, a decidely small (87 feet in length, 238 tons of displacement) and old ship that perhaps had left port on its last voyage when it should instead have been destined for drydock or even the graveyard.

At twenty years of age, the Essex was reaching the point when many vessels began to exhibit serious structural deterioration. Whale oil seems to have acted as a preservative, providing most whaleships with lives much longer than that of a typical merchant vessel. Still, there were limits. Rot, teredo worms, and a condition called iron sickness, in which the ship's rusted iron fastenings weakened the oak, all were potential problems.

The ever lengthening voyages around Cape Horn were another concern. "The ship(s) being so long at sea without much repairs," Obed Macy would write in his journal, "must short the durations of the ships (by) many years." Indeed, the Essex had undergone several days of repairs in South America during her previous voyage. She was an old ship caught up in a new era of whaling, and no one knew how much longer she would last.

Owners were always reluctant to invest any more money in the repair of a ship than was absolutely necessary. While they had no choice but to rebuild the Essex's upperworks, there could well have been suspicious areas below the waterline that they chose to address at a later time, if not ignore. That summer, the Essex's principal owners, Gideon Folger and Sons, were awaiting delivery of a new, much larger whaleship, the Aurora. This was not the year to spend an inordinate amount of money on a tired old vessel like the Essex.

  That wear apparently gave way in November 1820 when the Essex, far out in the mid-Pacific in the then-new "Offshore Ground," some 1,000 miles west of the Galapagos Islands, became a target for a large bull sperm whale. Twice the whale rammed the ship, the second time in the port bow with so powerful of a head butt that it stove-in the hull.

In exploring how a sperm whale, estimated by the Essex's crew at 85 feet long, a huge animal even for a whale, could possibly sink a ship with a hull of 4-inch-thick planking of white oak, with another half-inch layer of yellow pine, topped finally by a copper sheath, the author touches on the age of the ship and its possible infirmities. According to Mr. Philbrick's research, "one naval architect's calculations project that if the Essex had been a new ship, her oak planking would have withstood even this tremendous blow. Since the whale did punch a hole in the bow, the Essex's twenty-one-year-old planking must have been significantly weakened by rot or marine growth."

With the Essex sinking rapidly, the crew grabbed what supplies and provisions as they could and took to the three whaleboats that would become their veritable prisons for three months.

Mr. Philbrick, who exercised even more deeply his love for nautical history in Sea of Glory: The Epic South Seas Expedition, 1838-1842, that won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize, here lays down a primer of the Quakers who settled Nantucket, how the islanders became involved in whaling in the very late 1600s, and the tightness of community that they nurtured within their religious beliefs. 

That background is important when, after the Essex has been sunk and left its 20 men bobbing on the open Pacific Ocean in three well-worn, 25-foot-long whaleboats for weeks, resort to cannibalism. After more than three months, most spent on the ocean, only eight of the 20 survived, and all were Nantucketers.

From the beginning the Nantucketers in the crew took measures to provide one another with the greatest possible support without blatantly compromising the safety of the others. Although rations appear to have been distributed equally, it was almost as if the Nantucketers existed in a protective bubble as off-island crew members, first black then white, fell by the waywide until the Nantucketers had, in the case of Pollard's crew, no choice but to eat their own. The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told.

  To support the narratives handed down by two members of the Essex -- Owen Chase, the first mate, and Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy -- Mr. Philbrick pulls from historical stories about cannibalism at sea in cases of shipwrecks. So commonplace was the practice, he writes, that "by the early nineteenth century, cannibalism at sea was so widespread that survivors often felt compelled to inform their rescuers if they had not resorted to it since, according to one historian, 'suspicion of this practice among starving castaways was a routine reaction.'"

In the Heart of the Sea tells a harrowing tale of desperation and determination, of incredible poor luck, and gritty resolve. And when all seems lost, it offers redemption. 

Traveler footnote: If this sounds like the book for you, consider purchasing it through the Traveler by clicking on the Amazon link above, as we get a pittance of commission.

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