If you grew up in New England, especially coastal New England, you’ve likely heard of the Whaleship Essex. A ship born out of the American whaling capital of Nantucket in the early nineteenth century, its incredible tale was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. In In the Heart of the Sea, author Nathaniel Philbrick pieces together witness and survivor accounts as well as detailed historical tidbits on Nantucket and the whaling industry of the time period to create the most complete story of the Whaleship Essex ever told. Viking | Hardcover | 2000 | 302pp
On August 12, 1819, the Whaleship Essex, an older ship with a first-time captain, left Nantucket for a 2-3 year whaling excursion. It traveled east for a time and then moved south, rounding around Cape Horn and making its way up the coast of South America. After several stops, and some successful whale slaughters, it made its way into the open Pacific. On November 20, 1820, the whalers began to track and harpoon some whales far out into sea by the equatorial line. A large bull sperm whale, likely agitated by the suffering of his companions, made a beeline for the Whaleship Essex. When most whales flee, it was aggressive behavior never seen before. After a few attacks, the ship was breached.
The men, all survived, were forced into their three smaller whaleboats. Salvaging what they could from their sinking wreck, they had a big decision to make. Do they head east with the wind to the nearby Marquesas Islands or do they head west, against the wind, back to the Chilean coast? From unfounded fears of cannibals in the Marquesas Islands, they decided to make their way back to the South American coast over 2,500 miles away.
The men created sails from scraps they were able to tear off the wreckage of the Essex. They rationed their hardtack and water and the turtles they had taken from the Galapagos before being struck by the whale. Hard as they tried, the Southeast Trade Wings kept pushing them away, and so they traveled south. After battling brutal hunger and thirst, storms and high seas, they ended up at Henderson Island (although they thought it was Ducie Island). They were further away from their target but here they found freshwater and food. After only a few days, they had nearly exhausted all resources on the barren island.
They filled their boats with as much food as they could carry, and left in the small boats once more. Three men, however, decided to stay behind. Although the men had refueled on the island, their health was still in a collective state of precariousness. Receiving such small rations weakened them quickly again, and it wasn’t long before the first person died. When the third person passed on, they decided to consume the body rather than send him to sea. The boats eventually got separated. In one boat, they decided to cast lots to see who would be killed for food, in another – the men were discovered rolling in blood and sucking the marrow out of human bones by another whaleship, and the third was lost until years later – only skeletons remained.
The author does well by introducing material on starvation from several different studies. He explains what it does to the body physically and mentally. He uses this information, most notably, to discuss the deaths of the first several men, who were all African-American whalers. In all of the accounts, these men died of ill health. And it is true that the African-Americans weren’t fed the best on board the ship because they were the lowest in the chain of command. So already, their bodies were highly malnourished. In the small surviving whaleships, and because they weren’t from Nantucket (a trait prized above all others in whaleship crew attributes, on whaleships from Natucket, of course), we wonder if the African-Americans were purposefully deprived of their rations to make them weaker. Or if they were downright murdered.
We’ll never really know.
Once word reached Nantucket and the surviving men returned, it was a huge national story and a black mark on Nantucket. For a town steeped in Quaker religion which touted racial and gender equality, yet not one black man from the Whaleship Essex crew survived and it was learned that many had been eaten – the dark suspicions weren’t something they could completely recover from.
Something to contradict the possibility that the African-Americans were intentionally killed, and something which is also equally disturbing, is the fact that Captain Pollard’s nephew was indeed murdered. Although Pollard did not want to cast lots to kill someone for food, he finally acquiesced. His nephew drew the fated lot, was killed, and Pollard ate him. This was something that he did not try to cover up; he told the story immediately upon rescue and told it factually when he was back home in Nantucket. It grieved him horribly afterward. But if they did not cover up this casting of lots and the murder, why would they cover up any other murders when this one could have potentially meant immediate ostracization from Nantucket (killing a fellow Nantucket relation and cannibalizing his body)?
The description of Nantucket at the time was a key player in this story. The author details in brief the town’s boom in the whaling industry, how the Quaker religion played a role in the town’s success, and how important lineage was. Everyone wanted a purebred Nantucket man/boy on their ship. Being from Nantucket meant everything while being an outsider would practically render you useless. Even on ship, the smaller whaleboats were structured according to Nantucket birth, with the captain’s boat having the most from Nantucket.
In December of this year, In The Heart of the Sea will be coming to theaters. Have a look at the trailer:
This glimpse screams ‘Hollywood’ so I advise you to read the book first! This over-the-top trailer makes it seem like the book is mostly about the whale, and it was not.
An incredible true story and a tremendous read.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
by Nathaniel Philbrick