Sunday, January 07, 2007
In the Heart of the Sea: A Book Review
Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (New York: Penguin, 2000)
At the suggestion of Ed Abbey, after listening to an unabridged audio version of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, I decided to pick up one of the books on the whaling ship Essex. (I also listened to this book, but checked a copy of the book out of the library to reread sections.) Melville mentions the tragedy of the Essex in his novel. Having gone through both books, back to back, I agree with Ed that one should probably start with a non-fiction account of the Essex and then move on to the larger novel. Philbrick’s history provides detail understanding into the Nantucket whaling enterprise and the whaling occupation as well as a detailed description of the fated voyage of the Essex and its aftermath. From Philbrick’s descriptions, a number of things in Melville’s classic becomes clearer. You learn how Nantucket became a Quaker outpost and how these peaceful and austere people dominated the whaling industry in the early part of the 19th Century. He also tells of the importance whale oil played in the pre-petroleum economy, the life aboard ship, and the roles and “pecking order” of each sailor, as well information about the effect of starvation upon those going through an ordeal such as the men of the Essex.
The Essex was an older ship, under the command of Captain Pollard. It was his first command and he had a hard time gathering enough crew to make the three year voyage to the Pacific hunting grounds. Finally securing a rather inexperienced crew, they set sail on August 12, 1819. From the beginning bad luck haunted them. They almost lost the ship in a storm in the Atlantic, losing several whaleboats which they replaced with inferior boats. It took them a while to get knack of whaling. On November 20, 1820, with the ship’s hold beginning to fill with oil, they were attacked by a large sperm whale that knocked the ship on its side. This occurred when most of the men were in the whale boats chasing another whale. Seeing their ship capsize was disheartening. Rowing back to the ship, they took in all the provisions they could salvage and made masks and sails for the boats and started for South America.
Much of the story is about the men’s struggle to survive the open ocean in three small whaling boats. They were at sea for three months. Of the crew of twenty-one, eight survived. It was a chilling account of survival as the living ate the dead. At first, it was just the dead who died naturally, but in one of the boats, lots were drawn and one sailor executed to provide food for the rest. The boats never made it to shore. Two were discovered by whaling ships and the third was later found washed up on the beach, with the skeletons of four men inside. Three other men survived on an island that had little food and water.
The story is a tragedy. Several times in the journey Captain Pollard allowed himself to be overruled by his younger officers. He had wanted to turn back while still in the Atlantic to secure more whaleboats and to repair the ship, but had been encouraged to go on. These inferior boats would later become problematic. After the sinking of the Essex, Pollard’s instincts told them to try for some Pacific Islands, but he again allowing his officers to persuade him otherwise, more of them may have survived. They didn’t sail to them because they were afraid of cannibals. This later proved to be both an unfounded and an ironic fear.
In the Heart of the Sea is more than a story. It's solid history. Philbrick draws on other accounts of whaling tragedies as well as other accounts of cannibalism among those in similar situations as well as studies on the physical and psychological affects of starvation. The Essex tragedy would become the model for Moby Dick, a novel that didn’t do well in the 19th Century (only in the early 20th Century was it rediscovered and became a classic). However, most Americans in the 19th Century heard of the disaster as the McGuffey Readers had an account of the story.
I recommend this book. Philbrick tells a good story while providing interesting details that make the reader appreciate what the men of the Essex endured while at sea. He also gives an account of the life of the sailors after the tragedy. Chase, the first mate would become a experienced sea captain. Pollard, the captain, would lose another ship when he sailed upon a offshore reef. He ended out his life as a night watchman on Nantucket.