In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
by Nathaniel Philbrick
In 1819, the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket on a two-year voyage. Their goal: harvest as much oil from sperm whales as the ship can hold before returning to port. Nantucket business thrived on the whale oil trade; the oil burned as a bright flame with no odor. Captain George Pollard had been newly commissioned as the captain of the Essex, and Mates Owen Chase and Matthew Joy completed his crew of officers. Eighteen other men signed on as sailors, including cabin boy Thomas Nickerson. The crew of 21 men set out toward the Pacific whaling grounds, a journey that required the mercy of the trade winds and Providence to get them to their intended destination. After several stops for provisions along the South American coast, including the Galapagos Islands, Captain Pollard and his crew sailed to the dead center of the Pacific where they hunted and processed whales to fill the ship’s hold until one of those whales attacked and sank the Essex. The men were left in the middle of the ocean with only their whaling boats and what provisions they could scavenge from the wreck. Nathaniel Philbrick uses the account from Owen Chase and as well as a newly discovered manuscript of Thomas Nickerson to retell the story that inspired Herman Melville’s American classic Moby Dick.
- Philbrick sets the tone of the story of the Essex by first narrating about a series of omens that coincided with the departure of the ship. I found that the omens made a compelling background for the eventual sinking of the Essex. Philbrick first tells about the comet that appeared before the Essex departed, as well as a plague of locusts that had destroyed the crops of Nantucket. Other arguments against the voyage include the storm endured by the crew just after setting off, the damage done to the storm by the ship, and their first encounter with a whale, which was anything but successful. I can only imagine how the men on the ship (and their families) felt with the occurrence of all these bad omens, especially at a time when people placed such stock in them. Seeing as how the title of the book has “tragedy” in it, the reader knows what’s going to happen before even starting to read, but the nagging appearance of these omens creates a real sense of foreboding.
- Philbrick emphasized how the close-knit, elite, even somewhat snobbish Nantucket community remained intact even in the middle of the ocean. These ties come into play throughout the ordeal at sea. The author also describes how their Quaker beliefs directed all of their actions. Ironically, though, their “mission [was] to maintain a peaceful life on land while raising bloody havoc at sea” (p. 9). Even after being lost at sea for months, the Quaker lifestyle still affected the decisions made by the sailors, specifically in regard to how they would sustain themselves without sources of food or water.
- The descriptions that Philbrick weaves together are very effective at grossing out the reader. For example, Philbrick proves the argument that a whaleship was considered a floating factory whose job involved not only catching and killing the sperm whales, but also processing them into oil. The way the author describes this process is truly disgusting; how much more so it would have been for the sailors!
- Ultimately, this is a nonfiction work. The author relates events that actually occurred using primary and secondary sources. Philbrick uses the account of Thomas Nickerson, however, which until relatively recently remained undiscovered and unpublished. It is interesting to see what Nickerson’s account reveals that Owen Chase’s omits or recounts differently. While the truth probably lies somewhere between the two accounts, at the very least Nickerson’s version of the Essex story takes away a little credence from Chase’s account, which tends to leave out details that make him look bad.
- Furthermore, since this is a work of nonfiction, Philbrick does more than simply retell the story of a shipwreck and its doomed sailors. The author does an excellent job of segueing into different topics as they become relevant to the narrative. For example, he gives factual, informative “reports” about dehydration, psychological issues, orcas, and starvation as they become pertinent to the timeline of the story. I appreciate the scientific explanations, and they add to the overall intrigue of the plight of the sailors.
What Doesn’t Work:
- All the nautical terms are confusing! Maybe it’s just that I have absolutely no experience with sailing or boats or seamanship, but I would appreciate a glossary for quick reference.
- Some of the transitions seem a little jumpy. This is a function of the asides Philbrick makes about different aspects of the journey across the Pacific. The information relayed is important and interesting though.
The preface reveals the end of the story: the few men left after the sinking of the Essex. So while I knew the ending of the story from the beginning (and obviously there would be survivors since there is a record of the tragedy), the author managed to keep the story engaging and exciting. That’s what makes a good story, folks: even when the reader already knows what’s going to happen, she can’t help but want to find out more! Reading In the Heart of the Sea even made me want to read Moby Dick. (I managed to miss the survey of early American literature course in college!) I also appreciate the “rest of the story” where Philbrick told about the lives of the survivors after they returned to Nantucket. It is amazing how the men’s lives took such different directions and they had such different perspectives despite the fact that they had identical experiences on the open sea.
I would recommend this book to the history-loving crowd, and also to fiction-readers who think they don’t like non-fiction.
The movie version of In the Heart of the Sea is set to release in November of this year. I’m interested to see how they will adapt it for the screen. And I think the movie poster is incredible!
(Photo credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1390411/ )
Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:
- My Rating: A
- I am a huge fan of nonfiction written in a way that reads like fiction–excellent!
- I’m also a history-phile, so anything in that regard is high on my list.
- Clean Factor: A
- minus the gross factor, nothing makes this worse than PG-rated
- Book Clubbishness: C
- I like this book for a personal read
- However, as a teacher, I would love to see a project based on this book and/or the film version and/or Moby Dick.