In the Heart of the Sea:
The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
New York: Penguin Books, 2000
...to go down to the sea in ships... and kill whales
In the early 19th century, commercial whaling was a multimillion-dollar business on the eastern seaboard. America and Europe used millions of gallons of whale oil for lamp fuel and lubrication. Whale oil was a basic element of paint, varnish and soap. One of the major centers of the whaling industry in North America was Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts inhabited mainly by Quakers.
In the Heart of the Sea is the true story of the officers and crew of the Nantucket whaleship, Essex. It covers its voyage around Cape Horn into the South Pacific, the ship’s being rammed and capsized by an enormous sperm whale, and the subsequent ordeal on the open sea and ultimate rescue of the eight men who managed to endure the ordeal. The capsizing occurred on November 20, 1821.
Author Herman Melville, who had served as a crew member on whaling vessels, used elements of the story of the Essex in his classic Moby Dick (1851). Nathaniel Philbrick brings across the same level of drama in his work, revealing what life was like in isolated, yet bustling Nantucket, the rigors of whaling work—often vessels would be away from home for up to three years—, the dangers, and ultimately the wrenching story of survival at sea.
The Essex capsizing was blockbuster news in New England and New York of the 1820s, just as the story of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was to the world. Like other well-known tribulations of people going without food for long periods—e.g., the Donner Party in the American West (1846, 47), the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes (1972)—survivors of the Essex resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.
Philbrick brilliantly captures the feeling of being a crew member or an officer on board one of the three 25-ft. chalupas, used as lifeboats following the capsizing. He has deep insight into the mores of the time, as well as an understanding of how men accepted authority and dealt with adversity. For the most part, they were incredibly brave and resourceful.
The capsizing occurred in the Pacific Ocean at the equator approximately 2000 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. The men salvaged some food and water and fitted each of the lifeboats with a semblance of sail. But navigation was difficult and stores were small; the initial goal was to head east toward South America, but they could only manage a southward tack at the beginning.
The captain arguably made a couple of bad decisions.
Finally, approximately 90 days after the loss of the ship, the remaining men, including the captain and first mate, were rescued by other whaling vessels near the western coast of South America. They were emaciated, facing imminent death. Philbrick, like a scientist, discusses the process of starvation and dehydration, citing studies that give the reader a feel for the suffering these men underwent.
Then he covers the aftermath of the catastrophe, back in Nantucket, the directions in life taken by the survivors, future career moves, marriages, and so on. I felt part of the culture, and learned a lot about whaling as way of life.
Just consider the act of throwing a harpoon from the bow of a 25-ft. boat into the 15-ft.-long head of a 70-ft-long., 60-ton creature moving at 5-10 knots in the open ocean, then wearing it out and killing it with lances. No wimps!
An encouraging side note from the whale’s perspective by the author:
"It is estimated that the Nantucketers and their Yankee whale-killing brethren harvested more than 225,000 sperm whales between 1804 and 1876. In 1837, the best year in the century for killing whales, 6,767 were taken. (As a disturbing point of comparison, in 1964, the peak year of modern whaling, 29,255 sperm whales were killed.) Some researchers believe that by the 1860s whalemen may have reduced the world’s sperm whale population by as much as 75%; others claim it was diminished by only 8% to 18%. Whatever figure is closer to the truth, sperm whales have done better than other large cetaceans hunted by man. Today there are between one and a half to two million sperm whales, making them the most abundant of the world’s whales."
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