Matt's Reviews > In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
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Apr 26, 2016

really liked it
bookshelves: maritime-history

I had a lot of trouble with Moby Dick. Finishing it, I mean. I picked it up and put it back down twice. By the time I finally finished it - a point of honor - I'd probably read 1200 pages of it. About 150 years later, the source material was published. In the Heart of the Sea tells of the whaleship Essex which inspired Melville's opus.

In 1819, it left Nantucket and went a'whaling. An enraged sperm whale (is there any other kind?) rammed the ship in the South Pacific. The Essex sunk and its crew took to the whale boats and set out for South America. 3,000 miles away.

Nathaniel Philbrick is a brisk, lively, informative writer. His prose is engaging and witty. Unlike Melville's Moby Dick, this is a slim, quick read.

The book starts in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, which was a famous whaling port long before it became the part of the most famous dirty limerick of all time.

Nantucket was a town of roof dwellers. Nearly every house, its shingles painted red or left to weather into gray, had a roof-mounted platform known as a walk. While its intended use was to facilitate putting out chimney fires with buckets of sand, the walk was also an excellent place to look out to sea with a spyglass, to search for sails of returning ships.


Philbrick quickly limns the fascinating history of Nantucket, home to Quakers and whalers and a seafaring tradition. A vicious cycle dominated life in Nantucket: the men were home three months, in between voyages, and were then gone three months, spearing big dumb mammals for their oil. This was a hard life. Not only for the men, who were out getting attacked by sperm whales and cannibalizing each other, but also for the womenfolk, left behind. They were lonely and bored. In good Quaker fashion, many of the women developed opium addictions. Philbrick also notes the fascinating discovery of a six-inch plaster dildo in the chimney of one of the old houses.*

*History is the best, isn't it?

After learning about shore life, we get right into life aboard ship. Philbrick describes what it took to hunt whale (as opposed to hunting manatee, which requires different techniques):

[T:]he mate or captain stood at the steering oar in the stern of the whaleboat while the boatsteerer manned the forward-most, or harpooner's oar. Aft of the boatsteerer was the bow oarsman, usually the most experienced foremast hand in the boat. Once the whale had been harpooned, it was his job to lead the crew in pulling in the whale line. Next was the midships oarsman, who worked the longest and heaviest of the lateral oars - up to eighteen feet long and forty-five pounds. Next was the tub oarsman. He managed the two tubs of whale line. It was his job to wet the line with a small bucketlike container, called a piggin, once the whale was harpooned. This wetting prevented the line from burning from the friction as it ran around the loggerhead, an upright post mounted on the stern of the boat. Aft of the tub oarsman was the after oarsman. He was usually the lightest of the crew, and it was his job to make sure the whale line didn't tangle as it was hauled back into the boat.


After reading Philbrick's clean descriptions, I think I actually started to understand Moby Dick.

Soon enough, the whale attacks:

Chase estimated that the whale was traveling at six knots when it struck the Essex the second time and that the ship was traveling at three knots. To bring the Essex to a complete standstill, the whale, whose mass was roughly a third of the ship's, would have to be moving at more than three times the speed of the ship, at least nine knots.


The Essex sank, but unlike the Pequod, which disappeared quickly beneath "the great shroud of the sea" that "rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago," the Essex went down slowly. It gave Captain Pollard and his crew time to offload the ship and stock supplies in the whaleboats. They got hardtack, fresh water, a musket, pistols and gun powder.

There were 20 men in three boats. Fearing cannibals (how ironic), the displaced crew of the Essex attempted to row to South America. This was a mistake, which Philbrick places in the lap of Captain George Pollard.

Pollard's behavior, after both the knockdown and the whale attack, indicates that he lacked the resolve to overrule his two younger and less experienced officers. In his deference to others, Pollard was conducting himself less like a captain and more like the veteran mate described by the Nantucketer William H. Macy: "[H:]e had no lungs to blow his own trumpet, and sometimes distrusted his own powers, though generally found equal to any emergency after it arose. This want of confidence sometimes led him to hesitate, where a more impulsive or less thoughtful man would act at once."


Of course, the great hook in this story, the reason that we really, secretly, actually care this took place, is the cannibalism. At first, the men who died - in a tortuous fashion, dehydrated and starving beneath a blazing sun - were buried at sea. However, with circumstances becoming direr (as though it were possible), lots were drawn. It was young Owen Coffin who was the first to die, "dispatched" by his friend Charles Ramsdell. Odd, for a book this detailed, the scenes of cannibalism are fairly discrete (see Neil Hanson's The Custom of the Sea if you really want to learn about drawing lots and eating your friends).

Eventually, 8 of 20 men survived. Five on an island; three on a boat. Philbrick tells their story well. He is a the rare, serious historian (the book had really good notes; very informative, though not pinpointed) that also knows how to write.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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John and Kris Do you think Philbrick is up to the task of navigating the subtle nuances of the Battle of Little Bighorn?


Matt What have you heard about this proposed book? I couldn't find any news on it.

Frankly, I don't think Philbrick is up to the task. Well, perhaps for general readers he will be. At this point, I'm used to reading books by people who've devoted their entire lives to the subject.


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