In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea

I think of In the Heart of the Sea as a nice balance between a scholarly work and a popular account. I suppose one could also regard it in a “glass half empty” way and say it isn’t quite dry and rigorous enough to be purely academic nor sufficiently free of all academic accouterments to be fully satisfying to the casual reader, but I think it’s very well done. It’s a page-turner of a story, but the sources for the author’s claims are consistently specified in both the main text and the endnotes to establish that it has been painstakingly researched.

In 1819, the whaleship Essex set off from Nantucket, Massachusetts with a crew of 21 on a multi-year voyage that would take it around a good portion of the world. As was typical of Nantucket whaling expeditions of the time, almost all of the crew was young, and was split about equally between local Nantucket men who had grown up with whaling but had little or no actual experience yet, and total newbies from elsewhere—many of them free Blacks—desperate for work who knew nothing about whaling or anything nautical, and in some cases couldn’t even swim.

The captain and the first mate had the most experience, though limited. (They were both only in their 20s.)

The Essex sailed across the Atlantic, then south and around the southern tip of South America and into the Pacific. At its farthest point from home it was thousands of miles west of South America, around the equator. As the ship went along, the crew members killed as many whales as they could, and harvested the oil from their bodies.

There were problems throughout the voyage. Some were at about the usual level for what was a difficult and dangerous vocation after all, but eventually the troubles went well beyond that.

There were storms that caused significant damage, winds that often refused to cooperate, whales that were disinclined to die peacefully, some bickering and disgruntlement amongst the crew, and a desertion. That’s the stuff that’s sort of par for the course with whaling.

But then a whale aggressively smashed into the Essex and sank it in the middle of nowhere, which was highly uncommon in whaling, given that whales tend to be quite docile creatures. The crew set out in three little whaleships—the equivalent of lifeboats—knowing that the odds were seriously against their survival.

They underwent almost unimaginable suffering of exhaustion, physical injuries, starvation, and thirst. Along the way they were faced with numerous decisions that could make the difference between life and death—try to reach one of the islands in the Pacific that may have violent even cannibalistic savages or try to traverse the much greater distance back to South America, stay on a tiny little island they stumble upon with minimal resources or take their chances back on the high seas, try to keep all three little boats together or split up, and ultimately whether to resort to cannibalism themselves when that appears to be the only way any of them can survive.

A certain amount of the potential suspense of the story is undercut by the fact that we’re told early on the gist of what transpired. We know such things as that not all the men died, since someone has to have told the story of what happened to the Essex. (The author’s account is based heavily on the versions of the story written after the expedition by the first mate and the teenage cabin boy, so you know at least they survived.)

But it’s a gripping story nonetheless, as you gradually learn the specifics of what the men endured and how they responded.

Furthermore, you learn a lot about the context of the Essex tragedy. Some readers would likely prefer a more tightly focused account about just the expedition itself, but again I think the author chose a nice balance in including tangents that are relevant and interesting.

Among these many “extras” are discussions of the nuts and bolts of how whales were killed and how the oil was removed from their carcasses, the economics of whaling, the effects of the culture of Nantucket—dominated by Quakers for one thing—on its whaling industry, the effects on the women of Nantucket of having their husbands routinely gone for years at a time, the tension between the treatment of Black sailors and Nantucket’s desire to see itself as a progressive abolitionist sort of place, the medical details of starvation and dehydration, research into what makes a good or bad leader in times of crisis, and the effects of the Essex story on Herman Melville and Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea is a solid work from start to finish, deserving of recommendation to anyone who is interested in this kind of historic nautical tragedy.

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