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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick

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“From the ship’s bows, nearly all the seamen now hung inactive; hammers, bits of plank, lances, and harpoons, mechanically retained in their hands, just as they had darted from their various employments; all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell flat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads of the harpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume. “ – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

As sea tales go, In the Heart of the Sea covers the gamut.

Written by Nathanial Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea tells the true tale of the whaleship Essex, which provided the grist for Melville’s famous salty yarn quoted above. The Essex was a 238-ton Nantucket whaler that set sail in 1819 to hunt sperm whales in the South Pacific in a newly discovered whaling region called the Offshore Ground. In an extraordinary turn of events, the Essex was rammed and sunk by an eighty-five foot sperm whale, sending the ship to the bottom and its 20 crew members on a 3,000-mile dark and epic battle for survival across the empty expanse of the Pacific. Only eight eventually made it back to civilization, and their passage was one marked by terrible tribulation, death and cannibalism.

Philbrick has put together a wrenchingly vivid story that brings to life both the participants and the whaling culture of Nantucket. Loaded with sharp gems of information and observation on topics from whale behavior, the hunting process, the whaling economy, Quakerism, Nantucket culture, the racial make-up of the Essex’s crew (7 were African-American, 1/3 of the crew), the history and usage of the infamous “custom of the sea” (or cannibalism as you or I would have it) and many other topics. One of the facts that stuck in my mind was the description of the “trying out” process, of cooking the blubber to extract the whale oil, and how often, when the fetid and noxious process was well underway, the only safe way to move across the oily, slippery deck was to slide on the seat of your pants.

In the Heart of the Sea is an extraordinary and horrific sea tale, but Philbrick’s careful research and excellent prose raise it well above the average in both the telling and in the content. Highly recommended.

Here’s a Nantucket toast quoted from In the Heart of the Sea which I thought weirdly captured the strange dicotomy between Nantucket’s highly religious Quaker roots, and the bloody labor on the waves that kept it’s people employed…

” Death to the living
Long Life to the killers,
Success to sailors wives
And greasy luck to whalers.”

For more on the Essex, check out the first-hand accounts of The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase (who was the First Mate on the Essex) and The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale by Thomas Nickerson(the Essex’s then 15-year old cabin boy). Another read recommended by the author is Stove by a Whale by Thomas Farel Heffernan (the author of the fascinating and excellent Mutiny on the Globe, also reviewed on this site).

If you are interested. Herman Melville’s epic (if lengthy) story of obsession, death and the White Whale is available free on-line here. Melville based his tale upon the story of the Essex but politely ended his story with the sinking of the ship rather then dwelling on the darker tale of survival at sea…

For more information on Nantucket and its history of whaling, check out the Nantucket Historical Association. Also good is the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

For more on whale conservation check out The Ocean Alliance and the American Cetacean Society.

Not a believer in whale conservation? – here’s some whale recipes for your gastronomical enjoyment (although on the whole I’d rather eat broccali…and I really hate broccali.).

Comments are always welcome. Please remember, if you like this review, drop by BookLinker for more and be sure to tell your friends.

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