06 November 2011

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

Genre: History
Year of publication: 2000
Setting & time: USA and the Pacific Ocean, 1820-21

In 1820 the whale ship Essex , small, old and with a mostly inexperienced crew, set out from Nantucket Island towards the whale-hunting grounds of the Pacific Ocean. Once they were there the crew proceeded to hunt sperm whales and fill the hold with barrels of oil, but on November 20th the ship was attacked by a huge bull sperm whale which rammed it twice and sank it. The crew were able to rescue some navigational charts and equipment and food from the sinking ship, but were left floating aboard three flimsy and old whale boats thousands of miles from the South-American mainland.

Ironically, in light of what was to happen later, fear of cannibals kept them from making for the nearest cluster of islands and instead they resolved to head for South America, a mistake that may have cost 12 of the crew of 20 their lives. About 20 years later Herman Melville read about the incident, which served him as an inspiration for parts of Moby Dick.

The story told in the book is based on the published account of the mate, Owen Chase, and a recently discovered account by the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, in addition to other historical sources.

Philbrick ties together the story of the ship and the crew with a portrait of the whaling industry and of Nantucket society with seeming ease and has created a sympathetic portrayal of a group of men driven to extremes in order to survive.

This is an excellent read, well-written and well-researched, although not recommended for the squeamish, as the boat-bound survivors resorted to cannibalising the bodies of their dead crew-mates for nourishment. 4+ stars.

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