Were the account of the sinking of the whale ship Essex and the aftermath of that sinking fictional, readers might challenge the author’s credibility. That a ship 87 feet long with a 238-ton displacement and copper sheathing could be rammed not once but twice by a seemingly malevolent sperm whale apparently seeking revenge for the slaughter of three whales in his pod flies in the face of what is generally believed about these characteristically nonaggressive leviathans.
That such an attack would cause the ship to capsize might also convert readers to doubters. Yet Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, a carefully and exhaustively documented account of the actual event, is reliable in recounting a tragedy that in its day was as well known as the sinking of the Titanic in the twentieth century.
The story of the Essex and its crew of twenty-one was included in the McGuffey Eclectic Readerswidely used in American schools during the last half of the nineteenth century. The sinking of theEssex provided a basis for Herman Melville’s master novel, Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) and echoes of the tragedy occur as well in Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), and Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924). Edgar Allan Poe drew on Owen Chase’s firsthand account of the Essex disaster in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838).
The Essex had been in service for about twenty years when it set sail from Nantucket, Massachusetts, on Thursday morning, August 12, 1819, in quest of sperm whales whose oils lit the lamps across much of the United States and whose ambergris was prized by perfume makers. Such whaling voyages usually took seamen down the east coast of South America, around Cape Horn, and into the Pacific Ocean.
Whalers pursued their prey, processed the whale blubber for the precious oil it contained, and continued their hunt until all their casks were filled. In most cases, they were away from home for no less than two years and often more than three. They received no pay until they returned to their home port, at which time the proceeds from the sale of the whale oil were doled out to them in miserly increments depending on their rank.
It was impossible to find a seasoned crew for the Essex because it was setting out quite late in the year after many other ships had skimmed the cream off the crop of available crewmen. Established residents of Nantucket, called Nantucketers, were a clannish and inbred group of people. On long whaling voyages, Nantucketers preferred to sail with other Nantucketers. TheEssex, however, was able to attract only about a third of its crew from the island, including the captain, George Pollard, Jr., the first mate, Owen Chase, and the second mate, Matthew Joy.
Another seven crewmen were off-islanders, some from nearby Cape Cod, and the final third consisted of black seamen who were recruited in Boston. The Quakers who dominated Nantucket’s whaling industry had no aversion to hiring blacks and paid them the same as whites, although on board they were housed in quarters apart from the white crew, and they were looked down upon by some.
Essentially the Essex had a green crew—that is, men who were not experienced whalers. This was Pollard’s first command, although he had previously served as first mate on the Essex. Chase had also sailed on the Essex, but this was his initial voyage as first mate. From the outset, Chase established his authority by intimidating the crew, some of whom were on their first whaling expedition.
Three days out of Nantucket, the Essex ran into a raging storm and was severely damaged. It lost its spare whaleboats, reducing the number to three. The ship might have returned to port for repairs, but because there was already dissension among the crew, the officers feared that if they returned to Nantucket, some of their hands would jump ship. Patching up the Essex as well as they could, the crew continued on its course, dangerously short of whaleboats even after one was obtained from a whaler wrecked off Boa Vista Island in the South Atlantic.
The expedition proceeded reasonably well for...
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