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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1784

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.

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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 some months. Whales were harpooned off Brazil’s east coast before the ship rounded Cape Horn. It took on provisions in Masafuera, Chile, then sailed north to the Galapagos Islands, taking several sperm whales as it made its way north. The crew took aboard live tortoises from the Galapagos Islands, assuring them of some fresh meat during a journey on which their menu consisted largely of hardtack, dried and salted meat, and water. Sailing from the Galapagos Islands on October 8, 1820, the crew followed the equator fifteen hundred miles west and finally came into an area that promised to yield many sperm whales and assure the crew’s return home with full casks.

On November 20, the three whaleboats aboard the Essex were lowered and sent out to harpoon the whales whose spouts were sighted. After Chase harpooned one small whale, the desperate creature hit the boat with its tail and made a hole in the side big enough to sink the boat. The crew stuffed articles of clothing into the gaping hole and rowed feverishly back to the Essex.

The other two boats, one under Pollard’s command, the other under Joy’s, had by this time taken other whales; they were occupied with the grueling process of bringing them in. Chase set about fixing his boat, although he could have gone back out to sea in his ship’s one spare whaleboat. While Chase and his crew set about repairing the damaged boat, the cabin boy, fifteen-year-old Thomas Nickerson, took the helm and sailed toward Pollard’s and Joy’s boats, which had now been pulled several miles from the Essex by the whales each crew had harpooned.

Chase peered into the water. Close to the Essex he saw the biggest sperm whale he had ever encountered, a male he estimated to be eighty-five feet in length (about the length of the Essex) and some eighty tons (160,000 pounds) in weight. The whale acted strangely. It made a dive, then resurfaced, gained speed as it flapped its tail, and aimed its huge head for the port side of the Essex. Whales’ heads are filled with large quantities of spermaceti that cushions them in head-on encounters.

When the whale struck the ship, everyone on board was knocked to the deck. Galapagos tortoises skidded in every direction. Chase was dismayed because never in the history of whaling had a whale attack on a whaling ship been recorded. After the initial hit, the whale swam beneath the ship, ripping off its false keel. Then, dazed, it swam on and lay beside the ship. Chase could have attacked the whale at this point, but he feared that if he did, the whale would react and in doing so destroy the ship’s rudder.

As the whale regained its equilibrium, it swam six hundred yards away, “snapping its jaws and thrashing the water with its tail . . . as if distracted . . . with rage and fury.” Then it turned and made for the ship again, this time moving at a speed of about six knots, twice its original speed. When it hit this time, it damaged the Essex beyond repair.

Pollard, realizing the need to abandon ship, assigned his crew to the three most seaworthy whaleboats. He then set about loading these boats with all the provisions that could be salvaged and some of the Galapagos tortoises. The hull of the Essex bobbed around for the next two days, then capsized. Pollard wanted to lead his men to a safe haven, although they were now in about the farthest reach of ocean from any land.

The closest place to which they could sail was the Marquesas Islands, southwest of their present location, but Pollard feared that cannibals inhabited these islands, a fear that later proved unfounded. The Hawaiian Islands and Pitcairn Island were also within reach, but Pollard and the other officers thought it safest to sail east to the Society Islands, even though the trip was twice as long.

Shortages of food and water became immediate problems. Each man was allowed six ounces of hardtack and one pint of water a day, which provided about five hundred calories. Soon this meager ration had to be reduced to three ounces of hardtack. Some hardtack that was soaked with seawater during a storm was put out to dry, but its salt content was devastating to those who consumed it, increasing their dehydration dramatically.

The three whaleboats stayed together for many days, but eventually became separated—not, however, before they had made a landing on their thirtieth day adrift on Henderson Island, a coral outcropping with little edible vegetation and a spring of fresh water that was covered by the sea most of the time. The men stayed on Henderson Island for a few days, and three of them, fearful of dying if they returned to the sea, remained there to be rescued eventually by a ship whose captain had learned of their whereabouts.

It was not until February 18, 1821, that Chase was rescued with two of his men. Pollard and Charles Ramsdell were rescued five days later on February 23. They told the story of the sinking of the Essex and were forthright in acknowledging the cannibalism into which they were forced as their only means of survival. They lived off the remains of those who had died. In one instance, those in Pollard’s whaleboat drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed for food and who would kill the unfortunate loser. Pollard’s nephew, seventeen-year-old Owen Coffin, who drew the short lot, accepted his fate. Ramsdell drew the lot designating him as the one who would kill Coffin, which he did.

Despite the almost superhuman research job that Philbrick did in preparing this book, recipient of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2000, the main text does not contain a single footnote. Philbrick has opted instead to provide a bibliographical essay for each chapter following the main text. These essays are extremely illuminating, as are the book’s well-chosen illustrations.

Philbrick’s understanding of the psychology of the men involved in this tragedy is deep and insightful. His research into survivor guilt, the effects of starvation and dehydration, cannibalism, and the history of Nantucket provide valuable information to flesh out his intriguing presentation.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (March 1, 2000): 1146.

The New York Times, May 24, 2000, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (June 4, 2000): 8.

The New Yorker 76 (May 15, 2000): 97.

Outside 25 (May, 2000): 158.

Publishers Weekly 247 (April 10, 2000): 88.

Time 155 (May 1, 2000): 75.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 21, 2000, p. 8.

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