Nathaniel Philbrick is quickly becoming my favorite historical author. He has a unique talent for gathering boatloads (pun intended) of information, synthesizing that information into a cohesive narrative, and then imbuing that narrative with enough character and humanity to bring the story to life. His work in In the Heart of the Sea is no exception.
The story of the Essex and, more importantly, the men who sailed on her, is harrowing, terrifying, and deeply human. Philbrick captures these men and their travails perfectly. In the process, he brings to life a corner of history that is rarely explored. I loved learning about Nantucket, how its Quaker culture oddly meshed with the violence of whaling, and the seafaring culture the little island helped build.
That said, Philbrick displayed a tendency to wander in this book that I haven't noticed as much in his other works. I appreciate the background and context information provided in In the Heart of the Sea, but Philbrick often takes sudden detours into pieces of relative minutiae that I found to be distracting rather than enriching. This detours were generally short, but seemed to become more frequent as the book progressed. I often found myself wishing we could just get back to the story of the Essex's crew.
Then again, this wandering never really hampered my enjoyment of this title. Philbrick is a very talented writer and storyteller, and Scott Brick's narration is a perfect fit for his writing style. Despite my small complaint, I highly recommend the book to fans of nautical history and, more broadly, to fans of American history in general.
I really enjoyed listening to this book. I saw the movie but nothing compares to the detail and descriptions in this read. Anyone interested in the story of the Essex, Moby Dick or sea adventures of the period should enjoy this pick.
No one can endorse whaling, but since this was a different era, I decided to give this book a try. I'm glad I did. While whaling is part of the story, it is small part. The other trials and tribulations were so mind-boggling that it feels like a footnote. Great read.
This is my second Philbrick book and he is true to form. The book takes you from Nantucket to the open Pacific to where a bull whale defended his pod. I was rooting for the whale, and then rooting for the men to survive. It is a classic movie story with a novice captain and experience first officer fighting for the control of the ship from the beginning. If you like sea adventures then this is for you. I read Alive about a more modern disaster where cannibalism took place. Philbrick doesn't hold back on the cannibalism. That part was hard for me to stomach. But again only a small percentage of people are stuck in that situation.
Highly recommend. This book reads fast.
This is an incredible true story which has elements that influenced Herman Melville as I'm sure everyone's aware now. But if you've only seen the abomination of a film you were cheated out of an incredible and at times gut wrenching survival story. I looked forward to the film so much for over a year when I heard about it, but I was so disgusted by what they did to this I nearly walked out, but didn't cause a friend was with me, to whom I had to explain all the missteps and flat out lies. Non-fiction at its best.
This book is a wonderful mix of great story telling and interesting history. In addition to the story of the boat and the sailors there is a full background of the country, the whaling industry, sailing, biology, culture, and many other aspects spread throughout.
This book is well researched, however there should be a warning attached that the last 1.5hrs of the listen are the footnotes. May be interesting to some, but greatly overstates the actual length of the story.
...unless you want to listen to the hours/chapters of footnotes. Credit to the author for acknowledging each of his sources, but endnotes should not be listed as "chapters."
Though little-known today, the tragedy of the whaleship Essex was one of the major seagoing disasters of the 19th century and apparently was circulated far and wide. It was commonly featured in schoolbooks, so most children in America growing up in the generations that followed would have heard of it.
Today, we know of it mostly indirectly, because it inspired Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick. Melville actually interviewed some of the survivors and read all their accounts and based many of the incidents in his novel on the tragedy of the Essex.
The Essex was a whaleship out of Nantucket, and this book describes a great deal about the whaling community on that island, made up mostly of Quakers whose religious beliefs were a mixture of pride, ethics, judgementalism, and avarice. Class and race was a factor on the whaling ships - white sailors naturally were treated better than blacks, though the treatment of African American crewmen on Quaker whaling ships was still probably better than most other places at the time. (The Quakers were against slavery from the beginning.) Being from an established Nantucket whaling family put you on a rung above any “outsiders.” Most of the whalers had grown up on Nantucket and had whaling in their blood, knowing from the time they were small boys that they’d be going out to sea to hunt the great beasts that made Nantucket wealthy.
This was dangerous work. First of all, any sea voyage in 1820 was dangerous. The whalers had already started depleting nearby whale hunting grounds, and had to go further and further to fill their holds with whale oil. The Essex expected to be gone for one or two years or more.
Their quarry, the sperm whale, the largest carnivore on Earth, was much larger at that time. Biologists believe that extensive hunting removed the largest whales from the gene pool, so today an adult bull sperm whale rarely exceeds 65 feet, but the one that did in the Essex was estimated to be 85 feet, a size that was large but not spectacular at that time. The whalers had to find the whales, then set out in little whaleboats, row up beside the whale, and throw a harpoon into it. This didn’t kill the whale - it just sent it fleeing in pain and terror, with the whaleboat dragging behind it. Eventually it would tire out, and then the whalers could pull up alongside the exhausted beast and stab it with lances, trying to find the fatal spot. Often they would have to stab it many times.
If this sounds messy, bloody, and disturbing, it is. Philbrick describes the process, which was related by many whalers. It’s pretty gruesome, and horrible for the whale, and when you think about how magnificent these creatures are, how we nearly hunted them to extinction (sperm whales now are no longer endangered, but many other species are), and how we butchered them for oil, harvesting them the way we now harvest oil from the ground, with as little thought to long term consequences… it is sad and you don’t have to be a Greenpeace or PETA supporter to find that your sympathies are with the whales.
You might be surprised how rarely the whales fought back. If they were intelligent enough to recognize the danger, they could easily smash the whaleboats chasing them, but at least in 1820, they didn’t often seem to recognize the threat, and when a whale smashed a boat with a slap of its tail or by emerging beneath it, it was more likely to be an accident than a deliberate attack.
For a whale to attack a ship was unheard of. So when a huge bull rammed the Essex, it understandably caused panic throughout the whaling community. What if the whales were finally fighting back?
(In fact, in the years that followed, Philbrick tells us that there were several more accounts of sperm whales attacking boats and even sinking ships, but it was still pretty rare - the whales certainly were not communicating or planning organized resistance, as appealing as that idea might be.)
The whale that attacked the Essex was about a third the size of the ship. A newer, sturdier ship would probably have withstood the assault - the whale was apparently dazed after smashing into the Essex, but then came at it again. It was big enough to smash in the side, and it happened to hit it broadside exactly at its most vulnerable point. The sailors abandoned ship and then spent months aboard their boats, trying to make for South America in an ill-planned course that only a few survived.
The crew made many mistakes. They could have reached Tahiti safely, but were afraid to do so because of lurid tales they’d heard of headhunting cannibals who would sodomize captives before killing and eating them. So instead they tried to reach South America, 3000 miles away. Their boats were separated, and in the end, they were forced to resort to cannibalism, and even drew lots to choose which survivor would be killed to feed the others. Eight survivors were eventually rescued by another whaling ship. Amazingly, all eight of them soon went to sea again. What else were they going to do?
This is not the first book about the Essex - Nathaniel Philbrick’s biography and citations are extensive. There were many accounts written after the disaster, including at least two by the survivors. But one of those accounts was unknown until the 20th century.
The First Mate of the Essex, Owen Chase, wrote his own account after returning to Nantucket. He of course glosses over any mistakes he made (like talking the captain out of setting out for Tahiti instead of South America, or not harpooning the whale when he had a chance), and casts himself as the hero of the tale. This was the account largely accepted as fact, and used by Melville as the basis for Moby Dick.
Over a hundred years later, in 1960, an account written by the Essex’s cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, was uncovered and published. Nickerson is less complimentary about Owen Chase, and gives a different view of what life aboard the Essex was like, from the perspective of a junior crewmember.
In the Heart of the Sea is a great, dramatic account of one of those incredible survival tales that make you thrill at the obstacles faced by men at sea, while hoping you never have to go through anything like that. It’s also thoroughly researched, and will educate you about whales, whaling, and the history of early American maritime communities, as well as a full account of what happened to the Essex and their men.
I’m still rooting for the whales, though.