National Book Award, Nonfiction, 2000
The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the sinking of the Titanic was in the twentieth. In 1819 the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific with 20 crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific, the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew drifted for more than 90 days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, and disease and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival.
Nathaniel Philbrick uses little-known documents, including a long-lost account written by the ship's cabin boy, and penetrating details about whaling and the Nantucket community to reveal the chilling events surrounding this epic maritime disaster. An intense and mesmerizing read, In the Heart of the Sea is a monumental work of history forever placing the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon.
©2000 Nathaniel Philbrick; (P)2000 Penguin Audiobooks
"A fascinating tale, well told." (Booklist)
"[Told] with verve and authenticity...a classic tale of the sea." (San Francisco Chronicle)
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.
Non fiction sea yarn enthusiasts would probably enjoy this retelling of the history that inspired Moby Dick. I prefer the fiction with all its unabridged wordiness.
Despite its disaster-filled history, I felt every interminable minute of being lost at sea. Only speeding the narration allowed me to struggle to the end.
Well crafted tale, extensively researched. He provides enough background on Nantucket history, whaling, 19th century ships, the effects of dehydration and starvation, and so forth to provide perspective on the trials of the castaways without getting too vivid. A good telling of a compelling tale. I should note that I picked this up on a "Daily Deal" to fill in between credits and I thought it was well worth the (deeply discounted) price.
By far the description of how a whale gets rendered into whale oil. It was to say the least graphic and memorable. The conditions under which these men worked and the process for stripping a whale of its blubber and reducing it to barrels of oil was unbelievably disgusting.
The story just sort of progressed without much hyperbole or flowery description - just matter-of-fact. It seemed appropriate for the subject matter. The narrator did a good job of maintaining an "even keel" (sorry) throughout.
I think when the captain was faced with killing and eating a close relative in order for the rest of the survivors to stay alive, that was pretty poignant.
The last 17 or so "chapters" were a recitation of research notes. I have never had an audiobook that did this, and I quickly skipped over them to the end. Not really annoying, just not terribly interesting.
This is an interesting tale of the true story that inspired Moby Dick. A fascinating glimpse into the whaling culture of 19th century Nantucket, and a harrowing naval saga of survival. Narration was solid.
My only criticism is that at least 90 minutes at the end are lost (to me) in citations. If I wanted to pursue original source and reference material, it is doubtful I'd do so from an audiobook. Be aware of this if you purchase it.
The story itself is a tale of the impossible. It's incredibly grim, depressing, heroic, and pathetic. Very descriptive and horrific. Yet, the narrator speaks with an upbeat, cordial tone throughout while describing people literally starving to death and resorting to cannibalism in order to live like he's talking about an adventure story on an exotic island. His voice doesn't adequately capture the desperate nature of the event. The real story is only a small portion of the book. The first part is a detailed manual on how to be a whaler, then the last 3+ hours is the epilogue, aftermath, and life as a whaler in Nantucket. The ordeal is only about 2 hours of the whole book. Pretty disappointed. Watch the movie instead of this audiobook.
The story finished with about 3 hours left and I got bored with the epilogues, afterwords, etc. I finally gave up with about 1 hr 48 minutes left. The reader was ok, but not great.
At times I was pretty into this book, but before you buy it, just know the story is really about 5 hours. After 5 hours the story of the Essex is done, people who died are dead and people that survived are still living. Then there are three hours left over to talk what happened to the survivors..... You could have done that in 30 min tops. Buy it but don't feel bad to end it after 5 hours.
Great story of some tough dudes. Shows the lengths people will go to survive and provide for their families.
What an amazing account of the whalers of the Essex! I almost felt like I was there, but am most grateful I wasn't! Not only did I feel I enter erred that period of history, I came to really care about these men and their incredible struggle.....and also had sympathy for whales. The incredible perseverance and indomitable will so often shown was awe-inspiring even while the grim, feral nature this also took was appalling. It raises interesting moral questions, too.
The narrator was quite good, which is a necessity because even an excellent audiobook on a variety of levels will be sunk by an annoying narrator..and probably faster than the Essex was.
As an aside, Philbrick's Mayflower was equally excellent, if not a bit better.
Wonderful narration. Amazing story. Highly recommended. I vote: listen to this after reading Moby Dick, since most of the action takes place after the whale attack - the place where Moby Dick ends- this book is a sort of coda to that story. High marks all around. Can't wait to see the Ron Howard movie. (Although, I'd wager he doesn't quite go into all the gory detail. Note: don't listen to parts of this audiobook while eating anything but vegan food.)
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