This is the tragedy of the whaleship Essex. The same tragedy that inspired Herman Melville’s very famous novel, Moby Dick. Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea situates the tale of the Essex in the history of Nantucket during the 1800s. Philbrick draws on the journals and personal testimonies of the survivors, local newspapers, etc. to recreate an event that had an enormous impact on American history and especially Nantucket history.
The Essex set sail in 1819 to hunt sperm whales, which were the most oil rich whales in the ocean. The sperm whale gets its name from the stores of clear oil located in its head, which turns cloudy white when exposed to air; this oil burned clearer and brighter than any other whale oil and was in high demand. These whales could provide hundreds of gallons of oil, and one successful whaling expedition could make captains and investors incredibly wealthy.
About 3,000 miles off the coast of South America the Essex is attacked and sunk by a vengeful sperm whale that looks to be about 80+ feet in length (double the size of the average male). In three small whale boats, the 20-man crew embarks on a legendary adventure. For 93 days they are stranded facing starvation, dehydration, and mental deterioration.
The unspeakable things that happened during those 93 days are revealed through Philbrick’s assessment of the history and the literature. He unveils not only the circumstances that would lead men to cannibalism, but also the circumstances that would lead men to temporarily abandon their morals and political and religious affiliations. For example, in the face of starvation they sacrifice a black sailor. This sailor is the first person to be killed for food; despite their abolitionist roots, the Nantucketers opt to save their fellow white sailors.
Philbrick also focuses on the families of the sailors who stay behind on Nantucket as their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons embark on two-year expeditions. Wives see their husbands for a few months at a time only to be left for years on end. Children grow to ages two and three before they even meet their fathers.
Overall the book is a fascinating history of the lives of whalers, their families, and their native Nantucket. The history about the island has me itching to visit! My only complaint is that the book is a little dry and the numerous quotes and embedded quotes make for slow going. I’ve read two books while reading this one!
P.S. I’ve never seen the word “sperm” so man times in my life.