If you’ve read Moby Dick, you may feel that it provided you with more useless information about whaling that you ever wanted to know. But that should not be a reason to miss In the Heart of the Sea – the riveting non-fiction account of the whaling disaster that inspired the story of Moby Dick.
The tale is fast-paced and intense. It follows the Essex, a whaling ship that sets off from Nantucket in 1820 and runs into a series of misadventures, including the first recorded example of a seemingly purposeful attack of a whale on a whaling ship. The sailors who survive this attack enter into a period of desperation – they bob along on the Pacific in tiny whaling boats, facing storms, starvation, dehydration, insanity, and cannibalism.
I’m fascinated by survival stories. Extreme circumstances and life-and-death situations reveal hidden depths in people. The various characters who are highlighted in this account – the captain George Pollard, the first mate Owen Chase, and even the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson – all have different responses to this disaster, and it’s intriguing to wonder whether things would have been different if their responses had been different. Seeing the ways that different people respond to the physical and psychological stress of survival situations challenges us as readers to examine the depths of our own humanity.
The author draws on several written accounts by survivors, and it’s intriguing to find out the aspects of the story that each person highlighted, as well as the aspects that were suppressed. It was no secret, even while the survivors were still alive, that the sailors resorted to cannibalism to survive. Yet the aspect of the story that hasn’t faced much discussion until now is the fact that the first sailors to die and be eaten were African-American. Nantucket was known as a haven of abolition, and the black men who sailed aboard the Essex were all free men. Yet they were still the first to die. Philbrick discusses several theories as to why this may have been, including the fact that they likely had a worse diet than the white men before the event, as well as the genetic differences in body fat levels. Yet this fact is still a very problematic aspect of the tale, and one that I’m glad Philbrick brought to light.
The last few chapters of the book, which highlight the subsequent lives of the survivors, was quite interesting to me. It was the son of the Essex’s first mate, Owen Chase, who ended up being a berth mate of the young Herman Melville. Melville had heard stories and rumors about the misfortunes of the Essex and her crew, but Chase’s son lent Melville his copy of his father’s written account, inspiring Melville to incorporate the tale into his classic tome. This book also brought to light several other authors of the time, including Edgar Allen Poe, who also made use of aspects of this tale in their work, making this tale an important one for literary history as well.