Winner of the National Book Award, Nathaniel Philbrick's book is a fantastic saga of survival and adventure, steeped in the lore of whaling, with deep resonance in American literature and history.
In 1820, the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale, leaving the desperate crew to drift for more than ninety days in three tiny boats. Nathaniel Philbrick uses little-known documents and vivid details about the Nantucket whaling tradition to reveal the chilling facts of this infamous maritime disaster. In the Heart of the Sea, recently adapted into a major feature film starring Chris Hemsworth, is a book for the ages.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 11, 1956
Place of Birth:Boston, Massachusetts
Education:B.A., Brown University, 1978; M.A., Duke University
Read an Excerpt
It was, he later remembered, "the most pleasing moment of my life"—the moment he stepped aboard the whaleship Essex for the first time. He was fourteen years old, with a broad nose and an open, eager face, and like every other Nantucket boy, he'd been taught to "idolize the form of a ship." The Essex might not look like much, stripped of her rigging and chained to the wharf, but for Thomas Nickerson she was a vessel of opportunity. Finally, after what had seemed an endless wait, Nickerson was going to sea.
The hot July sun beat down on her old, oil-soaked timbers until the temperature below was infernal, but Nickerson explored every cranny, from the brick altar of the tryworks being assembled on deck to the lightless depths of the empty hold. In between was a creaking, compartmentalized world, a living thing of oak and pine that reeked of oil, blood, tobacco juice, food, salt, mildew, tar, and smoke. "[B]lack and ugly as she was," Nickerson wrote, "I would not have exchanged her for a palace."
In July of 1819 the Essex was one of a fleet of more than seventy Nantucket whaleships in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. With whale-oil prices steadily climbing and the rest of the world's economy sunk in depression, the village of Nantucket was on its way to becoming one of the richest towns in America.
The community of about seven thousand people lived on a gently sloping hill crowded with houses and topped by windmills and church towers. It resembled, some said, the elegant and established port of Salem—a remarkable compliment for an island more than twenty miles out into the Atlantic, below Cape Cod. But if the town, high on its hill, radiated an almost ethereal quality of calm, the waterfront below bustled with activity. Sprouting from among the long, low warehouses and ropewalks, four solid-fill wharves reached out more than a hundred yards into the harbor. Tethered to the wharves or anchored in the harbor were, typically, fifteen to twenty whaleships, along with dozens of smaller vessels, mainly sloops and schooners, that brought trade goods to and from the island. Each wharf, a labyrinth of anchors, try-pots, spars, and oil casks, was thronged with sailors, stevedores, and artisans. Two-wheeled, horse-drawn carts known as calashes continually came and went.
It was a scene already familiar to Thomas Nickerson. The children of Nantucket had long used the waterfront as their playground. They rowed decrepit whaleboats up and down the harbor and clambered up into the rigging of the ships. To off-islanders it was clear that these children were a "distinctive class of juveniles, accustomed to consider themselves as predestined mariners.... They climbed ratlines like monkeys—little fellows of ten or twelve years—and laid out on the yardarms with the most perfect nonchalance." The Essex might be Nickerson's first ship, but he had been preparing for the voyage almost his entire life.
He wasn't going alone. His friends Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, and Charles Ramsdell, all between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, were also sailing on the Essex. Owen Coffin was the cousin of the Essex's new captain and probably steered his three friends to his kinsman's ship. Nickerson was the youngest of the group.
The Essex was old and, at 87 feet long and 238 tons displacement, quite small, but she had a reputation on Nantucket as a lucky ship. Over the last decade and a half, she had done well by her Quaker owners, regularly returning at two-year intervals with enough oil to make them wealthy men. Daniel Russell, her previous captain, had been successful enough over the course of four voyages to be given command of a new and larger ship, the Aurora. Russell's promotion allowed the former first mate, George Pollard, Jr., to take over command of the Essex, and one of the boatsteerers (or harpooners), Owen Chase, to move up to first mate. Three other crew members were elevated to the rank of boatsteerer. Not only a lucky but apparently a happy vessel, the Essex was, according to Nickerson, "on the whole rather a desirable ship than otherwise."
Since Nantucket was, like any seafaring town of the period, a community obsessed with omens and signs, such a reputation counted for much. Still, there was talk among the men on the wharves when earlier that July, as the Essex was being repaired and outfitted, a comet appeared in the night sky.
Nantucket was a town of roof dwellers. Nearly every house, its shingles painted red or left to weather into gray, had a roof-mounted platform known as a walk. While its intended use was to facilitate putting out chimney fires with buckets of sand, the walk was also an excellent place to look out to sea with a spyglass, to search for the sails of returning ships. At night, the spyglasses of Nantucket were often directed toward the heavens, and in July of 1819, islanders were looking toward the northwest sky. The Quaker merchant Obed Macy, who kept meticulous records of what he determined were the "most extraordinary events" in the life of his island, watched the night sky from his house on Pleasant Street. "The comet (which appears every clear night) is thought to be very large from its uncommonly long tail," he wrote, "which extends upward in opposition to the sun in an almost perpendicular direction and heaves off to the eastward and nearly points for the North Star."
From earliest times, the appearance of a comet was interpreted as a sign that something unusual was about to happen. The New Bedford Mercury, the newspaper Nantucketers read for lack of one of their own, commented, "True it is, that the appearance of these eccentric visitors have always preceded some remarkable event." But Macy resisted such speculation: "[T]he philosophical reasoning we leave to the scientific part of the community, still it is beyond a doubt that the most learned is possessed of very little undoubted knowledge of the subject of cometicks."
At the wharves and shipping offices there was much speculation, and not just about the comet. All spring and summer there had been sightings up and down the New England coast of what the Mercury described as "an extraordinary sea animal"—a serpent with black, horselike eyes and a fifty-foot body resembling a string of barrels floating on the water. Any sailor, especially if he was young and impressionable like Thomas Nickerson, must have wondered, if only fleetingly, if this was, in fact, the best time to be heading out on a voyage around Cape Horn.
Nantucketers had good reason to be superstitious. Their lives were governed by a force of terrifying unpredictability—the sea. Due to a constantly shifting network of shoals, including the Nantucket Bar just off the harbor mouth, the simple act of coming to and from the island was an often harrowing and sometimes catastrophic lesson in seamanship. Particularly in winter, when storms were the most violent, wrecks occurred almost weekly. Buried throughout the island were the corpses of anonymous seamen who had washed up on its wave-thrashed shores. Nantucket, which means "faraway land" in the language of the island's native inhabitants, the Wampanoag, was a mound of sand eroding into an inexorable ocean, and all its residents, even if they had never left the island, were all too aware of the inhumanity of the sea.
Nantucket's English settlers, who began arriving in 1659, had been mindful of the sea's dangers. They had hoped to support themselves not as fishermen but as farmers and sheepherders on this grassy, pond-speckled crescent without wolves. But as the increasing size of the livestock herds, combined with the growing number of farms, threatened to transform the island into a wind-blown wasteland, Nantucketers inevitably looked seaward.
Every fall, hundreds of "right whales" appeared to the south of the island and remained until the early spring. So named because they were "the right whale to kill," right whales grazed the waters off Nantucket much like seagoing cattle, straining the nutrient-rich surface of the ocean through the bushy plates of baleen in their perpetually grinning mouths. While English settlers at Cape Cod and eastern Long Island had already been hunting right whales for decades, no one on Nantucket had had the courage to pursue the whales in boats. Instead they left the harvesting of whales that washed up onto the shore (known as drift whales) to the Wampanoag.
Around 1690, a group of Nantucketers was standing on a hill overlooking the ocean where some whales were spouting and playing with one another. One of the onlookers nodded toward the whales and the ocean beyond. "There," he asserted, "is a green pasture where our children's grandchildren will go for bread." In fulfillment of his prophecy, a Cape Codder by the name of Ichabod Paddock was soon thereafter lured across Nantucket Sound to instruct the islanders in the art of killing whales.
Their first boats were only twenty feet long, and they launched them from the beaches along the island's south shore. Typically a whaleboat's crew was comprised of five Wampanoag oarsmen, with a single white Nantucketer at the steering oar. Once they'd killed the whale, they towed it back to the beach, where they removed the blubber and boiled it into oil. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, English Nantucketers had instituted a system of debt servitude that provided them with a steady supply of Wampanoag labor. Without the island's native inhabitants, who outnumbered Nantucket's white population well into the 1720s, the island would never have become a successful whaling port.
In the year 1712, a Captain Hussey, cruising in his little boat for right whales along Nantucket's south shore, was blown out to sea in a fierce northerly gale. Many miles out, he glimpsed several whales of a type he had never seen before. Unlike a right whale's vertical spout, this whale's spout arched forward. In spite of the high winds and rough seas, Hussey managed to harpoon and kill one of the whales, its blood and oil stilling the waves in an almost biblical fashion. This creature, Hussey quickly realized, was a sperm whale, one of which had washed up on the island's southwest shore only a few years before. Not only was the oil derived from the sperm whale's blubber far superior to that of the right whale, providing a brighter and cleaner-burning light, but its block-shaped head contained a vast reservoir of even better oil, called spermaceti, that could be simply ladled into an awaiting cask. (It was spermaceti's resemblance to seminal fluid that gave rise to the sperm whale's name.) The sperm whale might be faster and more aggressive than the right whale, but it was far more enriching. With no other means of support, Nantucketers dedicated themselves to the single-minded pursuit of the sperm whale, and they soon outstripped their whaling rivals on the mainland and Long Island.
By 1760, the Nantucketers had practically wiped out the local whale population. But no matter—by that point they had enlarged their whaling sloops and equipped them with brick tryworks capable of processing the oil on the open ocean. Now, since it would not need to return to port as often to deliver bulky blubber, their fleet had a far greater range. By the outbreak of the American Revolution, Nantucketers had made it to the verge of the Arctic Circle, to the west coast of Africa, the east coast of South America, and as far south as the Falkland Islands.
In a speech before Parliament in 1775, the British statesman Edmund Burke looked to the island's inhabitants as the leaders of a new American breed—a "recent people" whose success in whaling had exceeded the collective might of all of Europe. Living on an island that was almost the same distance from the mainland as England was from France, Nantucketers developed a British sense of themselves as a distinct and superior people, privileged citizens of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the "Nation of Nantucket."
The Revolution and the War of 1812, when the British navy marauded offshore shipping, proved disastrous to the whale fishery. Fortunately, Nantucketers possessed enough capital and inherent whaling expertise to survive these trials. By 1819, Nantucket was well on its way to reclaiming and, as the whalers ventured into the Pacific, even surpassing its former glory. But the rise of the Pacific sperm-whale fishery had an unfortunate side effect. Instead of voyages that had once averaged about nine months, two- and three-year voyages had become the norm. Never before had the division between Nantucket's whalemen and their people been so great. Long gone were the days when Nantucketers could watch from shore as the men and boys of the island pursued the whale. Nantucket was now the whaling capital of the world, but there were more than a few islanders who had never even seen a whale.
In the summer of 1819 people were still talking about the time when, nine years earlier, a pod of right whales was spotted to the north of the island. Whaleboats were quickly dispatched. A crowd gathered on shore to watch in fascination as two whales were killed and towed back into the harbor. For the people of Nantucket, it was an epiphany. Here at last were two of the creatures they had heard so much about, creatures upon which their livelihood depended. One of the whales was pulled up onto the wharf, and before the day was out, thousands of people—including, perhaps, the five-year-old Thomas Nickerson—had come to see it. One can only imagine the intensity of the Nantucketers' curiosity as they peered at the giant creature, and poked and prodded it, and said to themselves, "So this is it."
Nantucket had created an economic system that no longer depended on the island's natural resources. The island's soil had long since been exhausted by overfarming. Nantucket's large Wampanoag population had been reduced to a handful by epidemics, forcing shipowners to look to the mainland for crew. Whales had almost completely disappeared from local waters. And still the Nantucketers prospered. As one visitor observed, the island had become a "barren sandbank, fertilized with whale-oil only."
Throughout the seventeenth century, English Nantucketers resisted all attempts to establish a church on the island, partly because a woman by the name of Mary Coffin Starbuck forbade it. It was said that nothing of consequence was done on Nantucket without Mary's approval. Mary Coffin and Nathaniel Starbuck had been the first English couple to be married on the island, in 1662, and had established a lucrative outpost for trading with the Wampanoag. Whenever an itinerant minister came to Nantucket looking to establish a congregation, he was firmly rebuffed by Mary Starbuck. Then, in 1702, Mary succumbed to a charismatic Quaker minister named John Richardson. Speaking before a group assembled in the Starbucks' living room, Richardson succeeded in moving Mary to tears. It was Mary Starbuck's conversion to Quakerism that established the unique fusion of spirituality and covetousness that would make possible Nantucket's rise as a whaling port.
Quakers or, more properly, members of the Society of Friends, depended on their own experience of God's presence, the "Inner Light," for guidance rather than relying on a Puritan minister's interpretation of scripture. But Nantucket's ever growing number of Quakers were hardly free-thinking individuals. Friends were expected to conform to rules of behavior determined during yearly meetings, encouraging a sense of community that was as carefully controlled as that of any New England society. If there was a difference, it was the Quaker belief in pacifism and a conscious spurning of worldly ostentation—two principles that were not intended to interfere, in any way, with a person's ability to make money. Instead of building fancy houses or buying fashionable clothes, Nantucket's Quakers reinvested their profits in the whale fishery. As a result, they were able to weather the downturns that laid to waste so many mainland whaling merchants, and Mary Starbuck's children, along with their Macy and Coffin cousins, quickly established a Quaker whaling dynasty.
Nantucketers saw no contradiction between their livelihood and their religion. God Himself had granted them dominion over the fishes of the sea. Peleg Folger, a Nantucket whaleman turned Quaker elder, expressed it in verse:
Thou didst, O Lord, create the mighty whale, That wondrous monster of a mighty length; Vast is his head and body, vast his tail, Beyond conception his unmeasured strength.
But, everlasting God, thou dost ordain That we, poor feeble mortals should engage (Ourselves, our wives and children to maintain), This dreadful monster with a martial rage.
Even if Nantucket's Quakers dominated the island economically and culturally, room was made for others, and by the early nineteenth century there were two Congregational church towers bracketing the town north and south. Yet all shared in a common, spiritually infused mission—to maintain a peaceful life on land while raising bloody havoc at sea. Pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires, the whalemen of Nantucket were simply fulfilling the Lord's will.
The town that Thomas Nickerson knew had a ramshackle feel about it. All it took was one walk through its narrow sandy streets to discover that despite the stately church towers and the occasional mansion, Nantucket was a far cry from Salem. "The good citizens of [Nantucket] do not seem to pride themselves upon the regularity of their streets [or] the neatness of their sidewalks," observed a visiting Quaker. The houses were shingled and unpretentious and, as often as not, included items scavenged from ships. "[H]atchways make very convenient bridges for gutters ...; a plank from the stern of a ship—having the name on it—answers the double purpose of making a fence—and informing the stranger if he can be at a loss—in what town he is."
Instead of using the official street names that had been assigned for tax purposes in 1798, Nantucketers spoke of "Elisha Bunker's street" or "Captain Mitchell's." "The inhabitants live together like one great family," wrote the Nantucketer Walter Folger, who happened to be a part-owner of the Essex, "not in one house, but in friendship. They not only know their nearest neighbors, but each one knows all the rest. If you should wish to see any man, you need but ask the first inhabitant you meet, and he will be able to conduct you to his residence, to tell what occupation he is of, and any other particulars you may wish to know."
But even within this close-knit familial community, there were distinctions, and Thomas Nickerson was on the outside looking in. The unhappy truth was that while Nickerson's mother, Rebecca Gibson, was a Nantucketer, his father, Thomas Nickerson, had been from Cape Cod, and Thomas Junior had been born in Harwich in 1805. Six months later, his parents moved him and his sisters across the sound to Nantucket. It was six months too late. Nantucketers took a dim view of off-islanders. They called them "strangers" or, even worse, "coofs," a term of disparagement originally reserved for Cape Codders but broadened to include all of those unlucky enough to have been born on the mainland.
It might have earned Thomas Nickerson some regard on the island if his mother had at least come from old Nantucket stock, with a last name like Coffin, Starbuck, Macy, Folger, or Gardner. Such was not the case. On an island where many families could claim direct descent from one of the twenty or so "first settlers," the Gibsons and Nickersons were without the network of cousins that sustained most Nantucketers. "Perhaps there is not another place in the world, of equal magnitude," said Obed Macy, "where the inhabitants [are] so connected by consanguinity as in this, which add[s] much to the harmony of the people and to their attachment to the place." Nickerson's friends and shipmates Owen Coffin, Charles Ramsdell, and Barzillai Ray could count themselves as part of this group. Thomas might play with them, go to sea with them, but deep down he understood that no matter how hard he might try, he was, at best, only a coof.
Where a person lived in Nantucket depended on his station in the whaling trade. If he was a shipowner or merchant, he more than likely lived on Pleasant Street, set back on the hill, farthest from the clamor and stench of the wharves. (In subsequent decades, as their ambitions required greater space and visibility, these worthies would gravitate toward Main Street). Captains, in contrast, tended to choose the thoroughfare with the best view of the harbor: Orange Street. With a house on the east side of Orange, a captain could watch his ship being outfitted at the wharf and keep track of activity in the harbor. Mates, as a rule, lived at the foot of this hill ("under the bank," it was called) on Union Street, in the actual shadow of the homes they aspired one day to own.
On the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets was the Friends' immense South Meeting House, built in 1792 from pieces of the even bigger Great Meeting House that once loomed over the stoneless field of the Quaker Burial Ground at the end of Main Street. Just because Nickerson had been brought up a Congregationalist didn't mean he had never been inside this or the other Quaker meetinghouse on Broad Street. One visitor claimed that almost half the people who attended a typical Quaker meeting were not members of the Society of Friends. Earlier that summer, on June 29, Obed Macy recorded that two thousand people (more than a quarter of the island's population) had attended a public Quaker meeting at the South Meeting House.
While many of the attendees were there for the good of their souls, those in their teens and early twenties tended to have other motives. No other place on Nantucket offered a better opportunity for young people to meet members of the opposite sex. Nantucketer Charles Murphey described in a poem how young men such as himself used the long gaps of silence typical of a Quaker meeting
To sit with eager eyes directed On all the beauty there collected And gaze with wonder while in sessions On all the various forms and fashions.
Yet another gathering spot for amorous young people was the ridge of hills behind the town where the four windmills stood. Here couples could enjoy a spectacular view of the town and Nantucket Harbor, with the brand-new lighthouse at the end of Great Point visible in the distance.
What is surprising is how rarely Nantucketers, even young and adventurous Nantucketers like Nickerson and company, strayed beyond the gates of the little town. "As small as [the island] is," one whale-oil merchant admitted in a letter, "I was never at the extreme east or west, and for some years I dare say have not been one mile from town." In a world of whales, sea serpents, and ominous signs in the night sky, all Nantucketers, whalemen and landsmen alike, looked to the town as a sanctuary, a fenced-in place of familiar ways and timeless ancestral alliances, a place to call home.
Passions stirred beneath Nantucket's Quaker facade. Life might seem restrained and orderly as hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people made their way to meeting each Thursday and Sunday, the men in their long dark coats and wide-brimmed hats, the women in long dresses and meticulously crafted bonnets. But factors besides Quakerism and a common heritage also drove the Nantucket psyche—in particular, an obsession with the whale. No matter how much the inhabitants might try to hide it, there was a savagery about this island, a bloodlust and pride that bound every mother, father, and child in a clannish commitment to the hunt.
The imprinting of a young Nantucketer began at the earliest age. The first words a baby was taught included the language of the chase—"townor," for instance, a Wampanoag word meaning that the whale has been sighted for a second time. Bedtime stories told of killing whales and eluding cannibals in the Pacific. One mother approvingly recounted how her nine-year-old son attached a fork to the end of a ball of darning cotton and then proceeded to harpoon the family cat. The mother happened into the room just as the terrified pet attempted to escape, and unsure of what she had found herself in the middle of, she picked up the cotton ball. Like a veteran boatsteerer, the boy shouted, "Pay out, mother! Pay out! There she sounds through the window!"
There was rumored to be a secret society of young women on the island whose members pledged to marry only men who had already killed a whale. To help these young women identify them as hunters, boatsteerers wore chockpins (small oak pins used to keep the harpoon line in the bow groove of a whaleboat) on their lapels. Boatsteerers, superb athletes with prospects of lucrative captaincies, were considered the most eligible of Nantucket bachelors.
Instead of toasting a person's health, a Nantucketer offered invocations of a darker sort:
Death to the living, Long life to the killers, Success to sailors' wives And greasy luck to whalers.
Despite the bravado of this little ditty, death was a fact of life with which all Nantucketers were thoroughly familiar. In 1810 there were forty-seven fatherless children on Nantucket, while almost a quarter of the women over the age of twenty-three (the average age of marriage) had been widowed by the sea.
In old age, Nickerson still visited the graves of his parents in the Old North Burial Ground. In 1819, during the last few weeks before his departure aboard the Essex, he undoubtedly made his way to this fenced-in patch of sun-scorched grass and walked among its canted stones. Nickerson's father had been the first of the parents to die, on November 9, 1806, at the age of thirty-three. His gravestone read:
Crush'd as the moth beneath thy hand We moulder to the dust Our feeble powers can ne'er withstand And all our beauty's lost.
Nickerson's mother, who had borne five children, died less than a month later at the age of twenty-eight. Her oldest living daughter was eight years old; her only son was not yet two. Her inscription read:
This mortal life decays apace How soon the bubble's broke Adam and all his numerous race Are Vanity and Smoke.
Nickerson, who was raised by his grandparents, wasn't the only orphan aboard the Essex. His friend Barzillai Ray had also lost both his parents. Owen Coffin and Charles Ramsdell had each lost a father. This may have been their closest bond: each of them, like so many Nantucketers, was a fatherless child for whom a ship's officer would be much more than a demanding taskmaster; he would be, quite possibly, the first male authority figure the boys had ever known.
Perphaps no community before or since has been so divided by its commitment to work. For a whaleman and his family, it was a punishing regimen: two to three years away, three to four months at home. With their men gone for so long, Nantucket's women were obliged not only to raise the children but also to run many of the island's businesses. It was largely the women who maintained the complex web of personal and commercial relationships that kept the community functioning. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, whose classic Letters from an American Farmer describes his lengthy stay on the island a few years prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, suggested that the Nantucket women's "prudence and good management ... justly entitles them to a rank superior to that of other wives."
Quakerism contributed to the women's strength. In its emphasis on the spiritual and intellectual equality of the sexes, the religion fostered an attitude that was in keeping with what all Nantucketers saw plainly demonstrated to them every day: that women, who on Nantucket tended to be better educated than the island's men, were just as intelligent, just as capable as their male counterparts.
By necessity and choice, the island's women maintained active social lives, visiting one another with a frequency Crèvecoeur described as incessant. These visits involved more than the exchange of mere gossip. They were the setting in which much of the business of the town was transacted. The ninteenth-century feminist Lucretia Coffin Mott, who was born and raised on Nantucket, remembered how a husband back from a voyage commonly followed in the wake of his wife, accompanying her to get-togethers with other wives. Mott, who eventually moved to Philadelphia, commented on how odd such a practice would have struck anyone from the mainland, where the sexes operated in entirely different social spheres.
Some of the Nantucket wives adapted quite well to the three-years-away, three-months-at-home rhythm of the whale fishery. The islander Eliza Brock recorded in her journal what she called the "Nantucket Girl's Song":
Then I'll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea, For a life of independence, is the pleasant life for me. But every now and then I shall like to see his face, For it always seems to me to beam with manly grace, With his brow so nobly open, and his dark and kindly eye, Oh my heart beats fondly towards him whenever he is nigh. But when he says "Goodbye my love, I'm off across the sea," First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I'm free.
The mantle of power and responsibility settled upon the Nantucket woman's shoulders on her wedding day. "[N]o sooner have they undergone this ceremony," said Crèvecoeur, "than they cease to appear so cheerful and gay; the new rank they hold in the society impresses them with more serious ideas than were entertained before.... [T]he new wife ... gradually advises and directs [the household]; the new husband soon goes to sea; he leaves her to learn and exercise the new government in which she is entered."
To the undying outrage of subsequent generations of Nantucket loyalists, Crèvecoeur claimed that many of the island's women had developed an addiction to opium: "They have adopted these many years the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and so deeply rooted is it that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence." Why they took the drug is perhaps impossible to determine from this distance in time. Still, the portrait that emerges—of a community of achievers attempting to cope with a potentially devastating loneliness—makes the women's dependence on opium perhaps easier to understand. The ready availability of the drug on the island (opium was included in every whaleship's medical chest) combined with the inhabitants' wealth may also help to explain why the drug was so widely used in Nantucket.
There is little doubt that intimacy—physical as well as emotional—between a wife and a husband must have been difficult to establish under the tremendously compressed circumstances of the few months available between voyages. An island tradition claims that Nantucket women dealt with their husbands' long absences by relying on sexual aids known as "he's-at-homes." Although this claim, like that of drug use, seems to fly in the face of the island's staid Quaker reputation, in 1979 a six-inch plaster penis (along with a batch of letters from the nineteenth century and a laudanum bottle) was discovered hidden in the chimney of a house in the island's historic district. Just because they were "superior wives" didn't mean that the island's women were without normal physical desires. Like their husbands, Nantucket's women were ordinary human beings attempting to adapt to a most extraordinary way of life.
Table of ContentsIn the Heart of the Sea - Nathaniel Philbrick Preface: February 23, 1821
Crew of the Essex
Chapter One: Nantucket
Chapter Two: Knockdown
Chapter Three: First Blood
Chapter Four: The Lees of Fire
Chapter Five: The Attack
Chapter Six: The Plan
Chapter Seven: At Sea
Chapter Eight: Centering Down
Chapter Nine: The Island
Chapter Ten: The Whisper of Necessity
Chapter Eleven: Games of Chance
Chapter Twelve: In the Eagle's Shadow
Chapter Thirteen: Homecoming
Chapter Fourteen: Consequences
What People are Saying About This
"A book that gets in your bones...Philbrick has created an eerie thriller from a centuries old tale....Scrupulously researched and eloquently written...it would have earned Melville's admiration." The New York Times Book Review
"Fascinating...One of our country's great adventure stories...when it comes to extremes, In the Heart of the Sea is right there." The Wall Street Journal
"[Told] with verve and authenticity...a classic tale of the sea." San Francisco Chronicle
"Nathaniel Philbrick has taken one of the most horrifying stories in maritime history and turned it into a classic....One of the most chilling books I have ever read." Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm
Reading Group Guide
It began in the summer of 1997. I never seem to get much writing done in the summer. Nantucket is a madhouse in July and August, and for me it's been a time for sculpting an existing manuscript rather than creating a new one. That said, I was desperately trying to finish up a book called Abram's Eyes, about the island's Native American legacy. All summer I'd been wrestling with the epilogue. I was attempting to link the Indians' myths of Maushop—a friendly giant who finally turns on his own family, beating his wife and transforming his children into killer whales—to Herman Melville's myth-making use of the Essex disaster, in which the whaleman's normally benign prey, the mammoth sperm whale, unaccountably attacks and sinks a Nantucket whaleship, but it just wasn't working.
It was during a family vacation in Maine that it came to me: how to finish the book I was working on and how to start the next one. We were sailing a chartered boat in Maine's Penobscot Bay when I found myself thinking less about the whale and more about the men and what had happened to them after the attack. Then it hit me, the scene with which I would begin In the Heart of the Sea: two emaciated survivors found sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. With the bones leading the way, I saw with a startling, almost instantaneous clarity that the Essex was something more than the whaling yarn that inspired Moby-Dick, it was one of the greatest survival tales ever told.
It wasn't until about three months later, in December of 1997, that I was able to turn my undivided attention to the Essex. Having by that point written two books of Nantucket history, I had almost a decade's worth of relevant research behind me. What I felt I needed more than anything else was a new angle on the island and whaling, a perspective that did not take Nantucket and its history for granted. So I decided to become a tourist in my own town.
With notebook in hand, I spent an afternoon at the Nantucket whaling museum, a place I'd visited countless times, but instead of looking for an answer to a specific question, I was in search of more general impressions. I came away from my three-hour ramble through what is an old candle factory stuffed with a fascinating assortment of artifacts with a renewed sense of the size and strength of the whale. There were iron harpoon shafts that had been twisted as if they'd been pieces of taffy. Somehow I'd never noticed them before, and if I had, I'd resisted the tendency to say, "Wow!" I began to see Nantucket as an almost medieval place, dominated by its own one-sided version of war, complete with tattered signal flags, portraits of its ocean-going knights of old, and decorated with the dusty bones of the defeated. In the basement of the museum is a huge whale oil cask, an object that made me see whaling as not just a battle but also a business. Whale oil, I realized, was what petroleum is to us today, and Nantucket, this little sandbank at the edge of a watery wilderness, was the Mobil Oil headquarters of the nineteenth century.
The biggest surprise while writing the book were the directions in which my research led me. I never would have anticipated, for example, integrating information about a starvation experiment conducted at the University of Minnesota during World War II in a book about a whaling voyage in the early nineteenth century. But it was the science, I began to realize, that made the story seem all the more real and frightening to a modern audience.
One anecdote about my starvation research: In December, a week or so before Christmas 1998, my wife stopped by our local library to pick up a copy of an article I'd ordered through Interlibrary Loan. The reference librarian greeted her with a look of concern. "Is Nat all right?" she asked. Somewhat bewildered, my wife assured her that, yes, he wasn't getting out much these days, but everything was fine. It wasn't until she was walking back to her car that Melissa looked to see that the article was entitled "The Nutritional Value of Cannibalism."
ABOUT NATHANIEL PHILBRICK
Nathaniel Philbrick is a leading authority on the history of Nantucket. He is director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. His other books includeAway Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 and Abram's Eyes: The Native American Legacy on Nantucket Island. He is a champion sailboat racer and lives in Nantucket, Massachusetts.
A CONVERSATION WITH NATHANIEL PHILBRICK
Why do you believe the tale of the Essex needed retelling? Why is it important to tell now?
Except for at a few old whaling ports such as Nantucket and New Bedford, the story of the Essex was known, if it was known at all, as the story that inspired the climax of Moby-Dick. It seemed to me that the Essex was something more than the raw material for Melville's miraculous art; it was a survival tale that also happened to be an essential part of American history. Back in the early nineteenth century, America had more frontiers than the West; there was also the sea, and the Nantucket whaleman was the sea-going mountain man of his day, chasing the sperm whale into the distant corners of the Pacific Ocean. Americans today have lost track of the importance the sea had in creating the nation's emerging identity. It wasn't all cowboys and Indians; there was also the whalemen and Pacific. More than a decade before the Donner party brought a story of frontier cannibalism to the American public, there was the Essex disaster.
You brought a historic tale to life with vivid detail and emotional content that rivals narrative fiction. Did it feel like you were writing fiction?
I am trained as a journalist, and instead of inventing anything, the way a fiction writer would, I was trying to figure out, as best I could, what really happened. Where information concerning the Essex and her crew was lacking, I turned to other whaling voyages for examples of what had occurred under similar circumstances. I was very much concerned with the personalities of the men, so I combed documents on Nantucket to help me identify what their backgrounds had been. I looked to modern-day scientific studies in an attempt to figure out what the crew was experiencing, not only in terms of their suffering at sea, but also in terms of the interpersonal dynamics of a survival situation. I resisted the temptation to create dialogue or presume to know what the men were thinking. On the other hand, I realized that this was an amazing story, and I didn't want my research to interfere with the inherent drama of the tale. I found that if an informational sidebar had its own story to tell, it added to, rather than detracted from, the drama. But I didn't want to litter the book with references to arcane literary and scientific studies. One of the reasons the end note section of the book is so long and detailed is that I wanted to remove the scholarly apparatus that so often gets in the way of the plot in academic history. I wanted to let the story tell itself. If a reader has questions about what sources I used and what decisions I made in crafting the narrative, he or she should refer to the notes.
What criteria did you use to delineate between reliable and unreliable sources? Who do you feel is a more reliable source, Owen Chase or Thomas Nickerson? Why?
Owen Chase, the first mate, wrote his account of the disaster within months of his rescue, while Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, waited half a century before he put pen to paper. Since the normal rule is that the person writing the closest to the actual event is the most trustworthy, that means that Chase's account should be given precedence. However, Chase was an officer attempting to put some very bad decisions in the best possible light. Even though Nickerson was writing decades after the event, he was remembering a traumatic event that had occurred in his teenage years, and psychologists tell us that an older person's memory of such an event is quite reliable. Instead of contradicting Chase, Nickerson adds details that the first mate chose not to reveal. For example, Nickerson reveals that Chase had had an opportunity to lance the whale after the first attack but chose not to. With the help of Nickerson, whose narrative was not discovered until 1980, I aimed to broaden, and in some cases challenge, the received wisdom of Owen Chase.
Do you think that Captain George Pollard was a poor captain or just unlucky?
Pollard was certainly unlucky, but he also had difficulty asserting his will upon the crew. Pollard was a first-time captain and seemed hesitant to overrule his subordinates. In just about every situation, his instincts were correct, but he inevitably allowed himself to be talked out of his convictions by his two mates, Owen Chase and Matthew Joy. As leadership psychologists will tell you, a leader, particularly in a survival situation, must make decisions firmly and quickly. Pollard was too much of a Hamlet.
Were you surprised that after the Essex disaster so many of her survivors returned to the sea?
No, I wasn't. On Nantucket in the early nineteenth century a young, ambitious man had few options. If he wasn't going to go whaling, there wasn't much else for him to do. When asked how he could dare go back to sea, Pollard simply said that the lightning never struck in the same place twice. These men had every reason to believe that they had survived the worst that fate could ever throw at them.
What fascinates you about a survival tale such as this? Why do you think that such true survival tales are so popular today?
A survival tale peels away the niceties and comforts of civilization. Suddenly, all the technology and education in the world means nothing. I think all of us wonder while reading a survival tale, what would I have done in this situation? Would I have made it? There's a part of us that feels our pampered twenty-first-century existence is a kind of lie, I think. We read these stories to experience vicariously the essential truths of life and, of course, death.
Why do you think, given the fascination the true story of the Essex held for so many, that Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick failed to garner much attention immediately following its publication?
Part of Melville's problem with Moby-Dick was timing. American popular tastes had shifted. Instead of the wilderness of the sea, Americans were, after the Gold Rush of 1848-49, most interested in the Wild West, and Moby-Dick was published in 1851. The other strike against Moby-Dick was that it was, for the mid-nineteenth century, a very unconventional and challenging novel. For us, it's different. A generation reared on Joyce and Faulkner finds the subtleties and outrages of Moby-Dick a wonderful delight. For readers of Longfellow and Whittier, Melville's novel was very, very strange.
You say in your Epilogue that the Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. Can you explain?
To my mind, an adventure is something a person willingly undertakes. Shackleton attempting to traverse Antarctica or Mallory climbing Mt. Everest are adventurers. If they run into troubles, they are, by and large, troubles of their own devising. The crew of the Essex were whalemen simply trying to make a living when they were attacked by an 85-foot whale. There was nothing adventurous about the sufferings they subsequently endured. I would certainly call them heroic, but they were not adventurers.
As a current resident of Nantucket, what do you perceive to be the town's relationship with its whaling history?
Nantucket today has, I think, a somewhat tortured relationship with its past. On one hand, Nantucketers are proud of the island's whaling history; on the other, they care deeply about the marine life they see in the waters surrounding the island. Just last Fourth-of-July weekend a pod of pilot whales beached on the north shore of the island, and Nantucketers worked ceaselessly for an entire day in a vain attempt to save the very same whales their forefathers would have instinctively massacred. Times change.
What's next for you? Have you plumbed the depths of Nantucket history?
I don't think it's ever possible to plumb the depths of this island's rich history. However, my next book does take me away from the island, even if it is, I think, a natural evolution for a Nantucket historian. It's about the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, an unprecedented voyage of discovery by the American Navy that would do for the Pacific Ocean what Lewis and Clark had done for the American West. Following in the whalemen's considerable wake, this expedition would chart hundreds of Pacific Islands and bring back so many scientific specimens that the Smithsonian Institution would be created, in part, to house them. For good measure, this expedition would also venture toward the South Pole and establish for the first time that Antarctica was a continent. Two ships would be lost; dozens of men would never return. It's yet another amazing story of the sea with which modern-day Americans have lost touch.