In the Heart of the Sea The novel “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” by Nathaniel Philbrick, successfully tells the story of the whale ship Essex that was attacked by a sperm whale 1,500 nautical miles west of the Galapagos, 40 miles south of the equator. Many people know this as the story of “Moby Dick”, which was based off this event. The novel highlights three themes: man versus nature, survival, and suffering. The novel starts out in the town of Nantucket, an island off the eastern coast of New England.
Nantucket, at this time, is known as one of the most successful whaling ports. Docked on the port was the famous Essex, a 20 year whaling boat. The Essex is the pride of Nantucket. It is 87 feet long, 238 tons, equipped with 12 sails and carried several smaller whaling boats that were used when a whale was spotted. After lasting many years, the Essex developed a reputation for being a lucky ship. Many voyages lasted around two to three years in the Pacific Ocean. Many young boys, such as Thomas Nickerson, joined whaling crews at a young age.
These crews were mixed of experienced whalers and “green hands,” men who have never sailed on a whaling ship. Usually, these new crew members would earn around $150 for two years work, so the experienced workers made the most of these “green hands. ” Nantucket was known for its whale products, and was considered the whaling capital of the world. Whale oil was used to fuel lamps and making lamps (because there is no electricity, gas or kerosene). It is also used in margarine, shoe polish and soap. Baleen is a substance that comes from the mouths of the whale.
They can be found in many women’s clothing. These two important goods come from whales and the only way to obtain the oil and baleen is to make a voyage out to see and find the whales. At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to the town of Nantucket and whaling business. His discussions of this set us up for the events following later in the book. Philbrick also talks about the relationship between the colonists in Nantucket. They are very close, drawn together by their Quaker religion, similar experiences, and their interests in whaling.
In the town, there is a hierarchy within the people. Where a person lived in the town was based on what rank they are in their society. The captain’s home would usually have the best view of the harbor. The seven black crewmen who were brought over to the crew were out casted, and relied on each other. The novel highlights the dangers of being a whaler. Young crewmen, such as Nickerson, were there to gain experience for future journeys. Nantucket was brought together by the whaling industry, and the community would usually see ships off before they took off.
The Essex sailed off from Nantucket on August 12, 1819 under the command of 28 year-old Captain George Pollard, Jr. He spent the last four years on the Essex, and knew it very well. However, Philbrick points out that Pollard was not ready for be a captain, and we see why later on in the book. Owen Chase is the captain’s first mate, and Matthew Joy was the second mate. The Essex was operated with a 21-man crew. In chapter 2, Philbrick describes the ship. Also, in this chapter, we get a feel for the isolation of the “outsiders. The captain and his mates would sleep in cabins that were in the back of the ship, next, the Nantucket colonists would stay in the steerage, and the blacks, separated by the blubber room, stayed in front of the boat. After they embark on their journey, the men begin to complain about their rations. Pollard, was able to talk them into settling for what they had, establishing his power and authority. In chapter 5, on November 20, the crew spots whales 40 miles south of the equator. Chase and his crew go after a whale, which destroys their boat with its tail.
When they bring their boat back to the Essex, they spot a huge sperm whale near the bow of the ship calmly and quietly floating along the surface of the water. The whale began to move quickly towards the ship. The men try to steer Essex away from the whale, but are unsuccessful. The whale rams the ship with its head, and the men are amazed. After the whale revives itself, it struck the ship again, causing the Essex to sink bow-first. The men board their whaleboats after a night of preparation of leaving the Essex. They stripped the sails of the ship and attached them to their boats.
The waves splashed over the boat, causing the work to be more difficult. The next morning, the boats take off. Chase and Pollard talk of where to go now that their ship has sunk. They speak about going to the Galapagos Islands, but Pollard noticed the wind direction would not allow them to go there. Next, they speak about the Marquesas, in the west. The men had heard that the inhabitants of the island were cannibals. South of the Marquesas were the Tauamotu Archipelago Islands, but the men had also heard that the islands have a bad reputation.
In this conversation, we notice the colonist’s outlook on the unknown. They share a sense of togetherness within each other and no one else. We see this in the attitude of the colonists towards the black crewmen. Pollard decides to sail towards the Society Islands. There, Pollard saw a safer environment with little threat. Chase and Joy argue that the Society Islands would not be a good place to sail towards, and they could sail towards Chile or Peru instead. Pollard conforms to this decision. Here we see that Pollard has become less authoritative after the Essex sinks.
In their first three weeks in the boats, the men faced many hardships. They faced thirst and hunger. Their skin had been burnt, salt water burned their sores, and the men, being as weak as they were, were unable to row the boats. On top of all that, another whale attacks Pollard’s boat. The men spot an island in the distance and conclude that they have arrived at Henderson Island. There, they found fresh water and ate crabs and birds. They were able to revive themselves, and this gave them a fighting chance of survival. Three men chose to stay on the island while the others left.
Pollard promised he would rescue them after he reached South America. They return back to the ocean, and the men face the same obstacles they faced before they found Henderson Island. The men faced hunger but were still hydrated from the water collected at Henderson Island. Many accepted they weren’t going to live, and gave up their rations. Joy dies in the voyage, and the men bury him at dead. Bad turns to worse when the men realize there is only enough hardtack to last a day or two. On January 20, Lawson Thomas, a black crew member, dies, and the crew contemplates turning to cannibalism.
The men concluded that in order to survive, they must eat the dead crew members. It is ironic that the men turned to cannibalism, because they feared the inhabitants of the Marquesas. Three months after the Essex sank; the remaining two whaleboats are rescued in different areas along the South American coast. Two men were left alive in Pollard’s boat and three men in Chase’s boat. Nickerson, Chase, and Lawrence arrive in Valparaiso, Chile on February 25, 1821, and are taken back to Nantucket aboard whale ship Hero.
Both Nantucket and the survivors of the Essex changed after the ship’s sinking. The whaling industry quickly fell to other towns. A fire that burned nearly a third of the town added to the difficulties. The men of the Essex were haunted when recalling what happened. Even Chase was deemed insane. This event caused the town of Nantucket to separate. The townspeople were no longer bonded by whaling, because the industry made a fall. The surviving men of the Essex became hypocritical, turning to cannibalism, one thing they feared and frowned upon. This event helps us understand what these men had to do when they are stranded, and teaches us the meaning of nature, survival, and suffering.
Bibliography “Alone in the Pacific. ” Salariya Publishing. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. <http://www. salariya. com/web_books/whaling/alone/alone. html>. “Nantucket Island History. ” Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. <http://www. nantucketchamber. org/visitor/trivia. html>. Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship. New York,NY: Penguin, 2000. Print.