Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Book Review: "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick

You won't see any reviews of new books here - who can afford to buy a new book? Half Price Books is one of my favorite book stores, my only gripe is the nearest one is about ten miles away.

Anyway, despite have a title that is way too long, Philbrick's account of the Essex is "whale of a tale", pun intended. In 1819, Nantucket was the whaling epicenter of the world but the Atlantic supply of sperm whales was diminished greatly. Whale oil was a valuable commodity, the fossil fuel of the times, used for lighting lamps, cooking etc. The whaleships, a bit like BP in the Gulf, were taking on more risks and heading into uncharted seas, the South Pacific. Just getting there, sailing around the Horn, was an incredible task. These were wooden sailing ships acting as factories. Catching the whale was half the job; processing, storing and transporting the oil home was the arduous and dangerous work. It took numerous whales to fill the hold full of barrels and the round trip could take more than two years.

The Essex was not the most modern in the fleet, nor was it skippered by the most experienced Captain. The voyage from Nantucket was besieged by calamity from the get-go; a gale just a few hundred miles from the Massachusetts coast almost sank the vessel. Months later, they rounded South America and headed north towards the equator. There the whaling was good but disaster struck when a protective male Sperm whale rammed the Essex and sank her. This event widely known in Nantucket circles inspired Herman Melville to pen Moby Dick. "Call me Ishmael...".

After the Essex sank, the crew of 21 took to the smaller boats that were used to pursue the whales. They were thousands of miles from South America but in actuality not more than a few hundred miles from islands that could have sustained them until rescue. The result was they predictably got separated, ran out of food and lastly fresh water. One by one they began to die off and in order to survive, the remaining sailors resorted to cannibalism. Eight ended up being rescued, the last almost six months after the Essex sank.

Philbrick's book (2001) is based on an account written by the Essex cabin boy, which was lost until 1960. "The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essexbook" is a real page turner and hard to put down. It is difficult to complain about a desk job after reading this. He gives great historical perspective on the whaling industry, the people of Nantucket, slavery, Indian relations, 19th century commerce, religion, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it. I can see myself reading the book again in the future - so don't ask to borrow it - get your own copy!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.