Nathaniel Philbrick’s account of the whaleship Essex (the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick) could be the textbook example of how truth is stranger than fiction. Philbrick draws heavily on the accepted contemporary narrative – the account of the doomed voyage from first mate Owen Chase. He adds to this his own extensive research into the island of Nantucket, and its place in the global economy of the time. Interestingly, he also draws on the more recently uncovered first person account written by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson – which paints a far less heroic version of Owen Chase.
The 240 tonne whaleship Essex left the port of Nantucket on August 12th 1819 to hunt whales and extract their natural oil (a process as pleasant as it sounds). At the time, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. Whale oil was used to light lanterns, and was in such high demand that even in a time of worldwide recession, business was booming on Nantucket. In 1821, two survivors of the Essex were found floating near Chile. The men were sunburnt and babbling, “sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates”. In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of everything that happens in between.
I wasn’t sure if I should read this book at all. Moby Dick is a book I appreciate academically rather than actually enjoy reading. I’m also very much #teamwhale, which is the main reason I haven’t seen the recent movie adaptation directed by Ron Howard. I imagine it would be far too visceral for me, both in terms of whale death and the destruction of Chris Hemsworth glorious chest! Let me be clear here, the whale deaths are not glossed over in this book:
”When the lance finally found its marks, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a fifteen-to twenty-foot geyser of gore that prompted the mate to shout. ‘Chimney’s afire!’ As the blood rained down on them, the men took up the oars and backed furiously away, then paused to watch as the whale went into what was known as its flurry. Beating the water with its tail, snapping at the air with its jaws – even as it regurgitated large chunks of fish and squid – the creature began to swim in an ever tightening circle. Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the first thrust of the harpoon it ended. The whale fell motionless and silent, black corpse floating fin-up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.”
Bear in mind, this was not a harpoon shot by a machine, but hand thrown by a man in a row boat in extreme proximity to the whale. Despite the gruesomeness of the subject matter in places, this book was a far more entertaining read than I could have imagined, and I am delighted I decided to take a chance on it. That Nantucket was predominantly Quaker makes the ruthlessness of the primary industry chosen by these pacifists fascinating – little wonder why Melville called the inhabitants of the island “Quakers with a vengeance”. The “clannish commitment to the hunt” on Nantucket; the environmental destruction the sailors caused on islands they encountered; the politics of life aboard the ships were all just as interesting as the main story. Philbrick’s enthusiasm for his subject is so contagious it gives this book the pace and narrative drive of fiction. The main story – the will to survive; man vs nature; the descent into cannibalism – could have been overblown in fiction, however, in Philbrick’s hands, it is credible and fascinating. Highly recommended.
In the Heart of the Sea is published by HarperCollins Fourth Estate and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.