The sinking of the Titanic has captured people’s imaginations for the last hundred years. In the 19th century another ship disaster became a legend in the United States and even left a mark on American literature.
In In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathaniel Philbrick relates the story of this ship and what happened in the Pacific Ocean in 1820. In the 19th century, men set out on long voyages to hunt whales for their oil. Nantucket, Rhode Island became a center for the whaling industry. Many of those who sailed on the Essex came from there.
Twenty men set out on the ill-fated trip. It almost did not happen as a bad storm damaged the vessel several days after leaving port. The crew made the necessary repairs and the trip continued. The crew did not have much luck finding whales and went deeper into the Pacific. On November 20, the Essex faced an attack by a large sperm whale destroying the ship. The men retrieved what supplies and belongings they could before the Essex sank to the deep and set out in three smaller boats. They looked to reach the coast of South America several thousand miles away.
For some weeks, the boats remained together. To ensure their food would last, everyone received a small daily portion of bread and water. With this strict diet and the constant exposure to the elements, the men suffered from hunger. A stop at a South Pacific island allowed the men to refill water containers and gather food. They continued their course toward safety knowing their time and resources would not last forever. The three boats became separated and their hopes of help faded. Starvation began to claim men and some died. Before they were rescued cannibalism kept the remaining men alive. In the end eight out of the twenty sailors survived. They all returned to Nantucket and even went back to sea in other vessels.
Those who live on the island have long been reluctant to discuss the Essex accident. It remains a painful part of its history. However, an American writer named Herman Melville learned the details of the incident and wrote Moby Dick based on it. The survivors moved on with their lives with varying degrees of success. The memory of their suffering and the loss of their friends haunted them. The author briefly discusses other similar incidents with whaleships but none of them had the drama of the Essex. With better communications and knowledge of the oceans such an accident seems unlikely today. However the brave men of the Essex will continue to have their place in history.
I liked this gripping account of the Essex. I have not read Melville’s novel, but do not feel the need with reading this nonfiction book! I have a greater appreciation of whales and the possibility of their destructive nature. Some parts of the account are hard to read, but overall the effort is worth it as the reader suffers with and cheers on the men of the Essex until they reach safety.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.