The story is enough.

The story is enough.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

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

This review was published in the March 26, 2016 issue of The Canon City Daily Record.

“Only a Nantucketer in November 1820 possessed the necessary combination of arrogance, ignorance, and xenophobia to shun a beckoning (albeit unknown) island and choose instead an open-sea voyage of several thousand miles.” This editorial quote from Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, sets the stage for a tale of impending disaster.

After the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the world economy looked to Nantucket Island, 30 miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for the profits of her whaleships.

Twenty-one men, black and white, young and old, set sail to find the lucrative sperm whale, known for its bright and clean burning oil. There were signs that could be heeded: a comet, swarms of locusts. But the hunt called to the sailors dreaming of a wealth found only on the open sea. And when their ship, the Essex, was violently attacked by a giant whale, not once but twice, the men escaped the sinking boat by splitting into three whaleboats, with only the slimmest of provisions to guarantee survival. Instead of following their captain’s instinct, the men headed in the opposite direction – they’d rather face the unknown in small boats for months on end than land on an island possibly inhabited by cannibals. Languishing in a dead zone of the Pacific Ocean with little sea life and little wind, the crew faced dire starvation, extreme thirst and, ironically, cannibalism on their own small boats.

The cataclysms befalling the men of the Essex inspired Herman Melville to write his novel Moby Dick. The effects of fear on decision making has been examined by novelist Katherine Thompson Walker in a Ted talk. And the story of the disasters faced by Captain Pollard and his crew hit the big screen this winter in a movie directed by Ron Howard, starring Chris Hemsworth.


We are reminded that “the Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest stories ever told.” This is a tale of misfortune, catastrophe, and struggle. Yet the tragedy is approached with honesty and compassion, clear writing, and intriguing information about the time and people. Step by step, Nathaniel Philbrick escorts us through the circumstances that led to, and at times created, disaster - an island community, a Quaker faith, racism, greed, and the lusting hunt of a leviathan beast. Pertinent pictures and maps complete this engrossing book. In the Heart of the Sea one finds the hearts of human men, daring to dominate the world of the mighty sperm whale.

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