Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Nathaniel Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea

The story of what happened to the unfortunate crew of the whaling ship Essex has been told many times. Not least by the poor unfortunates who survived the ordeal. Nathaniel Philbrick's retelling though is the first that includes the recently discovered personal account of the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, whose retelling was found decades later in someones attic. It joins that of the First Mate Owen Chase who was one of the few who sailed with the Essex to meet good fortune on his return to civilisation.

Philbrick put the story of Essex's last voyage in the context of its time. Sailing out of Nantucket, the world's most important whaling port, the crew of the Essex were almost entirely white Quakers, with the exception of a few African-Americans. It is difficult to comprehend the life of those who hunted the sperm whales in the mid-19th century. The enormous risks, the danger and the appalling quality of life and the low pay is one thing. Voyages that might take two or three years. If the ship returned with her barrels full of oil there would be a bonanza for her owners and the sailors might get their percentage. But ships on occasion came back with nothing, and their crews had nothing to show for years on low rations and full of hours of work.

The life also created unusual relations between people. Sailors who were only home for a few months every few years found their wives were running the town in their absence. Indeed, Nantucket women seem to have developed a rare 19th century sense of independence.

Then I'll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea,
For a life of independence is the pleasant life for me,
But every now and then I shall life to see his face,
For it always seems to me to beam with manly grace,
But when he says "Goodbye my love, I'm off across the sea,"
First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I'm free.

This independence was one reason (the other was high rates of death in childbirth) that meant that the Captain of the Essex married four times.

Philbrick is outstanding in his imaging of the life of the whalers and their town. But the core of this book is the story of how the Essex, about as far as it was possible to be from land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was destroyed by a bull Sperm whale, perhaps 85 feet in length. The crew boarded their whale boats and embarked, with low rations and lacking water, on a voyage several thousands of miles towards land. Retelling this story is not the job of this book, Philbrick does it enormously well. He walks the difficult line between reporting what we do know from surviving accounts and what might have happened, avoiding too much needless speculation. He also discusses uncomfortable truths that the survivors failed to mention - why was it that the first people to die were the African-American sailors? Was it because they were already weakened by lower rations than their white counterparts? Or was it because the Nantucket men instinctively gathered together giving less support to those from elsewhere in America.

The story of the Essex is one of horror. Starvation and dehydration destroy, but in a slow, painful way. Left with limited food, thousands of miles from land, the sailors drew lots and ate their dead comrades. Interestingly such action was less shocking to those back home than it seems to us. The seafaring community of Nantucket understood that sometimes things had to be done at sea. Philbricks retelling of this horrible episode of history is important, in part because it forms the inspiration to Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. The Nantucket whaling industry was peaking at the time of Essex's last voyage. But the story of her  last voyage is one of men suffering terribly in the quest to make other men, feet firmly planted on dry land very rich. Philbrick's enormously readable history is a painful reminder of the reality of the ocean.

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Philbrick - The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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