In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

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The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the Titanic disaster was in the twentieth. Nathaniel Philbrick now restores this epic story -- which inspired the climactic scene in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick -- to its rightful place in American history.

In 1819, the 238-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, the unthinkable happened: in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, the Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, decided instead to sail their three tiny boats for the distant South American coast. They would eventually travel over 4,500 miles. The next three months tested just how far humans could go in their battle against the sea as, one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear.

Nathaniel Philbrick brings an incredible story to life, from the intricacies of Nantucket's whaling economy and the mechanics of sailing a square-rigger to the often mysterious behavior of whales. But it is his portrayal of the crew of the Essex that makes this a heart-rending book. These were not romantic adventurers, but young working men, some teenagers, just trying to earn a living in the only way they knew how. They were a varied lot: the ambitious first mate, Owen Chase, whose impulsive nature failed at a crucial moment, then drew him to a more dangerous course; the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, whose long-lost account of the ordeal, written at age seventy-one, provides new insights into the story; and Captain George Pollard, who was forced to take the most horrifying step if any of his men were to survive.

This is a timeless account of the human spirit under extreme duress, but it is also a story about a community, and about the kind of men and women who lived in a forbidding, remote island like Nantucket -- a pioneer story that explores how we became who we are, and our peculiar blend of spiritualism and violence. It is also a tragic tale of survival against all odds. Its richness of detail, is cloquence, and its command of history make In the Heart of the Sea a vital book about America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504655781
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Edition description: Unabridged
Sales rank: 831,226
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.50(h) x (d)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Nathaniel Philbrick, a leading authority on the history of Nantucket, is director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. A champion sailboat racer, he lives in Nantucket, Massachusetts.


Nantucket, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

June 11, 1956

Place of Birth:

Boston, Massachusetts


B.A., Brown University, 1978; M.A., Duke University

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Three

First Blood

After in the Azores, which provided plenty of fresh vegetables but no spare whaleboats, the Essex headed south toward the Cape Verde Islands. Two weeks later they sighted Boavista Island. In contrast to the Azores' green, abundant hills, the slopes of the Cape Verdes were brown and sere, with no trees to offer relief from the burning subtropical sun. Pollard intended to obtain some hogs at the island of Maio a few miles to the southwest.

Not until the Essex had crossed the equator and reached thirty degrees south latitude-approximately halfway between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires-did the lookout sight the first whale of the voyage. It required sharp eyes to spot a whale's spout: a faint puff of white on the distant horizon lasting only a few seconds. But that was all it took for the lookout to bellow, "There she blows!" or just "B-l-o-o-o-w-s!"

Do for heaven's sake spring. The boat don't move. You're all asleep; see, see! There she lies; skote, skote! I love you, my dear fellows, yes, yes, I do; I'll do anything for you, I'll give you my heart's blood to drink; only take me up to this whale only this time, for this once, pull. Oh, St. Peter, St. Jerome, St. Stephen, St. James, St. John, the devil on two sticks; carry me up; O, let me tickle him, let me feel of his ribs. There, there, go on; O, O, O, most on, most on. Stand up, Starbuck [the harpooner]. Don't hold your iron that way; put one hand over the end of the pole. Now, now, look out. Dart, dart.

Several days after Chase's boat was repaired, the lookout once again sighted whales. The boats were dispatched, a harpoon was hurled-successfully-and the whaleline went whizzing out until it was finally snubbed at the loggerhead, launching the boat and crew on the voyage's first "Nantucket sleigh ride," as it would come to be called.

The dead whale was usually towed back to the ship headfirst. Even with all five men rowing-the mate at the steering oar sometimes lending a hand to the after oarsman-a boat towing a whale could go no faster than one mile per hour. It was dark by the time Chase and his men reached the ship.

One night, not far from the Falkland Islands, the men were up in the rigging, reefing the topsails, when they heard a scream: a sharp, shrill shriek of terror coming from alongside the ship. Someone had apparently fallen overboard.

[A] thousand little things, daily and almost hourly occurring, which no one who has not himself been on a long and tedious voyage can conceive of or properly appreciate-little wars and rumors of wars,-reports of things said in the cabin,-misunderstanding of words and looks,-apparent abuses,-brought us into a state in which everything seemed to go wrong.

Thirty hogs in the Isle of May

Duff every other day

Butter and cheese as much as you could sway

And now you want more beef, damn you.

—Reprinted from In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Nathaniel Philbrick. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Table of Contents

February 23, 1821   xi
Crew of the Essex  xvii
Chapter One Nantucket   1
Chapter Two Knockdown  28
Chapter Four The Lees of Fire  62
Chapter Five The Attack  77
Chapter Six The Plan  92
Chapter Seven At Sea 104
Chapter Eight Centering Down 123
Chapter Nine The Island 135
Chapter Ten The Whisper of Necessity          151
Chapter Eleven Games of Chance 164
Chapter Twelve In the Eagle's Shadow 177
Chapter Thirteen Homecoming 190
Chapter Fourteen Consequences 207
Bones 230
Notes 239
Select bibliography         279
Acknowledgments 291
Index 295

What People are Saying About This

Sebastian Junger

Nathaniel Philbrick has taken one of the most horrifying stories of maritime history and turned it into a classic. This is historical writing at its best—and at the same time, one of the most chilling books I have ever read.
— (Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm)

From the Publisher

"A book that gets in your bones...Philbrick has created an eerie thriller from a centuries old tale....Scrupulously researched and eloquently would have earned Melville's admiration." The New York Times Book Review

"Fascinating...One of our country's great adventure stories...when it comes to extremes, In the Heart of the Sea is right there." The Wall Street Journal

"Spellbinding." Time

"[Told] with verve and authenticity...a classic tale of the sea." San Francisco Chronicle

"Nathaniel Philbrick has taken one of the most horrifying stories in maritime history and turned it into a classic....One of the most chilling books I have ever read." Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

Peter Benchley

In The Heart Of The Sea is a true story of unimaginable horror. The source for Melville's 'mighty book' is a tale told wonderfully well by Nathaniel Philbrick.
— (Peter Benchley, author of Jaws)

Reading Group Guide


It began in the summer of 1997. I never seem to get much writing done in the summer. Nantucket is a madhouse in July and August, and for me it's been a time for sculpting an existing manuscript rather than creating a new one. That said, I was desperately trying to finish up a book called Abram's Eyes, about the island's Native American legacy. All summer I'd been wrestling with the epilogue. I was attempting to link the Indians' myths of Maushop—a friendly giant who finally turns on his own family, beating his wife and transforming his children into killer whales—to Herman Melville's myth-making use of the Essex disaster, in which the whaleman's normally benign prey, the mammoth sperm whale, unaccountably attacks and sinks a Nantucket whaleship, but it just wasn't working.

It was during a family vacation in Maine that it came to me: how to finish the book I was working on and how to start the next one. We were sailing a chartered boat in Maine's Penobscot Bay when I found myself thinking less about the whale and more about the men and what had happened to them after the attack. Then it hit me, the scene with which I would begin In the Heart of the Sea: two emaciated survivors found sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. With the bones leading the way, I saw with a startling, almost instantaneous clarity that the Essex was something more than the whaling yarn that inspired Moby-Dick, it was one of the greatest survival tales ever told.

It wasn't until about three months later, in December of 1997, that I was able to turn my undivided attention to the Essex. Having by that point written two books of Nantucket history, I had almost a decade's worth of relevant research behind me. What I felt I needed more than anything else was a new angle on the island and whaling, a perspective that did not take Nantucket and its history for granted. So I decided to become a tourist in my own town.

With notebook in hand, I spent an afternoon at the Nantucket whaling museum, a place I'd visited countless times, but instead of looking for an answer to a specific question, I was in search of more general impressions. I came away from my three-hour ramble through what is an old candle factory stuffed with a fascinating assortment of artifacts with a renewed sense of the size and strength of the whale. There were iron harpoon shafts that had been twisted as if they'd been pieces of taffy. Somehow I'd never noticed them before, and if I had, I'd resisted the tendency to say, "Wow!" I began to see Nantucket as an almost medieval place, dominated by its own one-sided version of war, complete with tattered signal flags, portraits of its ocean-going knights of old, and decorated with the dusty bones of the defeated. In the basement of the museum is a huge whale oil cask, an object that made me see whaling as not just a battle but also a business. Whale oil, I realized, was what petroleum is to us today, and Nantucket, this little sandbank at the edge of a watery wilderness, was the Mobil Oil headquarters of the nineteenth century.

The biggest surprise while writing the book were the directions in which my research led me. I never would have anticipated, for example, integrating information about a starvation experiment conducted at the University of Minnesota during World War II in a book about a whaling voyage in the early nineteenth century. But it was the science, I began to realize, that made the story seem all the more real and frightening to a modern audience.

One anecdote about my starvation research: In December, a week or so before Christmas 1998, my wife stopped by our local library to pick up a copy of an article I'd ordered through Interlibrary Loan. The reference librarian greeted her with a look of concern. "Is Nat all right?" she asked. Somewhat bewildered, my wife assured her that, yes, he wasn't getting out much these days, but everything was fine. It wasn't until she was walking back to her car that Melissa looked to see that the article was entitled "The Nutritional Value of Cannibalism."


Nathaniel Philbrick is a leading authority on the history of Nantucket. He is director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. His other books includeAway Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 and Abram's Eyes: The Native American Legacy on Nantucket Island. He is a champion sailboat racer and lives in Nantucket, Massachusetts.


Why do you believe the tale of the Essex needed retelling? Why is it important to tell now?

Except for at a few old whaling ports such as Nantucket and New Bedford, the story of the Essex was known, if it was known at all, as the story that inspired the climax of Moby-Dick. It seemed to me that the Essex was something more than the raw material for Melville's miraculous art; it was a survival tale that also happened to be an essential part of American history. Back in the early nineteenth century, America had more frontiers than the West; there was also the sea, and the Nantucket whaleman was the sea-going mountain man of his day, chasing the sperm whale into the distant corners of the Pacific Ocean. Americans today have lost track of the importance the sea had in creating the nation's emerging identity. It wasn't all cowboys and Indians; there was also the whalemen and Pacific. More than a decade before the Donner party brought a story of frontier cannibalism to the American public, there was the Essex disaster.

You brought a historic tale to life with vivid detail and emotional content that rivals narrative fiction. Did it feel like you were writing fiction?

I am trained as a journalist, and instead of inventing anything, the way a fiction writer would, I was trying to figure out, as best I could, what really happened. Where information concerning the Essex and her crew was lacking, I turned to other whaling voyages for examples of what had occurred under similar circumstances. I was very much concerned with the personalities of the men, so I combed documents on Nantucket to help me identify what their backgrounds had been. I looked to modern-day scientific studies in an attempt to figure out what the crew was experiencing, not only in terms of their suffering at sea, but also in terms of the interpersonal dynamics of a survival situation. I resisted the temptation to create dialogue or presume to know what the men were thinking. On the other hand, I realized that this was an amazing story, and I didn't want my research to interfere with the inherent drama of the tale. I found that if an informational sidebar had its own story to tell, it added to, rather than detracted from, the drama. But I didn't want to litter the book with references to arcane literary and scientific studies. One of the reasons the end note section of the book is so long and detailed is that I wanted to remove the scholarly apparatus that so often gets in the way of the plot in academic history. I wanted to let the story tell itself. If a reader has questions about what sources I used and what decisions I made in crafting the narrative, he or she should refer to the notes.

What criteria did you use to delineate between reliable and unreliable sources? Who do you feel is a more reliable source, Owen Chase or Thomas Nickerson? Why?

Owen Chase, the first mate, wrote his account of the disaster within months of his rescue, while Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, waited half a century before he put pen to paper. Since the normal rule is that the person writing the closest to the actual event is the most trustworthy, that means that Chase's account should be given precedence. However, Chase was an officer attempting to put some very bad decisions in the best possible light. Even though Nickerson was writing decades after the event, he was remembering a traumatic event that had occurred in his teenage years, and psychologists tell us that an older person's memory of such an event is quite reliable. Instead of contradicting Chase, Nickerson adds details that the first mate chose not to reveal. For example, Nickerson reveals that Chase had had an opportunity to lance the whale after the first attack but chose not to. With the help of Nickerson, whose narrative was not discovered until 1980, I aimed to broaden, and in some cases challenge, the received wisdom of Owen Chase.

Do you think that Captain George Pollard was a poor captain or just unlucky?

Pollard was certainly unlucky, but he also had difficulty asserting his will upon the crew. Pollard was a first-time captain and seemed hesitant to overrule his subordinates. In just about every situation, his instincts were correct, but he inevitably allowed himself to be talked out of his convictions by his two mates, Owen Chase and Matthew Joy. As leadership psychologists will tell you, a leader, particularly in a survival situation, must make decisions firmly and quickly. Pollard was too much of a Hamlet.

Were you surprised that after the Essex disaster so many of her survivors returned to the sea?

No, I wasn't. On Nantucket in the early nineteenth century a young, ambitious man had few options. If he wasn't going to go whaling, there wasn't much else for him to do. When asked how he could dare go back to sea, Pollard simply said that the lightning never struck in the same place twice. These men had every reason to believe that they had survived the worst that fate could ever throw at them.

What fascinates you about a survival tale such as this? Why do you think that such true survival tales are so popular today?

A survival tale peels away the niceties and comforts of civilization. Suddenly, all the technology and education in the world means nothing. I think all of us wonder while reading a survival tale, what would I have done in this situation? Would I have made it? There's a part of us that feels our pampered twenty-first-century existence is a kind of lie, I think. We read these stories to experience vicariously the essential truths of life and, of course, death.

Why do you think, given the fascination the true story of the Essex held for so many, that Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick failed to garner much attention immediately following its publication?

Part of Melville's problem with Moby-Dick was timing. American popular tastes had shifted. Instead of the wilderness of the sea, Americans were, after the Gold Rush of 1848-49, most interested in the Wild West, and Moby-Dick was published in 1851. The other strike against Moby-Dick was that it was, for the mid-nineteenth century, a very unconventional and challenging novel. For us, it's different. A generation reared on Joyce and Faulkner finds the subtleties and outrages of Moby-Dick a wonderful delight. For readers of Longfellow and Whittier, Melville's novel was very, very strange.

You say in your Epilogue that the Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. Can you explain?

To my mind, an adventure is something a person willingly undertakes. Shackleton attempting to traverse Antarctica or Mallory climbing Mt. Everest are adventurers. If they run into troubles, they are, by and large, troubles of their own devising. The crew of the Essex were whalemen simply trying to make a living when they were attacked by an 85-foot whale. There was nothing adventurous about the sufferings they subsequently endured. I would certainly call them heroic, but they were not adventurers.

As a current resident of Nantucket, what do you perceive to be the town's relationship with its whaling history?

Nantucket today has, I think, a somewhat tortured relationship with its past. On one hand, Nantucketers are proud of the island's whaling history; on the other, they care deeply about the marine life they see in the waters surrounding the island. Just last Fourth-of-July weekend a pod of pilot whales beached on the north shore of the island, and Nantucketers worked ceaselessly for an entire day in a vain attempt to save the very same whales their forefathers would have instinctively massacred. Times change.

What's next for you? Have you plumbed the depths of Nantucket history?

I don't think it's ever possible to plumb the depths of this island's rich history. However, my next book does take me away from the island, even if it is, I think, a natural evolution for a Nantucket historian. It's about the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, an unprecedented voyage of discovery by the American Navy that would do for the Pacific Ocean what Lewis and Clark had done for the American West. Following in the whalemen's considerable wake, this expedition would chart hundreds of Pacific Islands and bring back so many scientific specimens that the Smithsonian Institution would be created, in part, to house them. For good measure, this expedition would also venture toward the South Pole and establish for the first time that Antarctica was a continent. Two ships would be lost; dozens of men would never return. It's yet another amazing story of the sea with which modern-day Americans have lost touch.

  • In 1820, Nantucket was a Quaker town. What do Quakers believe? Was it hypocritical of a Quaker community to embrace such a violent occupation as whaling?
  • Given their proximity to the shipwreck, why did the Essex survivors avoid the South Pacific islands? What factors—historical, cultural, and otherwise—contributed to the decision to take a longer route home?
  • With what you've learned about the people of Nantucket and the whalemen in particular, can you explain their fearlessness in the face of nature? And, conversely, their great fear of strange human beings? How is our world different today? Does this account somewhat for our contemporary fascination with tales of man versus nature?
  • The book discusses a few potential reasons why the whale attacked the Essex. What are these and which do you believe to be true? Why was the notion of a vengeful whale so terrifying to Owen Chase? How do you think contemporary views of whaling differ from those in 1820? How would you explain this change in attitudes?
  • There are moments in the book where natural events are viewed by the author as metaphorical to the men's experiences. Choose one or two and discuss how the metaphors illuminate the story. Also, discuss theirimportance to the narrative.
  • What was the difference in the leadership styles of George Pollard and Owen Chase? Did these differences contribute to the demise of the Essex or the eventual loss of lives? If so, how? Who do you think made a better leader and why?
  • What was the established hierarchy on the Essex? How did this reflect the social stratification of Nantucket?
  • In 1820, what options did a captain have for navigating his ship? Which of these were available to the Essex? How did "dead reckoning" work? How have navigational tools evolved since then?
  • Did race have anything to do with who lived or died on the Essex? How?
  • In the Heart of the Sea has been optioned by a production company to be made into a feature film. Imagine you are the screenwriter chosen to adapt this book. What are the central dramatic situations you would choose and who would be your main character? Is there a clear protagonist? Is there a clear antagonist?

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In the Heart of the Sea 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 192 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hesitated in purchasing this book for a long time due to my expectation that a the majority of the story about sailors trapped at sea would get boring and I would loose interest based on may past reading experience. I however, I have rad other Philbrick books including Sea of GLory so I took a chance. Wow I am glad I did. Philbrick has done it again. I could not put the book down. What an amazing story and Philbrick's style once again is excellent. My next read is The Last Stand and then Mayflower and after The Heart of the Sea I want to re-read Sea of Glory. I look forward to more great books from Philbrick.
D_Steadman More than 1 year ago
This book opens with an interesting preface which introduces the reader to the entire Nantucket whaling man's lifestyle. This encompassing view into the early 1800's handily sets the scene into the readers mind for the rest of the book. This book was written by Nathaniel Philbrick. As a resident of Nantucket island he has a personal viewpoint to write this story from. His book begins with the excitement of a young man going on his first whaling journey. The book quickly throws you into the story and never gives you a chance to pull yourself away. 15 months into the journey of the Whaling ship Essex, during a routine whale hunting expedition the Essex was attacked by "a great white whale". Utterly destroying the ships bow and stranding the crew at sea. The 20 man crew was forced to travel in 3 small whaleboats in hopes of reaching shore. Being only 1500 miles away from the western islands, they decided to forgo that route in fear of cannibals. Instead they took the route to South America. A 3000 mile voyage in 3 25-foot boats with less than 2 weeks of very limited provisions. In the end Eight people survived, after being forced to the point of cannibalism to survive. The Essex was the most sensational story of its time. The story was larger then the story of the Titanic is today. This book brings back into the spotlight the tragedy that happened that fateful day and the sheer bravery of the men who persevered and survived the gruesome ordeal fate threw them into. This book also ends with explanations of the whaling lore and the effect this event had on American Literature, the largest of which is the Basis for the great American novel Moby Dick. I would greatly recommend this book to anyone interested in whaling lore or the whaleship Essex. I was given this book as a gift from my cousin with no previous knowledge of the event and I can honestly say it was a struggle to put it down. Philbrick spins a fantastic story and draws you into the scene to where you can almost smell the sea breeze blowing over your face.
cmp53 More than 1 year ago
As a fan of history, this was an event that I honestly can admit I didn't know much about so I thought I would read the book. This is a well written, thoroughly gripping book that makes you appreciate what our forefathers went thru to earn a living. A great book that you will not be able to put down.
JPaul More than 1 year ago
Fascinating Gripping from the first pages through the Epilouge. Educational and exciting all in one.
atomsplitter More than 1 year ago
I can't add to the glowing reviews of this book. Others have said some pretty nice things about it and I have to agree. The only complaint I have with the nook book is the price tag and again maps are illegible. The book is all of 238 pages long, as the rest of the book is notes and bibliography, so it isn't a long book to read but the nearly $16 price tag for an ebook is a little rich.
tagandrelease More than 1 year ago
Anyone who enjoys Nantucket, or history, or a good thriller will love this book. As the saying goes, the truth is stranger than fiction. A whaleboat and its hardy crew, a bull whale and its pod, the brutal harpooning of a mother whale and its calf, the "revenge" of the biggest whale in the pod, the sinking of the mother ship and the fight for life that ensued. combine this with true historical accounts and you have your summer read. Dig your toes into Nantucket's warm summer sand, open a Corona and sit back listen to the waves and let your eyes pass over the words of the pages that will take you away to a day when Nantucket was an oil refinery and no whale was safe.
Wilfong More than 1 year ago
Why would anyone want to read a novel with non-ficton books like this on the shelf. Whether your into whaling or not reading about the life and times of the typical seaman this book is inlightening and obsorbing. The struggles they went though on the open ocean in 25' boats thousands of miles from land goes beyond what any common dry lander can comprehend. I give this book almost a 5 across the board.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well researched and well written.
clickinon More than 1 year ago
very good book. i read it very quickly. it ended faster than i thought it would due to all the references. i learned a lot and highly recommend it to anyone.
ZiggyKB More than 1 year ago
When I read Mobey-Dick as a high schooler, I assumed the enraged whale was a fiction. My exposure to whales in tv documentaries had shown them to be benign and sweet tempered. Not true of Sperm Whales, apparently. In the Heart of the Sea is the compelling, true story account of the whale ship Essex, sunk by the repeated attack of a Sperm Whale in the vast emptiness of the Pacific. And sure enough, Melville was very aware of the Essex story, as pretty much everyone in the 19th century was. Philbrick is an excellent historian, and his knowledge of whaling and Melville is on display throughout this book. He makes frequent connections to the American masterpiece of Mobey-Dick in this very readable and fascinating story of survival and cannibalism in the three life boats containing the survivors of the whale's attack. There were several diagrams and maps in the eBook version that I read that I wished I could blow up a little bigger to study the details (not the fault of the book, but of the eBook format). The Index at the back contained pages of entries, but no page numbers -- so if you wanted to find a particular fact later, it didn't work as intended. Nits aside, I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy history, story telling, and high seas adventure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While slow in the beginning, this was a very good historical story that kept me captivated while stirring a wide range of emotion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This sounds like a great story. Full of suspense and adventure
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Think you're having a bad day? Read this and youll realize things could be a lot worse.
JH0 More than 1 year ago
Just finishing up a 2nd read of this excellent book - before the movie comes out!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed reading this
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a great intro to the world of a whaler in the days of sail! I lived very close to where this crew sailed from where the history of whaling is still taught, and I think this book taught me more of it then did the field trips and history classes. Its not all about the whales either, its more about what the crew went through to survive the sea. Fascinating book!
kenno82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing story. Philbrick manages to weave a record of Nantucket's whaling history into his well-researched, horrific account of what happened to the crew of the whaleship Essex. The author has searched widely to detail the emotions and the physical effects that the crew experienced. I did find the book frustratingly short, which I guess is always a sign of an interesting read. Not sure if it was my particular edition, but I would've also enjoyed some photos of artefacts from the voyage, the island of Nantucket, whaling ships etc.
LisaLynne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love adventure books of all sorts and this was truly a cut above. I was fascinated by the class differences and the way they played out in the lifeboats, by the degree of detail when it came to the gritty business of slaughtering whales and the tidbits about life at sea. Unfortunately, this book was selected for my book club, and there wasn't much for a group to discuss: whales are big and smelly, starvation is bad. That about covered it. So while I wouldn't recommend it for a book club, I strongly recommend it for other adventurous souls.
Stbalbach on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of the sinking of the Nantucket Island whale ship Essex in 1821, and its genesis for the novel Moby Dick, has been popularly known through the personal memoir of the first mate published one year after the event. However in the 1980's a new account surfaced in someones attic, the story re-told from someone else who had been there. Nathaniel Philbrick spent a number of years researching what actually happened based on the latest evidence and has put together a highly readable popular historical narrative. Not only a detailed account of a survival at sea, there is considerable depth on the history of Nantucket Island, the whaling industry, whales, and biographies of a number of people on-board the ship. Philbrick does not glorify or mythologize the men of the Essex like Herman Melville, rather he remains factual and indeed says at the end it was not a tale of survival but a human tragedy probably avoidable except for some mistaken choices. I listened to the audio version and found it to be of the first rate - compelling, easy to listen to for hours at end, easy to follow. The book translates very well to audio and the narrator is one of the best.
elsyd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent and disturbing! I found the scientific notes about the effects of starvation especially interesting. It gave me a whole new appreciation for other tragedies involving people lost and in dire straits i.e. The Donner Party, the soccor players marooned in the mtns of South America, etc.
kelawrence on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Amazing true story - so well researched, but not history-textbook dry. Will definitely read another by this author.
ElectricRay on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As Nathaniel Philbrick freely admits, history is replete with tales of shipwrecked castaways - and planewrecked rugger teams - eating each other. And the Essex was not the only whale boat to sink, nor even was it the only one to get rammed by a whale. Nor is N. Philbrick the only man to have written about this particular ship: leaving aside Herman Melville, Philbrick acknowledges and cites at length from three other authors who have written on the same subject, and two of them were actually on board.So while the book rips along at a jaunty pace, and is a pleasant enough read, it's never clear what its raison d'etre is, other than to cash in on the current appetite for strange but true tales about quirky but forgetten strugglers against the conventions and odds of history (you know, Fermat's Theorem, Longitude, that sort of thing).The learned author also fails to even consider, let alone answer, the point that, if the great offshore whaling grounds were in the South Pacific, why - instead of sailing there, around South America, from the New York region, didn't the Natucketers just up sticks and move to California? Would have saved them a lot of time, you'd think, not to mention the aggravation of rounding Cape Horn.A worthy enough effort, but it is a bit pointless, and inevitably it pales into comparison with Moby Dick.
jonbeckett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderful re-telling of the story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a wonderful portrait of life in Nantucket and on the ships during the height of the Whaling industry.Hard lives and incredibly difficult conditions make for wonderful stories - and we have the youngest member of the crew of the east to thank for writing about his experiences in later years.
brose72 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Captivating story of adventure and survival
bezoar44 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book recounts the 1820 destruction of the whaling ship Essex (by an enraged whale), and the subsequent ordeal of the crew as they voyaged across a mostly empty expanse of the South Pacific trying to get back to the west coast of South America. It is a light, entertaining read; Philbrick provides some background about key topics (Nantucket; whaling; the physiology of starvation; cannibalism at sea), but never so much as to bog down the story. The book left two lasting impressions: first, that whaling was not only an incredibly bloody enterprise, but that it was obviously unsustainable if the whalers stopped to think about it at all -- they were having to go farther and farther into unfamiliar waters as they wiped out closer populations; and second, that the captain and mates of the Essex were mediocre sailors - not incompetent, but also not very sharp, and as a result, most of them died unnecessarily. Philbrick doesn't reference disaster theory at all, but the story offers illuminating material for anyone interested in that field.