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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 13 July 2005
Perhaps the highest praise I can bestow upon this book is to say that I can't ever remember being so thoroughly absorbed in any work of non-fiction. Before I knew where I was I had read half the book and had to pace myself for the remainder to make it last! Of the many books of maritime exploration, adventure, mutiny and war that I have read -- even Caroline Alexander's The Bounty, which I rate highly -- no other author came close to Mr Philbrick's ability to paint a picture with words of the sea - to make me feel as if I were there on these whaleboats sharing the dreadful experience of these shipwrecked men as they slowly shed their humanity and became animals. If you know nothing about the sea, if you've never left solid ground or even seen the sea, this book will still appeal to you as a very human story of shared suffering and the lengths that the human body and mind will go to in order to cling to life under the harshest conditions and in the most unforgiving and merciless environment on the planet.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 6 November 2002
...The best read I have had all year. I have now purchased a further 8 copies of this book for other people, and it will no doubt be given to a few more this Christmas. You'd expect this historical non fiction to be dry, and indeed the first chapter of Nantucket whaling ship history may well give you a hint that your initial suspicions were confirmed but once they set sail - what an adventure! The coincidences, the survival, the power of the writing and the storytelling where Philbrick manages to avoid creating fictional dialogue for his sailors and sticks to the facts while making some suppositions of his own. You could not put this book down once started. An incredible tale and all the more amazing for being true. The cover mentions Moby Dick's reliance on the Essex's story for its own inspiration but I found Philbrick's book far more compellingly told than the overblown and hysterically dramatic classic novel. If I had to choose between the two, I would read Philbrick's tale a second time and forget the woeful Moby Dick.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
What does it mean to be indomitable? This book displays that wonderful human quality in a remarkably effective way. The next time you consider giving up, just imagine yourself on the trackless sea in a small boat from the Essex.

This story has to be one of the most astonishing survival tales in recorded history. Before I say more, let me caution you that this story (and parts of this review) is not for those with weak stomachs.

After their ship is disabled by an attacking sperm whale, the survivors find themselves on three open boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean over 2,000 miles from their targeted landfall in South America. With luck, they will make it in 30 days. They soon find themselves in a stall as the winds fail to cooperate, except to provide severe storms that threaten to capsize the boats.

Soon, all the food is encrusted with salt and everyone is suffering with severe dehydration. Then things start to get worse! I won't go further, but you have an amazing story of survival ahead of you.

Two of the few survivors of this terrible ordeal later committed their experiences to writing, which provide great resources for this well-researched book.

At another level, the book is also extremely interesting because these experiences were important influences on Herman Melville's writing of the American classic, Moby Dick. The book makes that connection for you, including how Melville came to learn the story.

At a third level, the book is a fascinating history of whaling around 1820. If you are like me, you will cringe when the whalers devastate island after island . . . as well as the whale population. But that's not the limit to their willingness to use nature to their own advantage.

The ultimate irony is that the survivors went the wrong way. Those from Nantucket did not know about Tahiti and Hawaii, and chose not to go in either of those directions -- either of which would have provided more rapid safety and comfort. The primary reason they chose not to go in these directions is because they feared running into cannibals. Soon the survivors were studying the remains of dead shipmates with hunger. And then it gets worse.

So, you have three different kinds of books to read here, anyone of which could be enormously enjoyable to you. Get ready for the trip of your life!

Land ho!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 4 August 2000
This is an absolutely fantastic book detailing the horrific experiences of a whaleship crew cast adrift on the ocean. It is so well written you can feel the claustrophobia and utter hopelessness that these poor 19th Century mariners must have felt. The story just builds and builds and you will not be able to put this book down, you can feel the shivers running up and down your spine. It's a great read and I would recommend it to ANYONE be they interested in historical fact or not. It could not have come from the pen of a writer of fiction as only true stories leave you this nervous/breathless and truly plumb the depths of the human psyche. Brilliant.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 28 January 2011
"In the Heart of the Sea" tells the story of the loss of the Nantucket whaling ship "Essex" in 1820. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whaling was a major industry because, in the days before gas and electric lighting, oil lamps were the main form of illumination and whale oil, especially from the sperm whale, was in high demand for this purpose. A whaling industry had existed on the island of Nantucket, just off the coast of Massachusetts, ever since the 1690s, and by the time of the voyage of the "Essex" this industry had expanded until the island had become the whaling capital not merely of America but of the world. By the 1820s, however, over-exploitation had reduced the supply of whales in the North Atlantic, forcing whalers to make ever-longer journeys into first the South Atlantic, then into the Pacific. When the "Essex" sank she was more than a year into a voyage which was expected to last two-and-a-half-years. (The reviewer who asked why nobody thought to establish a new whaling centre closer to the whaling grounds should remember that in the 1820s the USA did not possess a coastline on the Pacific, and that South American countries were too far from the main markets for whale oil on America's eastern seaboard and in Europe, markets which an Atlantic island was ideally placed to serve. Nantucket only started to decline with the growth of the railways, which favoured mainland rivals such as New Bedford).

The "Essex" sank when she was rammed by a huge bull sperm whale in the whaling grounds of the South Pacific. The twenty-one members of the crew were forced to take to three small whaleboats, with inadequate supplies of food and fresh water, hoping to reach the west coast of South America, some 2,000 miles to the east. There were, in fact, inhabited islands such as Tahiti and the Marquesas group which were much closer and would have been much easier to reach with the help of the prevailing winds, but the captain, George Pollard, ruled out this course of action, believing the Polynesian islanders to be bloodthirsty cannibals. Most of the crew perished through thirst or malnutrition; only eight survivors, including Pollard, were eventually rescued. Ironically, in view of their fears of the Polynesians, the crew were eventually forced to resort to cannibalism themselves in order to survive, eating the corpses of their dead companions. At least one man was deliberately killed to provide sustenance.

Nathaniel Philbrick's book is based upon accounts of the disaster written by two surviving crew members. For many years the authoritative account was that published by Owen Chase, Pollard's first mate, shortly after his return to Nantucket. More recently, a second, unpublished, narrative has come to light, a manuscript written by the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, many years after the event, and Philbrick has drawn upon both Chase and Nickerson to produce his story. Besides narrating the story of the "Essex" and her crewmen, he also touches upon such matters as the history of whaling in Nantucket, life aboard whaling ships, the biology of sperm whales, the medical aspects of shipwreck, the history of survival cannibalism and theories of leadership. (Philbrick is often critical of Pollard's captaincy, regarding him as insufficiently authoritative and too easily influenced by his junior officers).

One potentially interesting point not treated in much detail is the precise reason why the shipwrecked crew did not make for Tahiti, whose inhabitants were by 1820 predominantly Christian. The sailors seem to have clung firmly to a seventeenth-century Hobbesian view that the life of man in his natural state was "nasty, brutish and short". In the eighteenth century, however, this view began to give way to Rousseau's ideal of the gentle, pacific "noble savage", an ideal of which South Sea islanders were often seen as the perfect embodiment. (When the crew of HMS Bounty mutinied in the 1780s one of the causes was their desire to return to what they saw as an idyllic way of life on Tahiti; had they held the same prejudices as the crew of the "Essex" they would presumably have mutinied before reaching the island rather than set foot in a land of cannibals). It would have been interesting if the book had dealt more with these two conflicting views of "primitive" peoples and why American seamen clung so firmly to the earlier one, unlike their British counterparts of a generation before. One interesting fact is that several of the crew were black- a reminder that the history of pre-Civil War African-Americans is not merely the history of slavery. All those who survived the disaster, however, were white- a fact in which Philbrick sees possibly sinister implications.

Philbrick tells us that the story of the "Essex" was once one of the best-known marine disasters of the nineteenth century, so well known that nearly every child in America read about it in school. Today, however, it is little remembered- perhaps oddly so, given that it inspired one of the great classics of American literature, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick". This book, however, should revive interest in that story. Although it is a work of non-fiction written by an academic historian, it moves along at a brisk pace and often reads more like an enthralling, if grisly, seafaring yarn. That, however, should not diminish its value as history.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
What does it mean to be indomitable? This book displays that wonderful human quality in a remarkably effective way. The next time you consider giving up, just imagine yourself on the trackless sea in a small boat from the Essex.
This story has to be one of the most astonishing survival tales in recorded history. Before I say more, let me caution you that this story (and parts of this review) is not for those with weak stomachs.
After their ship is disabled by an attacking sperm whale, the survivors find themselves on three open boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean over 2,000 miles from their targeted landfall in South America. With luck, they will make it in 30 days. They soon find themselves in a stall as the winds fail to cooperate, except to provide severe storms that threaten to capsize the boats.
Soon, all the food is encrusted with salt and everyone is suffering with severe dehydration. Then things start to get worse! I won't go further, but you have an amazing story of survival ahead of you.
Two of the few survivors of this terrible ordeal later committed their experiences to writing, which provide great resources for this well-researched book.
At another level, the book is also extremely interesting because these experiences were important influences on Herman Melville's writing of the American classic, Moby Dick. The book makes that connection for you, including how Melville came to learn the story.
At a third level, the book is a fascinating history of whaling around 1920. If you are like me, you will cringe when the whalers devastate island after island . . . as well as the whale population. But that's not the limit to their willingness to use nature to their own advantage.
The ultimate irony is that the survivors went the wrong way. Those from Nantucket did not know about Tahiti and Hawaii, and chose not to go in either of those directions -- either of which would have provided more rapid safety and comfort. The primary reason they chose not to go in these directions is because they feared running into cannibals. Soon the survivors were studying the remains of dead shipmates with hunger. And then it gets worse.
So, you have three different kinds of books to read here, anyone of which could be enormously enjoyable to you. Get ready for the trip of your life!
Land ho!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 26 March 2006
The sinking of the whale-ship Essex is the real life event that inspired Melville's fantastic narrative "Moby-Dick". In his book Philbrick shows that the real life happenings are almost as thrilling as the book Melville made of them.
Philbrick takes great care in setting the scene: who was who and what they did on the ship. He explains whaling in some detail. I was for example surprised to find out that five people can sail a big ship like a whaler, if needs be.
Unlike "Moby-Dick" the book concentrates less on the whaling adventures on the Essex, but more on everything that happened after the Essex was 'stove by a whale'. That is a tale of the tortured survival of a few crew members in an open boat with little to no food except for their own flesh.
Written in a very matter of fact style, but with sympathy for his protagonists, this is a very good read that is highly recommended to all people who enjoyed "Moby-Dick" or are interested in whaling.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is a first rate, well crafted work of non-fiction. The author has a gift for putting together a compelling narrative about the unusual ordeal of the whale ship, Essex, which sailed out of Nantucket and was done in on the high seas by an extremely aggressive sperm whale who attacked it. So complete was the damage that the ship sank, its crew of twenty cast adrift upon a seemingly infinite ocean to find their way back home in three small boats. This real life, unheard of attack by a whale was the basis for Herman Melville's classic work of fiction, "Moby Dick".

What the author does is ground what happened to these most unfortunate of men in the historical context of the time. He paints a picture of the milieu in which they lived. Their lives were governed entirely by the whaling industry that was the bread and butter for Nantucket Island, the whaling capital of the world.

Drawing upon narratives by some of the survivors, as well as other historical data, he paints in intricate detail what life must have been like for these men. He weaves a tapestry of early nineteenth century life on the island of Nantucket and the preeminence of whaling in the lives of those who lived there, as well as the role of the Quakers. In essence, he brings the men, who were involved in this most notorious of survival at sea stories, to life for the reader.

It is a balanced narrative. This was to be the first voyage as Captain for the democratic George Pollard, who was teamed up with a very aggressive and ambitious first mate, Owen Chase. This was later to prove to be a poor combination. Nearly a third of the crew was African-American, which was an interesting twist, arising out of the abolitionist views of the Quakers, whose views were the mainstay of Nantucket. Most of the crew was very young, the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, being but fourteen years of age.

When the Essex was attacked while on the high seas by a gigantic, aggressive sperm whale and destroyed in the process, the story of the what happened to the crew makes for one of the most engrossing and amazing stories of survival ever to be told. Against the odds, eight of them survived their ordeal, which lasted for months. Dehydration and starvation were to drive them to a new frontier of human behavior. That threshold, however, once crossed, was one that would forever haunt those who survived. Their agonizing journey and foray into anthropophagy is chillingly chronicled.

This is a riveting and triumphant book. It is a tale richly told by a masterful storyteller, who is able to make this work of non-fiction come to life for the reader. It is simply a great book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is a first rate, well-crafted work of non-fiction. The author has a gift for putting together a compelling narrative about the unusual ordeal of the whale ship, Essex, which sailed out of Nantucket and was done in on the high seas by an extremely aggressive sperm whale that attacked it. So complete was the damage that the ship sank. Its crew of twenty was cast adrift upon a seemingly infinite ocean to find their way back home in three small boats. This real life, unheard of attack by a whale was the basis for Herman Melville's classic work of fiction, "Moby Dick".
What the author does is to ground in the historical context of the time, what happened to these most unfortunate of men. He paints a picture of the milieu in which they lived. Their lives were governed entirely by the whaling industry that was the bread and butter for Nantucket Island, the whaling capital of the world.
Drawing upon narratives by some of the survivors, as well as other historical data, he paints in intricate detail what life must have been like for these men. He weaves a tapestry of early nineteenth century life on the island of Nantucket and the preeminence of whaling in the lives of those who lived there, as well as the role of the Quakers. In essence, he brings the men, who were involved in this most notorious of survival at sea stories, to life for the reader.
It is a balanced narrative. This was to be the first voyage as Captain for the democratic George Pollard, who was teamed up with a very aggressive and ambitious first mate, Owen Chase. This was later to prove to be a poor combination. Nearly a third of the crew was African-American, which was an interesting twist, arising out of the abolitionist views of the Quakers, whose views were the mainstay of Nantucket. Most of the crew was very young, the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, being but fourteen years of age.
When the Essex was attacked while on the high seas by a gigantic, aggressive sperm whale and destroyed in the process, the story of the what happened to the crew makes for one of the most engrossing and amazing stories of survival ever to be told. Against the odds, eight of them survived their ordeal, which lasted for months. Dehydration and starvation were to drive them to a new frontier of human behavior. That threshold, however, once crossed, was one that would forever haunt those who survived. Their agonizing journey and foray into anthropophagy is chillingly chronicled.
This is a riveting and triumphant book. It is a tale richly told by a masterful storyteller, who is able to make this work of non-fiction come to life for the reader. This is simply a great book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 21 April 2001
With vivid and detailed descriptions, underpinned by psychological insights, this book recreates the dangerous and gory world of the early 19th century Nantucket whalers. From life on shore, where wealthy, bible thumping Quaker owners under-provision their ships and cheat their seamen, to reckless bravery at sea the story is carried by a pacy and authoritative narrative.
The story is rich in insights into the harsh lives of men who live on the brink of disaster and endure prolongued and extreme suffering. The detailed research provides intriguing facts almost as an aside. Starving men, on the point of death, decide they will not kill a shipmate for food because their Quaker religion forbids games of chance. At home devout, but sexually deprived women, resort to masturbatory aids - one of which is found hidden in a chimney. With grisly indifference a "lively" whale has its flukes hacked off.
I started this book on the side of the whales and I finished it the same way. Nathaniel Philbrick never preaches but his admiration for these wondrous creatures is also evident. However, he also evoked in me an understanding of the men who hunted them. Even in our supposedly more sensitive era modern whalers, in their "best" year, killed four times as many whales as the Nantucket whalers in theirs. If we feel repugnance for the killing of whales we can find targets for our outrage a lot nearer home than the Nantucket whalers. They, for all their brutality, at least lacked our affluence and modern understanding.
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