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The worm that turned,
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This review is from: In the Heart of the Sea: The Epic True Story that Inspired 'Moby Dick' (Paperback)
A few years ago I read 'The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex' written by Owen Chase The Wreck of the Whaleship "Essex", the first mate on the doomed Essex. I therefore picked up this book with mixed feelings but I need not have worried. It was the story of the Essex which inspired Hermann Melville, himself a crewman on a whaleship, to write Moby Dick a fictionalised account based on the story of the 'Essex'.
I have never read 'Moby Dick' but this is a gripping and informative real-life account of the sinking of the 'Essex' and the awful consequences for its crew. The ship was attacked in the far Pacific by a sperm whale allegedly 85 feet long. Two head butts from the whale sealed the fate of the 'Essex'. The day to day accounts of the voyage, the sinking, and the aftermath are drawn from the writings of those who were there, including Owen Chase. The book also benefits from a recently discovered account written by Thomas Nickerson the youngest boy aboard the ship. He was only 14 when the ship set sail with him as the cabin boy. He survived to tell the tale and like all those who survived he returned to sea.
Initially the entire crew survived the sinking of the ship but only a minority survived the aftermath of 90 days or more in open boats striving to reach land. It is a story of awful things happening to ordinary men. Immediately after the sinking of the 'Essex' the men decided to avoid sailing for the known islands of the Society group or the Marquesas because of rumours of fierce cannibalism amongst their inhabitants. That was a bad decision which had the result of the surviving crew members indulging in cannibalism themselves in order to prolong their lives.
Philbrick's account of the whaling industry and its processes and its economics is very interesting. So too is his account of the role of black (African American) crewmen on the whaling ships. About one in three of the crew of the 'Essex' were black seamen. Philbrick draws a very vivid picture of Nantucket at the beginning of the 19th century as a Quaker dominated, whale-centred society. He also traces the decline in the island's fortunes to faded glory as the whaling fleet withered away later in the century. Finally he brings us up to date with the current up-market style of the place as a tourist magnet. How times change.
All in all, a gripping story well written.