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In the Heart of the Sea: The Epic True Story that Inspired ‘Moby Dick’ Hardcover – 2 May 2000
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The appeal of Dava Sobel's Longitude was that it illuminated a little-known piece of history through a series of captivating incidents and engaging personalities. Nathaniel Philbrick's In The Heart of the Sea certainly covers the same area, by examining the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry through the arc of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a boisterous sperm whale. The story which inspired Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick, has a lot going for it--derring-do, cannibalism, rescue--and Philbrick proves an amiable and well-informed narrator, providing both context and detail. We learn about the importance and mechanics of blubber production--a vital source of oil--and we get the nuts and bolts of harpooning and life onboard whalers. Neither are we spared the nitty gritty of the open boats and sucking human bones dry.
By sticking to the tried and tested Longitude formula, Philbrick has missed a slight trick or two. The epicentre of the whaling industry was Nantucket, a small island off Cape Cod; most of the whales were in the Pacific, a huge journey around the southernmost tip of America. We never learn the reason for this distance and why no one ever tried to create an alternative whaling capital somewhere nearer. Similarly, Philbrick tells us that the story of the Essex was well known to Americans for decades but he never explores how such legends fade from our consciousness. Philbrick would no doubt reply that such questions were beyond his remit and you can't exactly accuse him of skimping on his research; 50 pages of footnotes is impressive by any standards and to give him his credit he wears his learning light. Unlike many academics, he doesn't get bogged down in turgid detail and the narrative rattles along at a nice pace. And when the story line is as good as this, you can't really ask for more.--John Crace
The epic true-life story of one of the most notorious maritime disasters of the 19th century which was the inspiration for Herman Melville's classic novel "Moby Dick". The author uses a hitherto unknown diary of one of the survivors discovered in an attic in Connecticut in spring 1998 to tell the tale. The sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged spermwhale in the Pacific in November 1820 set in motion one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time: the twenty sailors who survived the wreck took to three small boats (one of which was again attacked by a whale) and only eight of them survived their subsequent 90-day ordeal, after resorting to cannibalizing their mates. Three months after the Essex was broken up, the whaleship Dauphin, cruising off the coast of South America, spotted a small boat in the open ocean. As they pulled alongside they saw piles of bones in the bottom of the boat, at least two skeletons' worth, with two survivors - almost skeletons themselves - sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead ship-mates.See all Product description
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It should be pointed out that this is a tale of woe from the first to last page. The story details Captain Pollard's first command. The Nantucket whale ship Essex on a voyage to hunt Sperm whales in the Pacific ocean. Basically everything that could possibly go wrong, does go wrong and then some. Culminating in absolute unmitigated horror.
Much more than the story of a whale attacking a ship and sinking it, the book is quite an education as well. Eminently readable and compulsive, we get to learn about not just the lives of the whalers and the vagrancies of whaling but the history of the island of Nantucket and societies of the Southern and Pacific oceans, the horrors of starvation and cannibalism, the rise and fall of the whaling industry and the effects on the lives of the people it touches and indeed the flora and fauna that suffers as a result. It really seems to capture the Zeitgeist of an era long gone.
There is so much of interest packed in here that there is not a dull page from cover to cover. An excellent, fascinating and valuable read, I highly recommend it to just about anyone. Although probably not good if you are easily perturbed, as it reaches into the depths of hell and does not return.
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.
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