on 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.
on 10 November 2013
Well this was quite something. Recommended by a friend, this is the true story that Herman Melville based his classic, Moby Dick on. Philbrick does an excellent job of pulling all his source material together to tell the story as accurately and effectively as possible, something that he succeeds in doing admirably.
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.
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.
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.
on 5 November 2016
Well, as the Americans would say when confounded by something " oh my Gad!" I just could not put this book down as it is so well written and fascinating tale . Almost thought of it as fiction but the intriguing details of Nantucket and the past whaling industry plus the facts that this tale is an account of a very real trip makes it non- fiction. I am old enough to remember when in U.K there was an attempt to make fresh whale meat available but we ended up offering it to the cat and dog as none of our family liked it. Ponged a bit plus was bright red? Yuck! The story told though is based on what survivors told about this nightmarish trip on the Essex to catch whales for the oil etc , sailing out of Nantucket and being the first ship to be attacked by a living monster bull whale plus details of the effects of the industry on the quaint port which was their base. Wow! No holds barred so be prepared for nauseating details of chopping up of whales plus inevitable cannibalism that the survivors had to sink to in order to exist out in the vast ocean. It is a bit stomach churning and it pulls no punches but the author is not trying to glamorise characters or shock readers. It is just an account really of a few courageous survivors of a rather unseaworthy whale ship sunk in a disastrous situation.Well worth reading! I found it far better than the original book ,Moby Dick by Melville and the Gregory Peck film. ( the film of this title by the way far outstrips that one). Would also recommend to young readers maybe still at school who want to read actual fact history of such places and how community life was for Quakers in the last century woven into a jolly good yarn.
on 6 October 2015
Americans' fascination with “Moby Dick”* may explain a book like this which is about a whaling ship from Nantucket that was attacked and sunk by a giant sperm whale in 1819 in the Pacific.
Eight survivors underwent an amazing 3,000 mile trip on small boats, during which they ate 12 fellow crew members, before being rescued.
The story of the “Essex” became well known and Herman Melville probably based parts of “Moby Dick” on it.
It is a fascinating story but the author seems to have done little original research and has more or less summarized previous accounts.
It seems strange that the crew who were mainly Quakers and their society accepted such behavior but the author makes little of this.
He gives a potted history of what happened to each of them afterwards, talks about Melville and then ends with a description of an incident in 1997 when a sperm whale was beached off Nantucket.
I was slightly disappointed as I had enjoyed Philbrick's book “Mayflower” about the founding of the early English settlement of what was to become the United States.
*Although I wonder how many have actually read it to the bitter end.
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.
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!
on 30 August 2001
A highly interesting, unusual and also disturbing piece of maritime history, from a man so obviously immersed in the whaling history of the Massachusetts island of Nantucket. For Philbrick, this novel comes across as a labour of love and his respect for the whalers and their prey is evident. Personally I never thought of the whalers as being victims before, but apart from being victims in the obvious sense in this book, the hard life at sea and the agonisingly long separations from their loved ones evokes a certain sympathy for the crew of the whaling ships in the early 19th Century.
As the dust cover recounts it is 'the epic true story that inspired 'Moby Dick' and concerns the sinking of the Nantucket whaling ship 'Essex' in 1820 in the remote whaling 'Offshore Ground' of the Pacific Ocean by a sperm whale, and the twenty crew members subsequent fight for survival in three open whaleboats.
Using the eyewitness accounts of Owen Chase, the first mate and Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, Philbrick takes us through the desperate journey that the crew of the 'Essex' made to find safety in the vast watery wilderness of the Pacific Ocean. Spurning closer islands to the west (ironically for fear of cannibals) they opt to attempt an almost unbelievable 2,500 mile journey to the coast of Chile.
Nothing is glossed over by Philbrick as he describes, on a day-by-day basis, the travails that befall our hapless crew as eventually they succumb to starvation and dehydration. But after a while the burials at sea end and the emergence of cannibalism starts, when the hardtack and tortoises, picked up on the Galapagos Islands, had all been eaten. Philbrick recounts the interesting point that the first to succumb to the effects of their dire situation were the black crewmembers possibly due to their physiological make-up, and his description of the effects of dehydration where 'The tongue hardens into...a senseless weight, swinging on the still-soft root and striking foreignly against the teeth.' linger long in the mind.
Before the heartbreaking journey reaches it's gruesome conclusion it is briefly interrupted when they reach the remote Henderson Island, leaving three crew members behind (including the only Englishman among the American crew) who volunteered to take their chances on land rather than at sea. This proves to be a wise choice for Messrs Chapple, Wright & Weeks, because for the crew who continue in the whaleboats it becomes a voyage of death due to the lack of food and water, terrible storms and the relentless sun beating down on their weakening bodies. It is the ultimate example of the 'survival of the fittest' (or as Philbrick mentions, sometimes the fattest).
Due to Philbrick's continuous latitude & longitudinal references and the ticking off of the days (plus excellent maps) we can see the tortuous and agonising progress made by the crewmembers in whaleboats not designed to travel long distances.
Philbrick fills his book with a vast amount of historical data to back up his story (and he is not shy in giving credit where it is due either), including the physical and mental effects of starvation and dehydration on other disaster survivors. The crew of the English ship 'Peggy' in 1765 are revealed as another group of mariners who had to resort to cannibalism and the emergence of a 'feral community' (basic animal existence) akin to that experienced by Auschwitz inmates is also examined.
It is a well written, painstakingly researched book, that deserves all the plaudits it has received. It works well on many different levels, but its central themes of human endurance and the spirit of man, overcoming seemingly hopeless situations, are ones that are as relevant today as they were in 1820. Watch this space for a Hollywood blockbuster based on this remarkable novel.
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.