In The Heart Of The Sea |Book Analysis
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Published: Mon, 15 May 2017
In the early nineteenth century it was very common for communities to rely upon specialized products as a source of income. This book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, is a story of a whaleship that was attacked by a giant bull sperm whale in the “heart,” or middle of the Pacific Ocean while on a voyage to acquire whale oil, Nantucket’s prime commodity. The author, Nathanial Philbrick, describes the effects that this tragedy had on the city of Nantucket, the hardships that came along with being a sailor in the whaling industry, and the gruesome battle for survival that it placed upon the crew of the Essex.
The early 1800’s was a great and prosperous time for Nantucket. This community was extremely functional in the fact that it had a flourishing economy, little to no crime due to the harmony of the people and dominant Quaker religion, and well played roles of both men and women. As mentioned before, Nantucket heavily relied on whale oil as a source of revenue. At this time the price of whale oil was rapidly rising, thus stimulating their economy. Though it seems as if this town had it made, the act of obtaining whale oil was quite dangerous and often deadly. It was typical for men to be gone for years at a time out at sea and for women to lose their husbands and other male loved ones to the risky whaling business. Women as well had a very crucial role in keeping the town running smoothly. In addition to having to attend to normal everyday tasks of taking care of the children and household duties, they had to run a majority of the island’s businesses. The women struggled with these tasks and because of the loneliness brought on by the absence of their spouses many began to fall in to the addictive traps of opium. It was tough to say the least but this was all necessary for the existence of this town.
The Essex was a whaling ship used by the town of Nantucket in the nineteenth century. It, along with two companion ships, set sail in August 1819 from Nantucket Island in search of the one thing that was vital to the community, whales. Within the first few days of being out at sea the Essex experienced a great storm that almost killed everyone on board. Not only was the ship almost flipped over but the sails that they used to guide the ship across the ocean were torn. One of their three ships was swept out to see, leaving them with only two. Having no other choice the crew made stops along the coast of South America to restock the ship with various supplies and equipment necessary for the voyage. After embarking once again the crew eventually came upon two whales, which they killed. This was about half of the amount that the crew had set out to capture before returning back to Nantucket. Around mid-November 1820, nearly fifteen months after they had originally set sail, the crew came upon a group of whales needed to complete their journey. While trying to kill the whales, a giant sperm whale severely damaged the side of the ship making it unable to be fixed. It was at this point in which their nightmare started to begin. They were forced to abandon the Essex and take shelter on a nearby island. The crew brought a majority of their supplies with them because they feared that the rumors they had heard might in fact be true. It was said that there were cannibals on a close island towards the west. Capitan Pollard along with the other men decided to sail back to South America on their one and only ship. It ended up being over a month until they reached any land. Eventually they ended up at Henderson Island where they discovered that there was not a plentiful amount of anything, including fresh drinking water. Pollard decided to get back on the ship leaving three men behind who we hoping that they would eventually come back to help them. It wasn’t long before the crew on the ship started to become starved and dehydrated. After months of malnourishment they started dying off just one after another. At first they would throw their bodies overboard and bury them at sea but it came to a point in which they began to run extremely low on supplies. What the ironic part is about this story is that the men were faced with the tough choice of becoming cannibals and feasting off of their old crew member’s deceased body, giving them some hope for survival, or hoping for the best and reaching land soon. It is ironic in the sense that they were tremendously frightened by the tales that there were cannibals in close proximity to them, which is why they ended up not staying, but cannibalism actually ended up saving some of their lives. Only a few crew members from the original twenty survived, they included Thomas Nickerson, Owen Chase, Charles Ramsdell, Benjamin Lawrence, and Capital George Pollard.
The tragedy of the Essex will greatly affect the community of Nantucket because they rely so heavily upon the whale oil for survival. When the Essex sank so did the whale oil, leaving the town with nothing recovered from that journey. Not only does it affect them economically it affects them socially as well. Many men lost their lives during this expedition, leaving numerous wives without husbands and children without fathers. As for the sailors who actually survived the harsh time out at sea it was hard on them after their return. Gossip went around the town talking about how the men became cannibals. The community was respectful towards the sailors though, they kept quiet about the topic for the most part. But, “townspeople continued to whisper about the Essex well into the twentieth century, it was not a topic a Nantucketer openly discussed” (Philbrick 217). The disaster made it extremely difficult to survive in this community, and eventually led to the collapse of it. This led to the falling down of the whaling industry in Nantucket. The industry moved to other various locations along the New England coast, usually with deeper ports than that of Nantucket. Shortly after this a major catastrophe happened to the town of Nantucket. Fire raged across the town leaving many homeless, jobless, and with nothing. Philbrick describes the event saying “â€¦more than a third of the town and almost all the commercial district was charred wasteland” (222). After this accident many people took off to the west to California to start a new and having hopes of finding gold, leaving the town nearly empty.
You would think that an event as serious that this would have a big negative effect on the nation no matter how small the incident, but it didn’t at all. By looking at the time period in which this took place, other issues that were a concern of America, and the sheer size of the nation you can tell why it had such a minor effect on the country and received almost no attention or interest. Whaling was not a concern of the entire nation because it only benefitted a certain region. Also, we were getting over wars that had been going on for awhile.
When looking back at the series of events that took place over this entire story you can start to see where crucial errors in decision making in which determined the fate of the voyage. As I had mentioned earlier the Essex went through a major storm that tore up the sails and made the ship nearly inoperable. Capitan Pollard, with his years of experience in commanding ships, suggested that the crew turn the ships around and head back for repairs so that they could travel more safely down the road ahead. Two of his less experienced mates disputed that there were extra ships available at a close port, and that they should just keep moving along so that they would not waste time. Philbrick writes that, “Pollard’s behavior, after both the knockdown and the whale attack, indicated that he lacked the resolve to overrule his two younger and less experienced officers” (101).
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