In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Before Edwin Drake drilled the world's first oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859, the world’s streets, homes and taverns were lit by gas lamps fed by whale oil, specifically spermaceti extracted from the heads of sperm whales. Whaling ships would hunt their lucrative prey on the vast expanses of the Atlantic and Pacific and were often at sea for up to two to three years at a stretch. They would return home with thousands of gallons of whale oil, rendered from the giant beasts’ blubber right on the ship.
In the first half of the 19th century, many of these whalers called Nantucket home. In fact, Nantucket was the world capital of whaling and its native sons sailed far and wide in search of sperm whales, often traveling as far as East Asia and Australia after rounding Cape Horn at South America’s southern tip.
This is the world described so vividly, so brilliantly, and so heartbreakingly by Nathaniel Philbrick in his masterfully suspenseful account of the whaleship Essex’s disastrous final voyage. The story of Captain George Pollard, his willful first mate, Owen Chase, their fourteen year-old cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, and the rest of their doomed crew reads like an adventure novel, yet the entire account is taken from journals and historical records.
Pollard and his crew set out from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, on what was expected to be a roughly two-and-a-half-year voyage to the bountiful whaling grounds off the west coast of South America. The crew numbered 21 men in total. After an eventful Atlantic journey in which the ship was nearly sunk by a massive storm in the Gulf Stream, they finally made their way around Cape Horn in January of 1820 (rounding the horn alone took a full month).
Once in the Pacific, the crew made their way to the so-called Offshore Grounds thousands of miles west of the coast of South America where they expected to find bountiful pods of whales to hunt. Instead, they found themselves attacked by a massive bull sperm whale that destroyed the Essex and forced the terrified crew to abandon ship. The attack directly inspired Melville’s Moby Dick and became part of American seafaring legend.
The rest of Philbrick’s tale details the crew’s tortuous journey home where they faced horror upon horror of deprivation and exposure to the violent whims of nature. Philbrick is a wonderfully balanced writer, providing the perfect mix of enlightening background information, historical perspective, storytelling acumen and modern-day analogues that help the lay-reader understand what the men must have been going through.
Philbrick also includes many helpful maps, sketches and diagrams to help the reader make sense of the complex world of a 19th century whaleship as well as chart the course of the Essex and the escape boats.
In the Heart of the Sea is popular history at its very best. Rip-roaringly entertaining yet insightful and well-researched. I loved every minute of it and look forward to reading Philbrick’s Sea of Glory and The Last Stand as I continue this journey. I only wish I had been exposed to his talents earlier as I no-doubt would have included his Mayflower, In the Hurricane’s Eye, Bunker Hill and Valiant Ambition as well. But I will definitely be circling back to them one day.