Thursday, August 23, 2007

In the Heart of the Sea

Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea describes a world that seems accessible today -- Nantucket is a short ferry-ride from Cape Cod -- but in reality a symbol of a by-gone era. In the period before the discovery of oil (or more accurately, the discovery of the ability of oil to burn cleanly and efficiently for lighting purposes), whale oil was the best source of light. And Nantucket -- at least according to Philbrick -- was the cutting edge location for the pursuit and harvesting of whale oil throughout the world.

By 1819-21, when the story is centered, the whaling industry was mature in Nantucket; boats were built, outfitted, and sent out, and every person on board -- from captain to cabin boy -- was compensated in a share of the profits. A 'lucky' captain, or one who could bring his boat back with a full crew and a full hold of oil, was a popular man, and the entire island knew the difference between the 'good' and 'bad' captains.

The Essex, which by 1819 was a old ship, set sail for the South Pacific under a first-time captain, George Pollard; the voyage was relatively routine (although Pollard clearly makes some 'rookie' mistakes along the way) but reaches a stunning termination when, some 3,000 miles off the coast of Peru, the ship was sunk by a very large sperm whale.

The rest of the book is the story of two dozen men and their struggles in three open boats, far from shore. Rather than set sail to the (relatively) near-by Marquesas Islands, Pollard listened to his officers (and their fears of cannibalism on the Marquesas) and attempted to sail roughly east, against the prevailing winds, towards South America. In the end, cannibalism found the men of the Essex in the open ocean, as they ran out of food and water during their 90-day ordeal and resorted to that which they most feared.

The story of the Essex was apparently well-known in 19th century New England (if not America) and became the basis for the climatic scene of Meville's Moby-Dick. It has become a lost story, and not consistent with our current romantic notions of life on Nantucket; yet it is truly compelling.

One other note: The 19th-century whaling industry was recently back in the news with the discovery of a bomb-lance fragment, which dated back to approximately 1880, in the head of a bowhead whale. Whales are known to have normal life-spans in excess of 100 years, but the bowhead in question could easily have been 135 or more.


Rob said...

It's a great book. If you enjoyed that, would highly recommend one of his other ones, Sea of Glory, which tracks the Exploring Expedition in the 1850's.

If you go to Nantucket today, you can see where Pollard lived after returning when he worked as night watchman. More interesting are a couple of artifacts related to the event at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The most interesting is the piece of twine that Benjamin Lawrence made while in the boat.

Matt Henshon said...

Both Sea of Glory and Mayflower have been added to my to-read-list...