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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Whale of a Tale for YOU!

Book Review

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Nathaniel Philbrick - HERE is his website page

Imagine that you are in the Pacific Ocean, along the Equator, thousands of miles from anywhere, rowing along in a longboat, hoping to harpoon a whale. Your ship is more than a mile behind you:

Just at that moment, two miles to leeward, Obed Hendricks, Pollard’s boatsteerer, casually glanced over his shoulder. He couldn’t believe what he saw. From that distance it looked as if the Essex had been hit by a sudden squall, the sails flying in all directions as the ship fell onto her beam-ends.

“Look, look,” he cried, “what ails the ship? She is upsetting!”

But when the men turned to look, there was nothing to see. The Essex had vanished below the horizon.

- from page 84

I first heard about the story of the Essex a few years ago, while listening to the radio. A DJ mentioned that it was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick.
I forgot about the book until recently, when I was in a bookstore and saw a table of books priced at ‘buy 2, get 1 free.’ I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick’s book and immediately remembered the book. I figured I could buy it, so I started looking for other books to take advantage of the free third book. Unfortunately, like Diogenes searching for an honest man in Agora, I could not find two more good books to take advantage of the bargain.
I went home and ordered it online.

Nathaniel Philbrick published In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex in 2000. This book is the result of what must have taken years of research. Mr. Philbrick avoids footnotes in the text or at the bottom of the page by including references for each chapter in the ‘Notes’ and ‘Bibliography’ in the back of the book. Those who wish to read more on this disaster should look there.


In August, 1819, The Essex set sail from Nantucket to hunt whales for their blubber, or fat, which was used as fuel. The whaling industry had made Nantucket the main port for ships in the trade, even though the Pacific Ocean was the best place to catch whales. In November, 1820, the ship was attacked and sunk by a large male sperm whale. With only the three whaleboats and very little provisions, the 20 men of the Essex set sail for South America, approximately 3,000 miles to the East. What happens over the next three months that it took to reach safety is what makes up the most interesting part of the story.

Mr. Philbrick does not just relate the events of the tragedy, as I will do in this limerick:

There once were whalers from Nantucket,
Who went off to sea in a bucket,
While the pacific they roved
A whale their ship stoved
And so few returned to Nantucket.


Mr. Philbrick discusses not only the evenets surrounding the sinking of the Essex, but also the history of the island which was, at the time of this story, the largest center for whaling in the United States. He explains how the island became what it was; namely, a stronghold for both the whaling industry and for the Quaker religion. He delves into the social behavior of a society where most of the menfolk are gone for years at a time, and the where women were essentially free to run their houses the way they wished. Mr. Philbrick also describes the lives of the sperm whales which were the source of so much wealth in Nantucket. What makes this book such a delight to read is that the author pulls so much out of his research, such as the contention that the social structure of the people of Nantucket was not much different from that of the sperm whales that they hunted. In both whale and whaler, the women raised the children while the males roamed the sea.

In the Heart of the Sea relates both good and bad aspects of the whaling industry, from the profit-driven owners who cut corners on expenses when outfitting the Essex, to the men who had the courage to sail for land after watching their ship sink. It described the errors in judgement which cost so many lives, and the sequence of events which made the men resort to cannibalism. All of these issues are explored in a writing style which made it hard for me to stop reading this book.

Thoughts about Terri Schiavo

In his book published in 2000, Mr. Philbrick describes the death of some of the crew members by starvation and dehydration. He states:

“Modern-day proponents of euthanasia have long endorsed the combined effects of starvation and dehydration as a painless and dignified way for a terminally ill patient to die. In the final stages, hunger pangs cease, as does the sensation of thirst. The patient slips into unconsciousness as the deterioration of his internal organs results in a peaceful death.”(page 163)

In the notes section of the book, Mr. Philbrick directs the reader to a website as a reference for this allegation. Unfortunately, I could not find this source at that website.

While I agree with part of the statement above, it is not totally correct. As the various organs(such as the liver and kidneys) shut down, the level of various toxins cleared by these two organs will render a person unconscious, bringing on a peaceful death. The problem is that the time it takes for a patient’s body to shut down can be quite a long time. Mr. Philbrick’s own book demonstrates that man can take a lot of punishment before death becomes a peaceful process. Each man had to deal with hunger, thirst, sores, and sunburn as well as mental and spiritual suffering.

I thought about Terri Schiavo while reading this book. Terri Schiavo, as I am sure you know, died in 2005 after removal of a feeding tube. This order was requested by her husband, against the wishes of her parents and siblings. Terri Schiavo starved to death. What makes her case even worse than that of the Essex crew members is that she died surrounded by the personnel and supplies which could have kept her alive.

I recommend this book as an excellent biographical sketch of our country’s history. There are some issues in the book, one of them being the cannibalism they resort to, that make it recommended for adult readers only.

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