by Nathaniel Philbrick
I love books about true historical events that read like novels. I read Philbrick’s Mayflower a few years back and was completely taken in by his writing and by the story he told. When I started seeing trailers for the movie In the Heart of the Sea a few months ago, I was intrigued, but I had no idea that the movie was based on a book. I came across the book on one of my browsing trips to Barnes & Noble, and when I saw that it was written by Nathaniel Philbrick, I bought it on the spot.
In the Heart of the Sea first details a vivid picture of life on Nantucket in the early part of the nineteenth century – particularly how the predominant Quaker faith and the whaling industry shaped the citizens and their way of life on Nantucket. Nantucketers were a society unto themselves, and referred to everyone else as “off-Islanders.” The wealth of Nantucketers was almost solely due to the whales they killed and converted to oil; nearly every male Nantucketer was involved in whaling in some way, and nearly every female would grow up to marry a man she would be separated from for years at a time while he was away on a whaleship.
The tragedy of the whaleship Essex was a story well known by east coasters well into the twentieth century, and yet, somehow the story has become obscure.
In August of 1819, the whaleship Essex – growing old at nearly twenty years – set out on a routine whaling voyage with twenty crewmen aboard. She was expected to be gone for two to three years – the typical length of a whaling voyage – and to return to Nantucket with upwards of 2,000 barrels of whale oil. Problems arise very soon after the Essex’s departure, when the ship hits a squall and an arrogant captain George Pollard makes a decision that puts the ship and its crew in peril. The damage suffered from this incident very well may have set the ship’s unlucky course, as the storm, which could have been avoided, demolished some of the whaleboats, leaving the crew dangerously under-provisioned.
After a little more than a year at sea, the Essex has made its way into what was known as the Offshore Ground: an area of the Pacific ocean that was fertile hunting ground for the lusted after sperm whale, and about as far from any land mass as was possible to be. On a fateful November day in 1820, an eighty-five foot sperm whale turned on the Essex and bore down on her, bashing her multiple times, and ultimately destroying her. The twenty crew members spent the next three months crammed into three small whaleboats, drifting on the Pacific. It wasn’t long before their provisions ran out and the men began to suffer the effects of dehydration, starvation, and exposure, and eventually, the men begin to die one by one, the corpses ultimately providing sustenance for the men who remained barely alive.
The story of the Essex and her crew is as engrossing as it is harrowing and gruesome. A whale of a tale for sure.
As an aside, I watched the movie right after finishing the book. I would say that the movie is good standing on its own, but compared to the book, it’s a disappointment. It deviates too much from the true story, and unnecessarily so. It paints Thomas Nickerson as an aging alcoholic, tortured by his memories of his harrowing ordeal with the Essex crew years before, and especially by the acts of cannibalism the crew engaged in to survive – which cannibalism, the movie would have you believe, was covered up until Nickerson supposedly confessed all to a young writer by the name of Herman Melville. Upon his tearful confession, according to the movie, Nickerson is suddenly unburdened, and all is well, and Melville goes on to write one of the greatest American novels of all time, Moby Dick.
In reality, while the story of the Essex was the basis for Moby Dick, Melville didn’t receive a late night dramatic confession from a tortured Nickerson over glasses of whiskey; rather, he was given a written account of events written by Owen Chase, which inspired him to write Moby Dick. There is no evidence that Nickerson was a tortured alcoholic; he moved to the mainland after the tragedy of the Essex, and years later returned to Nantucket and successfully ran a boarding house.
There is also a testosterone-driven rivalry portrayed in the movie between Captain George Pollard and first mate Owen Chase, which just wasn’t there in real life.
Another irritating aspect of the movie was the portrayal of a vengeful “white whale” that apparently stalked the Essex crew even after the Essex sank. The actual whale that stove the Essex was, in fact, a sperm whale (the white whale is a mythological creature created by Melville), and nobody saw hide nor hair of that particular whale after the destruction of the Essex.