In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

51yIFRRN4TL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_In the Heart of the Sea

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.

UnknownAs 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.


Review: Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

I wanted to read something relevant to the season; a friend gave me this book late last year and I’ve been saving it to read this November in honor of Thanksgiving.  What’s the real deal behind Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims and Indians of lore?  I think we know it wasn’t exactly like the cheesy, kitschy lessons passed along in early grade school where the Indians welcomed the Pilgrims, with their big buckled shoes and tall hats, with open arms and the two communities founded America peacefully together.  So what really happened?

What really happened was that a relatively small group of Separatists (so-called because of their extremist Christian views and desire to separate from England’s church) left England to escape religious persecution (at the time, the English monarchy ran the church and everyone was expected to worship as the Church dictated; to fail to do so was punishable by severe penalty).  Initially they emigrated to Holland, but after several years there, they felt that their children were losing touch with their English heritage, and so they decided to set off for the Americas, hoping to recreate their English homeland in virgin territory, where they could worship as they chose.  And so, on September 6, 1620, after numerous delays, the Mayflower set sail from Holland.  She carried a little over 100 passengers; contrary to wide assumption, only about 50 of those passengers were Pilgrims.  The rest were comprised of “Strangers” – that is, people who did not belong to the Pilgrims’ congregation but who wished to make a new home in America just the same.  The journey across the Atlantic was a long and arduous one; still, only two lives were lost along the way.

When the Mayflower finally reached America in November, what they came upon was a the sterile, desolate landscape of Cape Cod.  Winter was almost upon them, and they were desperately short on food and other provisions.  Over the first four months of their residency in America, half of the passengers of the Mayflower would die from starvation and/or illness.

Although at first it seemed that their new home was unoccupied, they soon encountered Indians, who were, naturally, wary and suspicious of these Europeans, having already had negative relations with European traders and merchants before them.  One of the first things the Pilgrims did was pillage Indian graves and steal corn from the Indians’ underground stores.  Not a good way to begin friendly relations.

Still, the Indians and the Pilgrims, after some initial minor skirmishes, managed to forge a tenuous alliance; in a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours atmosphere, the Indians taught the Pilgrims how and what to plant in the way of crops, showed them where the best fishing and hunting could be had, and the Pilgrims provided the Indians with modern conveniences such as tools, guns, and medicine.

If you are one of the many who believe that America was founded on Christian ideals, you would be wrong.  Although the Pilgrims were devoutly (fanatically?) Christian, they recognized the importance of creating a secular government, “a government based on civil consent rather than divine decree.”  They understood all too well the dark side of living under government-imposed religion and they intended to create a society in which every citizen was free to worship (or not) as they wished.  Even marriages, from the very beginning, were civil ceremonies, not religiously ordained ones.

What about Plymouth Rock?  Did you know that Plymouth Rock was never even mentioned until more than a hundred years after the Pilgrims landed in America?

“In 1741, the ninety-five year old Thomas Faunce asked to be carried in a litter to the Plymouth waterfront.  Faunce had heard that a pier was about to be built over an undistinguished rock at the tide line near Town Brook.  With tears in his eyes, Faunce proclaimed that he had been told by his father, who had arrived in Plymouth in 1623 [three years after the Mayflower landed], that the boulder was where the Pilgrims had first landed.  Thus was born the legend of Plymouth Rock.”

And what about the first Thanksgiving?  First of all, it most likely did not take place in November, but more likely in September or early October.  Further, it was not referred to as the Pilgrims themselves as “Thanksgiving”; that name was not applied until the nineteenth century.

“Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other’s hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on.  Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement and soon provided five freshly killed deer.  Even if all the Pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages – stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown – simmered invitingly.”

Also served up was wild turkey, which was plentiful in the area, fish, and plenty of beer, a staple of the English.  There was certainly no cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.  “There were also no forks, which did not appear at Plymouth until the last decades of the seventeenth century.  The Pilgrims ate with their fingers and their knives.”

Okay, honestly?  I would love to try to recreate this and experience an authentic Thanksgiving – wouldn’t you?

So for about fifty years, the Pilgrims and Indians coexisted somewhat peacefully – not always agreeing with or understanding one another, and certainly with occasional skirmishes and acts of violence, but for the most part, they lived respecting the others’ way of life and contributions to each other’s way of life.

However, when the second generation of Pilgrims were all grown up, and more and more Europeans had emigrated to America, relations with the Indians began to deteriorate.  The white people became more and more greedy for land and all but froze the Indians out of what had originally been theirs.  It was inevitable that all our war would break out, and in 1675 what became known as King Phillip’s War began – a bloody war lasting fourteen months and resulting in massive loss of life.  In the end, the Pilgrims and Puritans prevailed, and most of the surviving Indians were taken into slavery:

“It has been estimated that at least a thousand Indians were sold into slavery during King Philip’s war, with over half the slaves coming from Plymouth Colony alone.  By the end of the war Mount Hope, once the crowded Native heart of the colony, was virtually empty of inhabitants.  Fifty-six years after the sailing of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ children had not only defeated the Pokanokets in a devastating war, they had taken conscious, methodical measures to purge the land of its people.”

Kind of makes one stop and think about the pride we Americans take in being American, and the value we place on our liberty and freedom, when we were so willing to take that from the native people of America.

An excellent read if you’re interested in American History – I highly recommend this one.