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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000)

by Nathaniel Philbrick

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
6,1681631,524 (4.15)282
History. Nature. Nonfiction. HTML:Soon to be a major motion picture starring Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Wishaw, and Brendan Gleeson, and directed by Ron Howard.
The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the sinking of the Titanic was in the twentieth. In 1819, the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. Nathaniel Philbrick uses little-known documents-including a long-lost account written by the ship's cabin boy-and penetrating details about whaling and the Nantucket community to reveal the chilling events surrounding this epic maritime disaster. An intense and mesmerizing listen, In the Heart of the Sea is a monumental work of history forever placing the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon.… (more)
  1. 60
    Moby Dick by Herman Melville (jseger9000, aya.herron)
    jseger9000: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex tells the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.
  2. 30
    Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick (John_Vaughan, aya.herron)
  3. 10
    Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (John_Vaughan)
  4. 10
    Wreck of the Medusa by Alexander McKee (John_Vaughan)
  5. 10
    The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men against the Sea by Sebastian Junger (aya.herron)
  6. 10
    Five Black Ships: A Novel of the Discoverers by Napoleon Baccino Ponce De Leon (ricalyr)
  7. 10
    Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (Othemts)
  8. 22
    Life of Pi by Yann Martel (BIzard)
  9. 00
    Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea by Frank Delaney (John_Vaughan)
  10. 00
    A Furnace Afloat: The Wreck of the Hornet and the Harrowing 4,300-mile Voyage of Its Survivors by Joe Jackson (bluetongue)
  11. 00
    Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick (John_Vaughan)
  12. 00
    Batavia by Peter FitzSimons (kenno82)
  13. 01
    Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken (ed.pendragon)
    ed.pendragon: This children's fantasy is a gentle parody based on Moby-Dick and so ultimately on the fate of the Essex.
  14. 02
    Moby Dick (Illustrated Classic Editions) by Shirley Bogart (mperson)
  15. 02
    Moby Dick: Or, the White Whale (An Abridged Edition) by Herman Melville (mperson)
  16. 02
    Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster by Richard F. Newcomb (mperson)
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» See also 282 mentions

English (157)  Spanish (4)  German (1)  All languages (162)
Showing 1-5 of 157 (next | show all)
Time and again, I am amazed by humans' ability to inflict and endure suffering. ( )
  mmparker | Oct 24, 2023 |
There was a lot more included in this story than I anticipated, we kind of rushed through the actual whale incident and focused on the...cannibalism. If you like your shipwreck stories to have cannibalism in them, this one has so much marrow-sucking content for you.
I didn't realize this was the inspiration behind Moby Dick, so that's a nudge towards getting me to pick that one up soon.
I'd say I enjoyed The Wager more than this, as it honed in on the ship experience and conditions much more. I listened to this on audiobook, and unless my ears were playing tricks, he references "the blacks" quite a bit, which falls pretty badly on my 2023 ears. ( )
  KallieGrace | Sep 1, 2023 |
In the Heart of the Sea is a history of a 19th-century whaling disaster told in novelistic style by Nathaniel Philbrick. In 1820, the whaleship Essex, sailing from Nantucket, was rammed and destroyed by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. This incident influenced Herman Melville in writing Moby Dick. Only 8 of the 21 crew members survived the arduous journey on whale boats with the survivors resorting to cannibalizing those who died of starvation.

Philbrick does a great job at establishing the community of early 19th century Nantucket and how it's economy centered on the whaling industry. Ships were crewed by inexperienced sailors who learned on the job under the command of captains with only a few journeys under their belt. In this case it was the first-time captain George Pollard Jr. who Philbrick characterizes as hesitant and too willing to be influenced by his crew. This includes first mate Owen Chase, perhaps resentful that he had not been appointed captain, and very assertive of doing things his way. What we know of the Essex's journey are based on accounts by Chase and 14-year-old cabin boy cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson.

Race and social caste play their part in the whaleship. Native Nantucketers were considered the superior group and tended to socialize among themselves. Other groups included white sailors from the mainland who the Nantucketers considered green hands, as well as a group of free Black sailors. While Quaker Nantucket was known for abolitionist, the Black sailors were nonetheless discriminated against, and significantly almost all of the sailors to die from starvation and then cannibalized were Black men. Philbrick draws on other historical accounts and scientific research to viscerally describe starvation's effects on the human body and mind.

Philbrick's writing is engaging, and sometimes stomach turning, as a deep dive into a significant historical event that would become part of the American mythology.

Favorite Passages:
"But the rise of the Pacific sperm-whale fishery had an unfortunate side effect. Instead of voyages that had once averaged about nine months, two- and three-year voyages had become the norm. Never before had the division between Nantucket’s whalemen and their people been so great. Long gone were the days when Nantucketers could watch from shore as the men and boys of the island pursued the whale. Nantucket was now the whaling capital of the world, but there were more than a few islanders who had never even seen a whale."

"...the whalemen preferred to think of it as what one commentator called “a self-propelled tub of high-income lard.” Whales were described by the amount of oil they would produce (as in a fifty-barrel whale), and although the whalemen took careful note of the mammal’s habits, they made no attempt to regard it as anything more than a commodity whose constituent parts (head, blubber, ambergris, etc.) were of value to them. The rest of it—the tons of meat, bone, and guts—was simply thrown away, creating festering rafts of offal that attracted birds, fish, and, of course, sharks. Just as the skinned corpses of buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West, so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean in the early nineteenth century."

"Nantucketers were suspicious of anything beyond their immediate experience. Their far-reaching success in whaling was founded not on radical technological advances or bold gambles but on a profound conservatism. Gradually building on the achievements of the generations before them, they had expanded their whaling empire in a most deliberate and painstaking manner. If new information didn’t come to them from the lips of another Nantucketer, it was suspect."

"Shipowners hoped to combine a fishy, hard-driving captain with an approachable and steady mate. But in the labor-starved frenzy of Nantucket in 1819, the Essex had ended up with a captain who had the instincts and soul of a mate, and a mate who had the ambition and fire of a captain. Instead of giving an order and sticking with it, Pollard indulged his matelike tendency to listen to others. This provided Chase—who had no qualms about speaking up—with the opportunity to impose his own will. For better or worse, the men of the Essex were sailing toward a destiny that would be determined, in large part, not by their unassertive captain but by their forceful and fishy mate."

"But if the island’s inhabitants once ventured to the far corners of the world, today it seems as if the world has made its way to Nantucket. It is not whaling, of course, that brings the tourists to the island, but the romantic glorification of whaling—the same kind of myths that historically important places all across America have learned to shine and polish to their economic advantage. Yet, despite the circus (some have called it a theme park) that is modern Nantucket, the story of the Essex is too troubling, too complex to fit comfortably into a chamber of commerce brochure.”

"Like the Donner Party, the men of the Essex could have avoided disaster, but this does not diminish the extent of the men’s sufferings, or their bravery and extraordinary discipline."
( )
  Othemts | Aug 9, 2023 |
This book is interesting and thought provoking, but it never truly gripped me. I would recommend to non fiction fans. ( )
  queenofthebobs | Apr 27, 2023 |
In truth, this should be both a three-star and a four star book. The beginning of the story is kind of slow, and a bit boring. But this changes after the attack, where it becomes personal and riveting.

But while I didn't enjoy the first part as much as the second, it did provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of the Nantucket whalers and their struggles.

In the end, this book is an interesting mixture between adventure novel and historical account, that I thoroughly enjoyed, if not always for its fast-paced storytelling. ( )
  bastibe | Apr 15, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 157 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nathaniel Philbrickprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brick, ScottNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
And in the greatness of thine excellency thou has over-
thrown them that rose up against thee: Thou sentest
forth thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble. And
with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered to-
gether, the floods stood upright as a heap, and the
depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.

-EXODUS 15:7-8

This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale
Who spewed Nantucket bones in the thrashed swell....
This is the end of running on the waves;
We are poured out like water. Who will dance
The mast-lashed masters of Leviathans
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves?

-ROBERT LOWELL,
"The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket"
Dedication
To Melissa
First words
Like a giant bird of prey, the whaleship moved lazily up the western coast of South America, zigging and zagging across a living sea of oil.
Quotations
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Please do not combine with Revenge of the Whale which is an adaptation for younger readers of In the Heart of the Sea.
Publisher's editors
Blurbers
Original language
Canonical DDC/MDS
Canonical LCC
History. Nature. Nonfiction. HTML:Soon to be a major motion picture starring Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Wishaw, and Brendan Gleeson, and directed by Ron Howard.
The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the sinking of the Titanic was in the twentieth. In 1819, the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. Nathaniel Philbrick uses little-known documents-including a long-lost account written by the ship's cabin boy-and penetrating details about whaling and the Nantucket community to reveal the chilling events surrounding this epic maritime disaster. An intense and mesmerizing listen, In the Heart of the Sea is a monumental work of history forever placing the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon.

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