Anyone who has been forced to endure Herman Melville’s Moby Dick will agree that although the book is a staple of high school and college curriculums, it is not the most entertaining of reads. With its long soliloquies and painfully over-used metaphors, this alleged masterpiece is perceived as a form of corporal punishment to most of the general population. Nevertheless, beneath the countless layers of symbolism and literary devices is the story of a whaleship sunk by a vindictive whale, and this story is actually based on fact. The true account, as related in Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, is far more captivating than Melville’s re-telling of the incident.
In 1819, the whaleship Essex left its home port of Nantucket to do what Nantucketers do best – become the subject of limericks. Just kidding – they went to hunt whales. Although this was to be a standard expedition, things quickly go awry when the Essex is intentionally and repeatedly rammed by a sperm whale. While this type of behavior goes completely against the nature of the species, it was recorded by multiple survivors, including the captain. The twenty-man crew is thus forced off of the sinking vessel and into three crammed lifeboats with limited food and water. Ironically, the men decide against seeking refuge on a nearby island out of fear that it is infested with cannibals; however, by the end of their three-month-long ordeal, desperation has driven the remaining eight crew members to consume the deceased’s remains.
Philbrick’s skill as both a writer and a historian are brilliantly revealed through his depiction of this tragedy, which is more fascinating than most fictional novels. Detailed and compelling, the story of the Essex is devastating, heroic, and enthralling. Moby Dick can certainly dissuade people from reading maritime tales, but Philbrick’s definitive account paints a truth that is assuredly more captivating than Melville’s fiction.
Oh, and here’s that limerick I promised you:
A whale sunk a ship from Nantucket
Out of food, the crew had to tough it
Oh but what a surprise
When they cannibalized
Their dead, which were kept in a bucket