Sunday, December 9, 2012


I spent the weekend reading In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), by Nathaniel Philbrick. 

I was supposed to be grading, of course.  I picked up Philbrick's book on Thursday night, to unwind for a while after my drive to RI.  I couldn't put it down.

Full disclosure: as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm a fan of Melville's novel, Moby-Dick (1851).  Friends have speculated that I may very well be the only woman on the planet who is, but so be it.

I cried at the end of the novel.  Again, friends often point out that plenty of people cry during their reading of the novel, but that it's usually from sheer boredom, and that this typically occurs somewhere in the middle of all of Melville's whale-talk, not at the end.

The end, for most people, is usually marked by a sense of joyous relief that the experience of reading Moby-Dick is finally over.

So call me crazy, but I like the novel and it makes me cry.  The first time I read it and realized that Moby Dick was going to attack the ship, I started to cry.  I didn't care if he chomped Ahab into small bits, but not the ship.

Because, if the whale attacks the ship, I speculated, they'll all die.  There's no way they'll be able to get home.

I won't spoil Melville's novel for those of you who haven't read it (or seen the movie).  Instead, I'll simply tell you that Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea is a non-fiction account of the incident that inspired Melville's description of the whale attacking the ship at the end of Moby-Dick.

In November of 1820, the Nantucket whaleship Essex was in the Pacific, hunting whales, when it was rammed by a very large whale.  Although the crew members claimed that the whale "attacked" the ship, it is also entirely possible that the "attack" was simply an accident. 

Owen Chase, the ship's first mate, was in the process of repairing a damaged whale-boat.  To do this, he was hammering nails into the wood, and the sound would have traveled through the wooden whaleship and into the ocean.

It may have sounded like the "clicks" that whales make to communicate with each other and to engage in echolocation.  As Philbrick observes,
Whales ... use clicking signals to communicate over distances of up to five miles.  Females tend to employ a Morse code-like series of clicks, known as a coda, and male sperm whales make slower, louder clicks called clangs.  It has been speculated that males use clangs to announce themselves to eligible females and to warn off competing males. (87)
So although Chase and the other surviving crew members of the Essex assumed the whale's behavior was an aggressive attack, this perception may have been colored by their own highly aggressive occupation.  (In later years, it did appear that whales had caught on to the fact that the sight of little Quaker men in tiny boats meant trouble and that they began to respond accordingly and aggressively.)

Philbrick's account begins at the end, with the discovery of one of the whaleboats used by the surviving crew members of the Essex.  In February of 1821, the whaleship Dauphin was cruising the Chilean coast and came upon a makeshift boat: "[t]he boat's sides had been built up by about half a foot.  Two makeshift masts had been rigged, transforming the rowing vessel into a rudimentary schooner" (xii).

What they found in the boat was the stuff of nightmares:
First they saw bones--human bones--littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast.  Then they saw the two men.  They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood.  They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. (xii)
One of the men was George Pollard, the captain of the Essex.  The other was Charles Ramsdell, a shipmate.  About a month previously, Owen Chase (the first mate) and two other shipmates had been found, alive, but starving and severely dehydrated, in another one of the Essex's whaleboats.  Three other members of the crew were stranded on Henderson Island, a coral outcrop in the South Pacific.

In total, eight crew members survived.  Several of them committed cannibalism in order to do so.

Philbrick's account is fascinating, not simply as a story of survival, but for its attention to the details of whaling life and the role that whaling played in the history of Nantucket.  In many ways, the crew members of the Essex were not simply victims of circumstance.  As Philbrick observes, their reaction to the disaster was constantly shaped by their heritage, their community, and their spirituality--and by the way that all three of those factors intertwined.

When the Essex sank, the crew was actually not all that far (relatively speaking) from the Polynesian Islands.  If they had headed west, they probably could have reached them before their supplies of food and water ran out.

They decided to head east, however, and attempt to reach the coast of South America.  In making this (disastrous) decision, they were influenced by rumors circulating among whalemen that the islands in the South Pacific were home to tribes of cannibals. 

If you're thinking, well, so, it's a bit farther to South America, so what?, you should bear in mind that the winds in that region are called the "Southeast Trade Winds" for a reason.  They blow from the southeast.

And the currents there flow in a westerly direction.

In short, they opted to sail against the current AND against the wind.  Not only did this add thousands of unnecessary miles to their voyage, it meant that they spent a great deal of time sailing southward, parallel to the coast of South America, while their supplies of food and water steadily dwindled. 

All to avoid those (non-existent) cannibals on the Polynesian Islands.

Philbrick examines the inherent irony in the fact that, while terrified of cannibalistic "natives," American whalemen nevertheless understood that acts of cannibalism on their own part, while not generally acceptable, of course, were often required in survival situations.  The story of the Essex is not unique in the history of American whaling.

Philbrick attempts to understand what happened to the crew members both psychologically and physiologically as they slowly starved and became increasingly dehydrated.  Having established the terms of the elaborate social, political and spiritual networks that made up the 19th-century community of Nantucket whalemen, Philbrick's account reveals just how fragile such moral communities really are.

Philbrick cites the observations of a University of Minnesota experiment on human starvation supervised by Ancel Keys during World War II: "Many of the so-called American characteristics ... abounding energy, generosity, optimism--become intelligible as the expected behavior response of a well-fed people" (159).

As Philbrick points out, the whalemen of the shipwrecked Essex quickly found themselves in what anthropologists would call a "feral community."  Normal rules do not apply.

Philbrick also examines the role that effective leadership plays in survival situations.  While Ernest Shackleton's miraculous accomplishment is often held up as an example, Philbrick notes that Shackleton's achievement is in many ways atypical of survival situations.

When basic survival depends upon a perfect storm of human community, leadership, psychology, physiology, and circumstance, the odds are very much stacked against us.

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