Thursday, January 26, 2012

A true, terrible story

In 1821, off the west coast of Chile, a ship's lookout spotted a drifting whaleboat, rigged with mast and sail - obviously the relic of a shipwreck. The boat was full of human bones, along with two living men, emaciated, incapable of speech, and apparently mad. To their horror, rescuers saw the men greedily clutch at the remains of their mates - the food that had sustained them upon their voyage.

The whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in 1819 and came to grief about as far from land as it is possible to be, in the middle of the Pacific. The ship was destroyed by a large and apparently vengeful sperm whale. Of the twenty men who escaped the wreck of the Essex, only eight survived, scattered across the Pacific - three in one boat, two in another, and three on a deserted island. The survivors suffered extremes of hunger, thirst, exposure, and loneliness; some of them resorted to cannibalism to survive.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick uses this true incident to tell the fascinating story of Nantucket whaling - how the ships plied their trade, seeking sperm whales thousands of miles from home, killing and butchering them at sea. To a modern reader, the details of 19th century whaling are appalling. Just as bad is the arrogant, destructive behavior of the whale crews when they reach such (to us) precious natural wonders as the Galapagos Islands.

But these particular whalers certainly paid for it. Philbrick describes the inconceivable ordeal the men endured after the destruction of their ship. It is not a story of adventure and heroism, like (for instance) Shackleton's voyage in the Endurance. The consequences of the mistakes, ignorance, and weakness of the officers of the Essex are all too plain. Philbrick examines these, and shines light on some of the troubling aspects of the story.

For instance, is it significant that the first four men to be devoured by their crewmates were all African Americans? Why were the three men stranded on the deserted island African Americans? (Were they wiser than their fellows?) The answers are not straightforward; the decisions facing these men were surely among the most agonizing imaginable.

The tale of the Essex was renowned throughout the world and inspired the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In the Heart of the Sea is not a happy tale; but it's a well-paced, intense, and satisfying one.

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