The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick In the Heart of the Sea HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete. In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

The crew of the whaleship Essex sailed out of Nantucket Island in August 1819 unprepared for much of what was to befall it in the following fifteen months. First was a ‘knockdown’, scant days after leaving port, when the ship almost capsized; then a dearth of whales on its journey down to Cape Horn. There was some change of fortune as the Essex sailed up the Pacific coast of South America, but when the crew set off for what they hoped were a glut of cetaceans west along the equator, they were astonished to be attacked by a bull sperm whale as long as the ship itself, which after ramming it twice caused such irreparable damage that they were forced to abandon it. Possibly fooled by the regular sound of hammering on the Essex into thinking it represented the vocal ‘clicks’ of a rival bull, the whale’s actions were the first recorded such onslaught on a ship of this size (the book details a handful of others) and which led directly to the most famous incident in Moby-Dick. The crew had only three serviceable whaleboats to seek landfall, and the story of the epic journey to reach the coast of Chile, with its distressing vicissitudes and subsequent cannibalism, takes up a little over half of the remaining narrative, events which Melville chose to omit in his fictionalised account of the whaleship Pequod.

Philbrick’s study is extraordinarily detailed without sacrificing readability or scholarly truth. He gives a clear impression of Nantucket society and economy so that we understand the milieu from which the crew of twenty-one officers, sailors and green hands were drawn. With understated but no less descriptive prose, aided by charts and appropriate illustrations, he conveys the monumental obstacles that the men had to overcome, both physically and psychologically, and backs up any speculation where known facts are absent with reference to subsequent scientific research and experiments. With around forty pages of bibliographical notes (themselves highly readable in their own right) he justifies his statements, his surmises and his reconstructions of events, so that we have faith that what he proposes is as close as we can get nearly two centuries after the event.

On a personal level I found this account highly relevant to some of my own life experiences, thereby increasing my inclination to enjoy it. Philbrick describes the strange relationship between hunters and the hunted, in that bull sperm whales spent months, even years, away from the females and calves after mating with the cows, in much the same way that the Nantucket whalemen spent two or more years away from their partners and families. Certainly ‘absent father’ syndrome is one I was familiar with when my own father was a merchant seaman on the sea routes out of Hong Kong in the fifties and sixties, and my own vague recollections of voyages to Japan, the Philippines and Thailand, while infinitely less traumatic than the Essex crew (though I did experience a typhoon at sea), made me appreciate the sheer fortitude of sailors who braved the harsh elements of the eastern Pacific in relatively flimsy and unmotorised sailing ships.

Above all this is a story of individuals engaged in a job like no other but which they were mostly born into and so took for granted. I wanted to know what happened to the main characters, First Mate Owen Chase, cabin boy Thomas Nickerson and Captain George Pollard; I felt for the off-islanders and the African Americans who suffered even more than the surviving Nantucketers but who appeared to be extras in a play that mostly sidelined them; I also despaired for the families left behind with little or no news before the completion of a voyage or, even worse, rumours compounded by rumours. Philbrick’s narrative puts the reader in the midst of the action, a bystander who is both wide-eyed voyeur and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God witness to the whole disaster; it’s not a very comfortable position to have been in, but I’m glad I was there.

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7 thoughts on “The reader in the midst of the action

  1. Reblogged this on calmgrove and commented:

    The inspiration for Moby-Dick, the sinking of the whaleship Essex on 20th November 1820 is examined in this excellent study, apparently due for release in 2013 as a feature film directed by Ron Howard.

    1. It is quite remarkable, Col — I can see how film-maker Ron Howard thought it would make a good action film, though I hope he does it justice.

      It would be interesting to compare it with the 1956 film of Moby Dick. I’m particularly keen as that Gregory Peck film, as well as being shot in exotic locations such as the Canary Islands, Ireland, Nantucket and New Bedford in Massachusetts and the Atlantic, several scenes featured Fishguard in Wales, just up the road from us.

  2. Super review, of an enthralling, if occasionally very distressing book. I read it quite a while ago now, in the winter of 2003/04 I think, when I was traveling (and spending a lot of time in the sea, as it happens), and remember being utterly gripped. As you point out, the detailed study of the traditional and close-knit Nantucket society (and the correspondingly higher survival rates of crew from that background) add a layer of fascination and (possibly sinister) “intrigue”. Either way, I’d happily second your recommendation. Superb book, best kind of historical writing, taking an isolated incident and using it as a sort of lens into a larger world — detailed, gripping, and accurate.

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