In the Heart of the Sea – By Nathaniel Philbrick

Posted by Andrew: 

How small and hopeless one would feel, to be wrecked by an 80 foot whale and cast adrift in the Pacific. Short of looking back at Earth from space, I can’t imagine a more vivid impression of humankind’s insignificance in the face of nature and the universe.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea tells of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged sperm whale in November 1820. This unique event sets up one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time; one that would later inspire Melville’s Moby Dick.

The journey began like any other whaling trip from the whaling community of Nantucket Island (which looks uncannily like a sperm whale). Philbrick sets the scene masterfully, giving us a comprehensive picture of the community and the intricacies of the practice and culture of whaling. By the time the Essex is attacked the reader knows each crew member and is invested in them. His novel-like depth of characterisation is interwoven with an authoritative historical account, creating a level of immersion I’ve rarely found in non-fiction. The story is made even more affecting by extracts taken from the written accounts of both the first mate and the cabin boy.

The otherworldliness of the Nantucket whaling community, the deliberate and uncharacteristic attack by an enormous whale, and the remarkable fight for survival that followed, all contribute to a broad canvas of both intimate personality and epic scale. It is a tale of human tragedy, yet somehow one closes the book moved by our species’ ability to endure and our defiance in the face of terrible misfortune.

The twenty sailors whom survived the wreck took to three small boats and made for South America. Those that survived the subsequent 90-day tribulation resorted to cannibalising those who died. They even cast lots to decide who would be killed and eaten. The captain’s nephew resigned himself to his fate. “I like it as well as any other,” he is recorded as saying. When one of the boats was eventually discovered by a whaler, they looked down to see two skeletal men, “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”

The moral disdain one feels towards whaling is soon dwarfed by a sense of awe at what they faced; their utter desperation, the need for leadership and teamwork, and the necessity that drove them to eat their friends. Like Pip, the sailor from Moby Dick made mad by treading water in a boundless sea, those whom survived the 90 days that followed the wreck were surely “carried down alive to the wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro.”



Read this Book…
On dry land.


This book is a… Grizzly Reads/Epic Reads/Travels in Time


Genre: Historical non-fiction
Paperback ISBN: 9780006531203
ebook ISBN: 9780007381814


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