In 1819, the 238-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage to hunt whales. Fifteen months later the Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. Fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, the 20-man crew set out in three small boats for South America, almost 3,000 miles away. Three months later, only eight were left alive. This book shares a fantastic saga of survival and adventure, steeped in the lore of the whaling tradition, with deep resonance in literature and American history, and in the life of the Nantucket community. - Back cover.
The Essex was sunk after an attack by a huge sperm whale in the mid Pacific ocean in 1820. One of the survivors: Owen Chase the first mate, recorded his story in a "Narrative of the most extraordinary and distressing shipwreck of the whaleship Essex". This was read by Melville some twenty years later and he wrote in his copy that Owen Chase's account had probably been ghost written. Philbrick set himself the task of writing the true story. He had Owen Chase's account along with fragments from other survivors, however it was the discovery of Thomas Nickerson's (cabin boy on the Essex) account that provided the opportunity to paint a fuller picture. Nickerson had been 14 years old when he served on the Essex and he did not write his account of the tragedy until he was 71. His notebook was lost and only reappeared when published in a limited edition by the Nantucket Historical Association in 1984. Not surprisingly Nickerson's account differed in some respects from Chase's, who had been keen to talk up his role in the affair. Philbrick has used all this new material to produce a well rounded and exciting narrative that propelled its way into the bestseller lists.
Philbrick starts by centering his story on the Island of Nantucket. In 1819 when the Essex set sail for the whaling grounds the island was experiencing boom times. Whale oil was fetching very high prices and some Nantucketers were getting very rich. Philbrick paints a convincing picture of the Quaker dominated community that owned the majority of whale boats. They were a tight knit group of ruthless business people that looked after its own. People from outside the community were treated with suspicion. By 1819 stocks of sperm whales had been nearly hunted to extinction in the Atlantic and so the whaleships had to go round the dangerous Cape Horn to hunt their prey in the mid Pacific. The Essex was quite an old boat, but had been refurbished, however its old timbers were showing signs of wear. The crew were a mixture of Nantucketers, Cape Codders and blacks from mainland America. It was captain Pollards first command and he had the hard ambitious but able Owen Chase as first mate. they did not always see eye to eye. The Essex rounded the horn at the start of the new year and was behind schedule in filling its vats with the whale oil. Pollard decided to venture into the barely charted mid Pacific in his search for whales. All the ingredients were in place for the Essex to get into difficulties; an old boat, an inexperienced captain pushing his resources to the limit, a tired crew and difficulties with the command structure. It was no surprise that a tragedy occurred, but it was a surprise in how it occured. A malevolent and very large bull whale attacked the whaleship. It took the crew by surprise and stunned them into inaction as the whale rammed the boat on two separate occasions. As the Essex sunk the crew took to the three whaleboats.
The sinking of the Essex comes at the halfway point in Philbrick's narrative. The second part is a harrowing tale of attempts to survive against the odds. The whale boats were nearly three thousand miles from the mainland, with only very limited supplies of food (ships biscuit) and water. They battled starvation dehydration and resorted to cannibalism as crew members died. This part of the narrative is a real page turner as Philbrick captures the feeling of desperation as the men battle to stay alive. For the few survivors it was a heroic ordeal and Philbrick goes on to relate their deprivations after their rescue and return to Nantucket. His story does not end there as he sketches in their lives after their return, most of them went back to sea, there was nothing else to do.
Owen Chase's narrative did not fare well. The Nantucketers did not want to hear stories of malevolent whales and cannibalism, they were still in business. Chase went back to sea as a first mate, but not on a ship out of Nantucket. He did get to captain a whaleship later in his career and Herman Melville was convinced he saw him while working on another whaler, however he was mistaken. Melville did get to meet captain Pollard when he visited Nantucket for the first time the year after the publication of Moby Dick. By this time Pollard was working as a night watchman and Melville said of him "To the islanders he was a nobody - to me the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming even humble, that I ever encountered." Philbrick is always conscious of links with Melville's classic Moby Dick and pays due hommage to that "unconventional and challenging novel."
Philbrick's book appears to be very well researched; there are over 40 pages of notes an extensive select bibliography and a decent index. He provides some details of much related research, such as scientific research into extreme starvation and dehydration, survival psychology and the effects of cannibalism. Some of this information does intrude a little into the narrative and I would have preferred it to remain as notes. This is just a minor quibble. Philbrick's knowledge of Nantucket helps him to provide a lively picture of the community and his descriptions of life aboard a whaleship when processing the oil is necessarily gruesome. The book also raises some pertinent questions, for example why did the three whaleboats not seek landfall on one of the Pacific islands and more importantly why were all the survivors men from Nantucket. This book would make excellent background reading for those readers wanting to tackle Moby Dick.
This is a fascinating account not only of their experiences (the author quotes frequently from two of the survivors' written accounts as well as from Melville's writing's of his time speaking with another survivor), but also of 19th century attitudes, the strong whaling culture thriving on Nantucket, Mass. at that time, leadership attitudes and the sorts of factors that lead to whether one might survive such an ordeal. While I never expected to find the details of shipbuilding, sperm whale butchering, or the ways in which Quakerism lends itself to increasing productivity in a recession, I couldn't put this down.
A highly engrossing, compelling story of survival, I recommend this to pretty much anyone!
As an aside: this story brought to mind another true story of survival at sea - In Harm's Way: the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the extraordinary story of its survivors by Doug Stanton, in which 900 sailors went into the water after a torpedo attack that went unnoticed for days. The men died slowly from exposure, despair, thirst, and, oh yeah, sharks - lots and lots of sharks. Only 317 men survived, and Stanton includes quotes from many of the survivors in his account.
For another true story of the dangers of the ocean, check out The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. Junger tells the tragic story of the Andrea Gail, a 70-foot fishing vessel caught in a terrible storm off of Nova Scotia in October of 1991, and its 6-man crew as if it were fiction, making the facts that much more devastating.
Interested in people driven to cannibalism? Try the intense classic Alive, by Piers Paul Read, a book you will want to read in one sitting, eyes wide and knuckles white the entire time, as you join a soccer team stranded in the Andes, slowly realizing they must eat their dead family and friends in order to survive. For another cold weather story (yet another reason not to move someplace snowy!), check out one of the many accounts of the infamous Donner Party.
For those interested in the science behind survival (and to guess at your own chances), take a look at Deep Survival: who lives, who dies, and why by Laurence Gonzales. Another fascinating read, Gonzales looks at a several survivors' tales and the biological and psychological factors that aid survival. What still stands out for me from this book is the story of another lost at sea survivor telling of how one of her shipmates went over the side of their boat in a fit of delirium and how she and the other survivor could clearly hear his cries as he was attacked by sharks. One I haven't read, but should probably own (as I live in fear of the very real possibility that I will faint to death in any catastrophe) is Ben Sherwood's The Survivors Club: the secrets and science that could save your life.
Finally, if you're really only into fiction: Yann Martel's beautiful and intense Life of Pi tells of an Indian teen lost at sea, sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Or, for a more mature protagonist in an extreme situation, Impatient with Desire, by Gabrielle Burton, is a moving fictional account of he Donner Party disaster, told from the point of view of one of the mothers trapped with the rest of the party. Tamsen Donner's frustration, desperation and fear is palpable and while this is a pretty devastating read, it's also beautifully written and emotionally rich.
If the whalemen like the ones in this book had had their way, I’d have never had this experience at all. None of us would and we would have no understanding of these amazing creatures. The sheer bloodthirstiness was appalling and yes, I had to stop reading once because the savagery was too much. I also skimmed a good many parts about killing, butchery and waste. Humans never learn anything. We continue to push nature into a corner, decimating and exterminating things for our pleasure or convenience. Just this weekend I was talking to a neighbor about the much lower numbers of fish he and his buddy pull out of the same lake they’ve been fishing for decades. The days of 50 fish each are over. And they practically were in the time of this book. Vast sections of ocean were fished out and caused the Nantucketers to push further and further into the Pacific. For years and years I couldn’t figure out why it was called Cape Cod. There were no cod there. Hadn’t been for centuries. And people wonder why I think humans evolved to be an extinction trigger.
But let me get to the book. It is well-written with a great sense of drama and pacing. Information is interleaved with action and it balances well. I really liked how he set up the different elements that went into the Essex’s doom. You could see how if any one thing had changed the disaster might have been averted. I also like that it seems he went to some effort not to make the whalers into villains although I did cheer inside when the whale destroyed the ship. They were absolutely dismayed that nature could have “turned on them” and their “rightful prey” be less than placid. Imagine the temerity of a beleaguered creature actually defending itself. At the end Philbrick mentions several accounts of more whales attacking ships toward the end of whaling’s heyday. Good on them.
Life on the ship was hard enough, but damn when they were forced into those little boats it was unreal. Whenever I read a story like this I can’t believe that humans can survive it. Such work. So little food. If they’d had the right number of whale boats they could have brought more supplies with them and maybe survived. If they’d known more about the islands they were near to they might not have tried to get back to the South American mainland. If Chase had harpooned the whale when he had the chance it may not have turned and struck as second, and fatal, blow. If only if only. It was well-told and obviously well-researched. There are two main accounts of the debacle now instead of one and it seems they agree with and clarify each other. Oddly Captain Pollard never wrote his story despite compulsively telling anyone who got within earshot for several years after his return to civilization.
Those squeamish to bloodshed, starvation, animal slaughter, racism and cannibalism might want to avoid this one. Philbrick doesn’t pull any punches and the descriptions are lengthy and detailed. If I ever casually say that I’m starving, I’ll think of this book and realize how very far from it I am.
I was surprised to learn that the women of Nantucket had a good deal more autonomy than their mainland counterparts, even in other whaling towns. It was entirely due to necessity, but the ladies basically ran everything and kept up social and political alliances. No one seems to have been bothered by it in the least given that the men spent hardly any time there at all. They landed, impregnated women and left again. Of course if the women displeased them they were as high-handed and assholish as any man can be, but while they were gone the women had a taste of what it’s like to be fully human not just something else to be exploited by men.
Relegated to whale boats, not suited for long trips on the open ocean, and hampered by trade winds which prevented steering a direct course for South America, the survivors spent three months in their whale boats, suffering through unimaginable bouts with starvation, dehydration, weather and ultimately cannibalism.
This work paints a fascinating picture of the people and the culture of Nantucket and the whaling community, the Essex in particular. It is educational and instructive in both the customs of the era and the trade, as well as the psychology involved in disaster response and leadership. I have read numerous accounts of extreme exploration and the privations associated therewith and this treatment is very good in that genre. There are two very good maps and several photos and illustrations which assist the reader in following the narrative.
The book is very short, at 230 pages with additional notes and reference material. My only quibble is that the endnotes are not associated with the primary text. A reader will finish the entire book, before even discovering that there are, in fact, notes associated with the text. Being able to read the notes in conjunction with the text would have been instructive.
Three months later two of the saviors were picked up by another Nantucket whaleship the Dauphin off the West Coast of South America. The two men, sunburned and covered with sores were crouching in a twenty-five foot whaleboat rigged with a makeshift sale. Oddly enough, they resisted rescue at first. They feared the crew of the Dauphin might deprive them of their most precious possessions, the gnawed bones of their shipmates from which they were sucking the marrow.
Drawing on the accounts of the survivors, modern cetology, oceanography, psychology, physiology, navigation, and the history of Nantucket Philbrick has written an extremely readably and fascinating story of survival.
The book is a bit dry at the beginning and is definitely not one to read while eating lunch or any other meal as the details of how the whales were slaughtered as well as the later details of what these men suffered and their eventual cannibalism are tough to take. Clearly, Philbrick has done his research and done it well. I found this to be a chilling but gripping story that, unfortunately, happens to be true.
At about 250 pages, the pace of the book doesn't let up, and it really gives you the feeling of being on the boats with these crewmembers, as they try to survive. The book doesn't shy away from discussing the more difficult aspect of this situation, such as the racism of the crew, and of course, the cannibalistic nature of what happens as time goes on.
Overall, a very good read. Enjoy it!
This is the story of the Whaleship Essex from nearly the dawn of American History. Just a handful of decades after the American Revolution, the Whaleship Essex left Nantucket Island, just south of Boston, on what could be a two year or more voyage searching for whales and the precious oil their bodies contain. The voyage would become the stuff of legend, and nightmares, and a tale that would one day inspire Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. After rounding Cape Horn in south America and heading west from the Galapagos islands, a massive sperm whale attacked the Essex, sinking it while all but two crew members were out in smaller whaling boats hunting whales. The Essex sank within minutes, leaving the crew thousands of miles from land with nothing but three small boats and very few provisions.
Author Nathaniel Philbrook has accessed the few surviving first-hand accounts, as well as numerous other documents from the era, to tell a riveting story not only of what happened at sea but of life on the close-knit island of Nantucket. Philbrook also puts into perspective why whaling was so important in the era, and how quickly things changed in the decades following the Essex's demise.
The cover of the book says that this book won the National Book Award, and it was well-deserved. This is most definitely a non-fiction book that I'll add to my roster when doing book talks to high school students (at least those where I can mention non-fiction titles). Highly recommended
I listened to the audio version and found it to be of the first rate - compelling, easy to listen to for hours at end, easy to follow. The book translates very well to audio and the narrator is one of the best.
Synopsis: The Whaleship Essex, out on one of its whaling journeys, is rammed by a whale. The ship is pretty much totaled and the men have to take to the whaleboats. The captain of the ship seems to have been pretty ineffectual as a leader; he deferred to the decisions made by his First Mate Owen Chase. Had the ship gone west from where they were,they would have made it safely to the Marquesas; however, at the time, it was widely believed that the Marquesas harbored cannibals & the first mate opted for the open seas & South America instead (actually, Easter Island, but well, stuff happens). So they all set out in their boats, starvation and tragedy ensue. I will not say what happens, in case someone wants to read this book, but it ain't pretty, folks.
What I liked about this book was that it was drawn not only from Owen Chase's account, but an account found much later from another surviving crew member. Plus, it is a history that reads like a novel. You won't get bored or bogged down in so much detail that you are detracted from the main story here. There are several examples given of other ships that suffered much the same fate over time, plus, I always like the "whatever happened to..." feature of an historical treatment. However, I thought that we could have done without the excruciating details of a who's who of Nantucket...that seemed out of place and just plain silly.
If you're put off by squeamish details, don't read this book. Otherwise, it is an incredibly interesting story...one that if not botched by Hollywood might make a really fine film.