I think Nathaniel Philbrick puts it best in his epilogue when he says, “The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told.”
The story of the Essex and its 20 member crew is the subject of Philbrick’s book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Setting the scene of culture of Nantucket, the whaling industry, and the psychology and physiology of starvation, dehydration and more, this book graphically details the harrowing plight of the seamen who were cast out in the middle of the Pacific ocean for more than 90 days. It is the story that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is based on. And although it is based on fact, it is discomforting at times.
It is hard for me to imagine what it’s like to be lost, let alone disconnected to our modern world. It is hard for me to even imagine being put in those circumstances. I have read The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (which had too much technical jargon and not enough about the culture of Gloucester, Massachusetts) and Endurace: Shackleton’s Incredible Adventure about Ernest Shackleton’s voyage to Antarctica describing what it is like to be stranded at the end of the world. I am interested in exploration and sailing but it is the fact that the members of the Essex were so pushed to the brink, sucking the marrow from their former colleagues bones, that caused me to have nightmares.
I cringed when they cut open the tortoises and drank their blood. I took a moment when the first crew member (aside from Matthew Joy died) and they decided to eat him. I cried out when Owen Coffin drew his lot. The worst part for me was not that they were forced into these circumstances, but that they could have suffered less. They could have sailed west to the islands of Asia with the invisible threat of encountering cannibal tribes. Instead, they sailed southeast to Chile and were forced into cannibalism. A terrible irony.
All in all, what I enjoyed about this book were the historical and scientific facts that Philbrick seamlessly incorporated into the amazing story. I loved learning about the culture of Nantucket, the Quakerism, the dependence upon whaling, and the camaraderie.