Whaling Quakers and salty ambitions

In 1820 the Nantucket whaler Essex ventured into the central Pacific, waters unfamiliar to captain and crew, and was rushed by…

In 1820 the Nantucket whaler Essex ventured into the central Pacific, waters unfamiliar to captain and crew, and was rushed by a bull sperm whale that wrecked the ship and sent it to the bottom. Two of the survivors of the subsequent harrowing and dreadful voyage in open boats wrote accounts of the events. The most famous is that of the first mate, Owen Chase, Narrative of the WhaleShip Essex published in 1821, and a major source for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

The second account, written in 1876, many years after the event, was unknown until quite recently. A notebook lay undiscovered in a New York attic until 1960, nor was its connection to one of the most famous sea accidents recognised even then. Twenty more years passed before the manuscript came into the hands of Edouard Stackpole, a historian of Nantucket whaling. He identified the notebook's author, Thomas Nickerson, as the cabin boy of the Essex, 14 years old at the time the ship went down. Nickerson's account of the ship's destruction and the cannibal voyage differed from Chase's history. The notebook was published in 1984 by the Nantucket Historical Association, and set Nathaniel Philbrick, a director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies on Nantucket, a sailor, and the author of books on sailing, into a deep examination of the men who lost their ship to a whale and of the place they came from - Nantucket - which in no small way determined what happened, who lived and who died.

Melville's Moby-Dick is a great work of literature, but the accounts of Chase and Nickerson and 10,000 other harrowing tales of the cruel sea, fall into the sea adventure genre of man-against-nature, those cautionary, true tales of desperate accidents afloat, usually against such implacable forces as storm, tsunami, madness, pirates, mutiny, unknown waters, hostile natives, loss of food and water, and so forth. The author and the reader stand outside such adventures, which are nearly always presented as random accident or the bad luck of the draw.

In the Heart of the Sea is something else again, a mix of holy seawater, hot blood and searching analysis. Philbrick has elevated the adventure of the Essex to a rich and disturbing study of the secret root-tangles of how and why things happened as they did, holding up what we know now of human and animal behavior against the 1820 circumstances and actions.


Philbrick uses the Thomas Nickerson journal to augment, rebut and fill out Owen Chase's account; but he also refers to recent studies in a dozen fields - whale and human behaviour and anatomy, ecological factors, the nature of leadership, human behaviour in a feral community, biological anthropology, oceanography, navigation techniques, nutrition, religion, sexual practices. The approach is unusual and fresh, the book intelligent, probing, scholarly, gripping and satisfying. It sets a new mark for maritime literature, away from the traditional adventure pattern. And for all his erudite knowledge applied to the complexities of human behaviours, Philbrick does not neglect to note the random twists of fate that make or ruin a life.

Much of the literary excellence of In the Heart lies in its fine and introspective passages, such as Philbrick's sympathetic discussion of Captain Pollard's character, dashed hopes and fate through the multiple meanings of the word "pollard". Philbrick relishes words and language, and skilfully uses them to carry the reader into cubbyholes of darker causes and effects. In the central position of Philbrick's investigation are Captain George Pollard and Owen Chase, his first mate. Pollard was agreeable, attentive and suited to co-operative negotiation; Owen Chase was what Nantucketers called a "fishy" man, decisive, quick-minded, with an instinct for survival and whale behaviour. Philbrick finds him self-serving as well. In the natural order of things their roles should have been reversed, for the authoritarian Chase (good name for a whaler) had the leadership qualities of a captain, and the social Pollard the best buffer qualities of a mate who stood between sailors and captain. Those mismatched personalities and roles contributed, says Philbrick, to a "fatal error " of decision.

The bull whale that attacked the Essex is usually portrayed as possessed by a brooding anger against men, vengeful and Old Testament in his wrath. Contemporary studies of whale communication, clicks and curious sounds, writes Philbrick, may give a clue to why the whale attacked the Essex. Bull whales are thought to warn away competing males with the clicking sounds called "clangs". On the fateful morning the ship's three whaleboats were on the kill. Owen Chase's battered boat took a hit from a whale that put a hole in its frail side. Furious, he rowed back to the Essex, hauled the boat aboard, and began to nail a stout piece of canvas over the hole. Philbrick speculates that the sound of Chase's hammering travelled down through the ship's hull and was interpreted by the whale as a sexual challenge, to be met with attack. The Essex sank, leaving 20 men adrift in three open whaleboats in mid-Pacific. The coast of South America lay thousands of miles distant, a journey against the trade winds. The Marquesas were much closer but had the reputation, wildly exaggerated, of being populated by eager cannibals. (The irony was that the men in the whaleboats became cannibals themselves, one lot to die falling by chance on Pollard's own nephew.) Captain Pollard wanted to try for the Society Islands, perhaps safer than the Marquesas. But Owen Chase and Second Mate Matthew Joy argued for a return to Peru or Chile. In the little notebook, Nickerson described the point of no return.

"Not wishing to oppose where there was two against one," Nickerson remembered, "the captain reluctantly yielded to their arguments." When writing of this "fatal error" later, the Essex's cabin boy asked, "How many warm hearts have ceased to beat in consequence of it?"

Above all, In the Heart of the Sea is a book about the power of autonomy, money and place, the place being Nantucket, that peculiar island of whaling Quakers. In its day Nantucket was haughty, closed, isolate, powerful, tribal. The island's whalers and their salty ambitions, their fishy knowledge, their hard exclusiveness, painted its men in heroic stance. Nantucketers stuck to one another (". . . ties of kinship and religion stitching them together . . ."), and Philbrick points out that after thousands of miles of screaming gales, foundering boats, starvation, thirst, death, murder, and cannibalism, "Only Nantucketers . . . emerged from Pollard's and Chase's whaleboats alive."

The Nantucket of 1820 in Philbrick's pages comes across as a strange and somewhat sinister place, characterised by familiarity with death, clannishness, class divisions, stored anger, sharp business practices, and oppression. The sea-girt whaling culture selected out particular, innate human qualities and fostered them. It is possible to see in Philbrick's delineation of Nantucket ways an emerging coalescence of capitalist ethos, free will and expansionist exploitation increasingly indifferent to the idea of alliance with the natural world.

Early on, In the Heart of the Sea gives the reader a dark little Nantucket verse that sticks in the mind long after the book is closed:

Death to the living,

Long life to the killers,

Success to sailors' wives

And greasy luck to whalers.

Annie Proulx lives and writes in Wyoming. She is the author of five works of fiction including The Shipping News. Her latest book is Close Range Wyoming Stories.