In the Heart
Of the Sea
The Tragedy of
The Whaleship Essex
(Viking)In 1819, the Whaleship Essex left Nantucket for a routine whaling voyage. A series of small accidents portended a bad-luck voyage. She was rammed by a sperm whale and sank on November 20, 1820 --- far to the east of the South American coast. Twenty men in three whaleboats were able to salvage hardtack, water, some live sea turtles (favored as fresh meat) and nautical instruments --- and try to make their way to land.
One of the whaleboats disappeared and the other two, fighting the south Pacific trade winds, sailed almost 3,000 miles before rescue. The last five crew members, famished, dehydrated, and half-mad with hunger and thirst, were saved after three months adrift.
It is a dramatic story in every way. Whales --- in those days --- were not known to attack boats. And men were not expected to survive a 3,000 mile journey against the trades in a tiny boat. Indeed, their water and food severely restricted, the crew ultimately were forced to feed on those of their fellow crew members who had starved to death. There is evidence that the travail of the Essex was transformed by Herman Melville into the novel Moby-Dick.
In the course of this narrative, you and I will learn much about Nantucket (including the strange language of the island), the Quakers who financed the whalers, the make-up of the crews, the design of the ships, the discipline expected, what it meant to try to harpoon a creature that could range in size from twenty-five to eighty-five feet --- and most noisome of all --- what had to be done to render the oil. Blubber, says the author, is nothing like fat reserves of terrestrial animals: "It is tough, almost impenetrable:"
The blubber was not only difficult to cut, even with the sharpest tools, but also remarkably heavy. A single four-foot square slab of eight-inch thick blubber weighed as much as four hundred pounds. The whalers, even two hundred years ago, were factory ships, and the gore, oil, and stink of the cooking blubber were indescribable. Only the thought that the profit was so great --- the crew was paid in shares --- made it all worthwhile.
So here we have a learned disquisition on the whale-trade, and on whaling, but, as well, on deprivation, and cannibalism. Drawing on recent studies what happens to the body when deprived of food and water for great periods, Philbrick is able to make a compelling tale of agony. Dr. W. J. McGee of the St. Louis Museum described water deprivation in a monograph in 1906:
The tongue hardens into what McGee describes as "a senseless weight, swinging on the still-soft root and striking foreignly against the teeth." Speech becomes impossible, although sufferers are known to moan and bellow. Next is the "blood sweats" phase, involving a "progressive mummification of the initially living body." The tongue swells to such proportions that it squeezes past the jaws. The eyelids crack and the eyeballs begin to weep tears of blood. The throat is so swollen that breathing becomes difficult, creating an incongruous yet terrifying sensation of drowning. Finally, as the power of the sun inexorably draws the remaining moisture from the body, there is "living death..."
§ § §
Years ago, many of us read Alive! the gory tale of a soccer crew who, after their airplane crashed in the mountains between Chile and Argentina, were forced to start cooking up the bodies of those who had perished. In the Heart of the Sea goes into greater detail. We know that the heads were thrown into the sea: the starving survivors didn't want to be reminded of what they were partaking.
We learn that the human body can produce about sixty-six pounds of meat, unless it is emaciated sailor. We also know that the bones were a delicacy, for they carry in the marrow the fat that one needs in order to survive. When the whaleboat carrying Owen Chase and Captain Pollard was sighted, the two of them had hoarded more than a few bones of their former compadres, and were reluctant to give them up even when they knew they were saved.
In cannibalism, there must always come the question of shame. The soccer players mentioned their way of survival shortly after being saved --- and then, under pressure from the church, clammed up. By contrast, Pollard and Chase --- staunch Quakers --- hid nothing, admitted that it was the only way for them to make it. The only difficulty came when Pollard chose to meet with the family of Owen Coffin. In the boat, young Coffin had suggested that, when hunger had become unbearable, that they choose lots. The boy lost. When Pollard finally visited with Coffin's family, "He bore the awful message to the mother as her son desired." The author reports,
Nancy Coffin did not take it well. The idea that the man to whom she has entrusted the care of her seventeen-year-old son was living as a consequence of her boy's death was too much for her to bear.
Philbrick has written a fascinating work, with just enough information to drag us in, a narrative spirit that compels us to keep on with it and a sense of history and pacing that makes this one of the best we have come across this year. We, of course, will always wonder about the relative tastiness of Fried Lip over Boiled Ear --- but that is our problem, not the author's.