In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Penguin 2000) is an epic adventure of men battling nature to stay alive. The Essex disaster was the real-life inspiration for Herman Melville’s immortal classic, Moby Dick. The survivors of the Essex–a Nantucket whaling vessel that sank after being intentionally rammed by a sperm whale in 1820—fought thirst and starvation as they meandered thousands of miles across an unforgiving Pacific Ocean. Every Essex survivor displayed remarkable courage, fortitude and ingenuity. All could be labeled as heroes even if some of them of them were forced to resort to that most horrifying of human taboos—cannibalism! But what is most shocking about this story is who got eaten and why, how institutional racism and white privilege doomed some while saving others.
An isle of lonely wives and orphaned children, Nantucket in 1820 was the whaling capital of the world–a prosperous Quaker community of 7,000 that provided so much of the whale oil that illuminated the world. Yet other than the men who sailed on these dangerous two-year voyages, few if any Nantucketers had ever actually seen a whale. Because of overharvest, the whalers were driven ever further to sea in their commercial quest. Like so many disasters past and present, the Essex tragedy is a lesson in environmentalism—the story’s greatest hero perhaps, the vengeful sperm whale itself!
Plot Spoiler Alert!!!!
The Essex seamen slaughtered their first whales several thousand miles into their journey on the underside of the world near the Falkland Islands. The sperm whale is the largest predator to ever roam the planet. These squid-devouring beasts were harpooned at perilous range from the twenty-five-foot whaleboats that would soon become the lifeboats in this narrative. After the harpoon was sunk into the leviathan’s thick flesh, the whalers would be dragged for miles at incredible speeds on what was known as a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” Once exhausted and hauled near the boat, the whale was brutally lanced until it became a “giant black corpse floating fin-up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.” Then it was towed back to the main ship where its blubber could be stripped from its body and cooked into oil—a laborious and noxious process that lasted several days.
After rounding the Horn and making their way north up the South American coast to Ecuador, the Essex crew encountered a jungle village that seemed, after so many months at sea, like a veritable Garden of Eden. Three hundred Spaniards and Indians along with a British crew of whalers afflicted with scurvy were living together in thatched-roof bamboo huts. While there, the crew of the Essex feasted on coconuts, pineapples, limes, oranges, figs and plantains that grew in such profusion they were allowed to rot on the ground. The temptation of perpetual comfort proved too much for one sailor, an African-American named Henry Dewitt, who deserted. His decision would soon prove incredibly fortuitous. Despite being a free-man, he would be listed on the ship’s log as a “runaway.”
From there the Essex traveled 600 miles westward to the Galapagos Islands to hunt tortoises—a succulent and much-needed source of protein on their long voyage. These 80-pound animals were captured alive and could remain so for up to a year without
further nourishment or water aboard the ship. After harvesting 280 of these creatures, an incident of incredible capriciousness and waste occurred. A white sailor by the name of Thomas Chappel lit a brushfire as a prank. The blaze quickly spread out of control decimating the island of life and transforming it into a blackened wasteland. Given the wrath nature would soon inflict on these sailors and ever the unrepentant English major, I can’t help but be reminded of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which a ship’s sailors find themselves doomed after an albatross is shot for no practical reason. “Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink” was soon to be a problem confronted by the Essex crew.
On November 20th the Essex had sailed more than 1,500 nautical miles west of the Galapagos near the dead center of the Pacific Ocean—at 64 million square-miles, what Melville referred to as the “tide-beating heart of the earth.” The whale–an eighty-ton bull, some eighty-five feet in length—acted strangely. The first mate, Owen Chase, was hammering aboard the ship in a hurried attempt to repair a hole in the side of his whaleboat that had just been damaged in the pursuit of another whale. The racket he created certainly reverberated through the ship’s massive hull into the ocean. Whether the sperm whale mistook the Essex for another whale or whether he was intelligently seeking revenge for the carnage inflicted upon his loved ones who can say? It is nearly impossible to see into the mind of another human being let alone a beast of God with the largest brain of any creature alive.
The whale rammed the Essex twice, causing her to quickly take on a fatal amount of water. This unthinkable attack was the first in the annals of Nantucket whale hunting. Showing remarkable foresight in a crisis, the black steward, William Bond, rescued the ship’s navigational equipment—what Chase would later call in his memoir, “the probable instruments of our salvation.”
Twenty men bid farewell to their home of fifteen months and divided themselves into three whaleboats that they equipped with masts and filled with as much food and water as they could carry—each boat receiving 200 pounds of hardtack (a rock-like bread made only of flour and water), 65 gallons of water and two Galapagos tortoises. To make these meager rations last two months, the probable time it would take for them to be rescued, they would have to subsist on six ounces of hardtack and half a pint of water a day.
Ailing from what may have been tuberculosis before the Essex sank, Mathew Joy—the ship’s white second mate–was the first of the sailors to perish on January 10th. He was buried at sea. Richard Peterson, an African American who had provided spiritual comfort by leading the men in prayer aboard his whaleship, was the second to die and he too was cast overboard. Lawson Thomas, a black sailor, died on January 20th. After some discussion, the captain and his men yielded to their appetites and their instinct to live. Lawson Thomas was butchered and eaten by his shipmates.
Three more black sailors went on to die and were consumed within the month. On February 16th the grim decision was made to cast lots. Owen Coffin, an eighteen-year-old first cousin of the ship’s captain, was shot and devoured.
By the time of their rescue, the survivors were reduced to a feral delirium as they gnawed the bones of their comrades. No one in this story was murdered and the book makes clear that rations were shared equally after the disaster although we have only the word of the white survivors to validate this. Of the Essex’s twenty-man crew, eight survived. All were white. Five of the six blacks who died were eaten while only three whites were consumed. So why the poor outcomes for African American men in this harrowing true-story?
The answer, simply, is that the blacks were fed an inferior portion and quality of food while aboard the ship prior to the whale’s attack. They were already malnourished and so they were the first to die. A hierarchy existed on the ship with white Nantucketers at the top, off-island whites in the middle and blacks at the bottom. At a proper table with plates and silverware, the officers in the cabin consumed plenty of vegetables and most of the fresh meat. Meanwhile in the steerage and forecastle of the ship, the men sat on their sea chests around a wooden tub of salted meat known as a kid. At one point in the voyage the sailors protested their paltry food shares by placing the kid untouched on the quarterdeck for the captain to see. Fortunately for the crew, this act of impertinence resulted in a mere tongue-lashing by an enraged Captain Pollard. It should be noted, however, that living conditions aboard the whaling ship were horrid for everyone, owing in no small measure to the parsimonious nature of its Quaker owners.
It almost goes without saying that no black man at the time would have been allowed to command a ship. Pollard went on to captain other vessels after his recuperation, as did his first mate, Owen Chase. What would have happened if the roles had been reversed and the survivors black? Would they even have been helped? Would their versions of the story have been accepted? Or would they have been hung for mutiny for consuming their white shipmates to stay alive?
In our rightful desire to condemn racism we often focus on its most hateful manifestations. But in so doing we overlook the fact that systems of institutional racism are perpetuated mostly by people who are indifferent to injustice because they are, like Pollard and Chase, rationally focused on their own self-betterment. Our lives are shaped by our own decisions and hard work. Yet, it is worth understanding that we, like the desperate men of the Essex, are all greatly influenced by societal forces much larger than us—human history like the great waves of the Pacific ultimately determining our journey.