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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

April 4, 2014

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was inspired by the tragic story of the whaleship Essex, a 19th-century Nantucket whaling vessel that was attacked by an angry sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1820. But Moby Dick ends with the sinking of the ship (Ahab’s ship was named the Pequod). The legend of the Essex really started with its sinking.

The Essex went down 2000 nautical miles west of South Africa, with the closest known islands 1200 miles away. The twenty crewmembers faced the daunting prospect of finding their way to safety in three small whaleboats, ill-suited for navigating the open ocean.


The tale of the Essex is harrowing. Eight survivors, split into three groups, lived to tell it—a story of storms, leaks, starvation, delirium and, finally cannibalism. Philbrick recounts the tale with an even hand, resisting the urge to sensationalize a story that is sensational in nature. He gives a good, interesting overview of life on Nantucket and the whaling industry in the 1800s. There is also a good amount of attention given to how the story of the Essex was received upon its return and how it affected the treatment of the survivors. Particularly unsettling was the story of George Pollard, captain of the Essex. Pollard had sworn to his aunt to take care of her son, the 17-year-old Owen Coffin, a crewmember on the boat. But when desperation set in and lots were drawn to see who would be sacrificed to be eaten, Coffin was the unlucky one. Pollard offered to take his place, but Coffin, who had joined the expedition as a rite of passage, declined the offer. Upon return, Pollard had to deliver the news to his aunt that Owen had not only perished, but that he had been killed and eaten by Pollard and his shipmates.

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Philbrick also notes that the black crewmen on board, although treated mostly as equals  in the working of the ship, were the first to be sacrificed, yet another unsettling fact in a story that is, on the whole, as unsettling as they come. Although I didn’t like this book as much as Joan Druett’s Island of the Lost, I did like it quite a bit. I’m a fan of survivor stories (Endurance up next), and certainly the legend of the Essex deserves to be in the discussion when it comes to the greatest survivor stories in history.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2014 5:00 am

    Hey fellow blogger! I really enjoyed this review of In the Heart of the Sea! I didn’t want to re-invent the wheel, so I linked to it in my own review so my readers could get a couple different perspectives on the book. I loved this book. Hopefully the movie will do it justice.
    Allison, PCTELA Executive Director @pctelanews


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