"With its huge scarred head halfway out of the water and its tail beating the ocean into a white-water wake more than forty feet across, the whale approached the ship... With a tremendous cracking and splintering of oak, the whale struck the ship just beneath the anchor... The force of the collision caused the whalemen's heads to jounce...as the ship lurched to a halt on the slablike forehead of the whale. The creature's tail continued to work up and down, pushing the 238-ton ship backward until...water surged up over the transom... No longer going backward, the Essex was now going down."
If this brings to mind that wonderful high seas adventure, MOBY DICK, there's good reason. The tragic story of the whaleship Essex and her crew is the real life event that inspired Herman Melville to write his renowned 19th century classic.
In 1820, when the Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine whale hunt, the crew of 20 men had no idea that 15 months later they would find themselves adrift in the vast Pacific at the mercy of the elements and their own human failings. Able to salvage only 3 small harpoon boats and a few meager supplies, they made the fateful choice to sail back east to South America rather than west to any of several Pacific islands. With an innate fear of cannibalism rumored to exist among native tribes, they preferred to brave the familiarity of the ocean. For the next 93 days they would come to question the wisdom of that decision as the trade winds and storms blew them farther and farther from their destination. The sad irony is that many times during their 3,000 mile ordeal of hunger, thirst and death they would have been within reach of a lifesaving island, if they had only turned west.
In 1840, a short 20 years after this legendary shipwreck, Melville, himself, was working aboard a whaling ship in the Pacific when he had a chance encounter with one of the survivor's sons. After receiving a copy of the father's narration of the disastrous voyage, Melville became so moved by the crew's life and death struggle, he wrote an epic story reflecting their perilous experience. His fictional novel contains many references to the actual account of the Essex.
Now Nathaniel Philbrick, a leading authority on Nantucket history, has researched the original narrative of the first mate Owen Chase as well as innumerable other sources, including a recently unearthed account by the ship's cabin boy, and woven together a masterful saga. He takes into account the conflicting and undoubtedly self-serving versions told by those who survived, to piece together the most accurate portrayal of this historic event. Full of more detail than some may want to know, he covers every aspect of whaling, sailing, and the grim techniques of how some of these men survived on the open seas. It's a spectacular Loel Thomas-like triple-screen adventure; but it's also the savage, gritty, heart wrenching perspective of life aboard a whaleship.
"High winds and rugged seas made every aspect of whaling doubly onerous. Instead of providing a stable platform on which to cut up blubber and boil the oil, the Essex pitched back and forth in the waves...and soon the decks were a slippery mess of oil and blood... The [fire] that melted down the whale's blubber...produced a thick pall of black smoke with an unforgettable stench. In just two months...they [killed], on average, a whale every five days, a pace that soon exhausted the crew."
Added to the discomforts aboard ship, these young sailors would be gone from home two to three years at a stretch; returning for brief visits with family that sometimes only amounted to a few weeks before shipping out again. Long days, grueling work, shortages of food, and all the perils that come from testing themselves and their ships against the ocean took a heavy toll. At times, their swashbuckling veneer would crumble over something as simple as a letter from home.
Philbrick provides a multifaceted study of Nantucket society during the height of its whaling industry, including the remarkable women who became the backbone of the town's businesses and kept everything functioning while their men were at sea. Many families were left fatherless, many mothers lost their sons; but the vitality of these people to endure generation after generation is a true testament to the character of the Nantucketers. At the time of the Essex's voyage, this tiny island was the center of the lucrative whale industry. Eventually, there came a decline, and the small community would wither; but in their glory years, Nantucketers were the standard by which the world's sailors were measured.
If Captain Ahab sparked your fascination for seafaring drama, then Nathaniel Philbrick's masterpiece will completely engross you. Complete with dozens of anecdotes and extensive notations, this is one grand adventure into the annals of American history.
Reviewed by Ann L. Bruns on May 8, 2000