Review: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (2005)

Genre: Adult Historical Nonfiction
Year Release: 2005
Source: Audible

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Cannibalism, racism, starvation, dehydration, cannibalism, descriptions of whale butchering

This is the story that inspired Moby Dick. The whaleship Essex attempts to take down a sperm whale, but the sperm whale has other ideas and sinks the ship. What then goes down is a grisly tale of survival and survival cannibalism as the crew members float along the Pacific hoping for rescue. What also features in this narrative is a lot of contextualization of whaling as an international enterprise, the lives of the crew before the tragedy, and what became of them after.

With incredible pacing and thorough research, I found myself glued to this narrative from start to finish.

What often happens with stories like this is the hyperfixation for “and that’s when the cannibalism started.” I think Philbrick also knew that going into the narrative he tried to weave. The survival takes up such a small portion of the work itself, with so much time spent on describing the culture of Nantucket, MA, whaling as both a job and a societal vehicle. I found these parts most enthralling. The island is as much a character as the actual people involved.

The level of detail in which he goes into describing the extraction of blubber and the daily life of whalers brings together the entire picture of life at sea. The work wasn’t easy, in fact, it is probably the most dangerous group sport ever invented. It’s also messy and gross as hell for everyone involved. The absurdity of it all really made me root for the whales. And bull whales in the mid-1800s were fucking terrifying.

In addition, there are entire passages about the wildlife and environment of the Pacific. If you want to know more about eating tortoises than you ever knew before, this book has you covered. It’s so important for understanding how this excursion ended the way it did, but also the ways it could have been so much worse.

It’s very easy to see why Herman Melville latched onto this tale of man versus nature.

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