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R E V I E W NATHANIEL PHILBRICK In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex New York: Viking, 2000. 320 pages Illustrations, bibliography, index. $24.95. THOMAS NICKERSON Owen Chase, and Others: The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale: First-Person Accounts Ed. with an Introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick and Thomas Philbrick. New York: Penguin, 2000. 249 pages. $12.95. I n 1820, a Nantucket whaleship on a routine whaling voyage was rammed and sunk by a bull sperm whale. The twenty men on board dispersed into three whaleboats and set out for the coast of South America, over two thousand miles away. Of the twenty men, eight survived, including the captain, George Pollard, the first mate, Owen Chase, and the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson . Three were left on Henderson Island and later rescued, and the other five survived in the whaleboats by eventually resorting to eating the flesh of their dead companions. It is this harrowing tale that Nathaniel Philbrick tells in his well-researched In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Herman Melville famously used the Essex disaster as the basis for the ending of Moby-Dick (1851). Melville’s knowledge of the story came from reading the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, written by first mate Owen Chase and published a mere nine months after his rescue. In the ensuing 180 years after its publication in 1821, most of what was known about the Essex came from Chase’s Narrative. Then, around 1960, an 1876 narrative of the disaster, written late in life by the Essex’s cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, was found. Thomas Farel Heffernan’s excellent Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex (1981) was completed just before the discovery of the Nickerson manuscript became known. With Nickerson’s manuscript, Philbrick is able to study more thoroughly the events leading up to the whale’s ramming of the ship. Thus, Philbrick bases his account of the sinking of the Essex and the survival of eight of its crew members on the following: captain George Pollard’s account of his ordeal recorded in a letter attributed to Aaron Paddack of the whaleship Diana (written February 23, 1821, the day Pollard was rescued), A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 95 R E V I E W first mate Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (1821), cabin boy Thomas Nickerson’s “Desultory Sketches” (written prior to 1876, first published in an abridged version in 1984), boatsteerer Thomas Chappel’s An Account of the Loss of the Essex (a religious tract published as Pamphlet No. 579 in 1824), and other short letters and journal entries. The Essex was George Pollard’s first command, although he had spent most of the previous four years aboard the Essex as mate. Pollard’s style of command was almost democratic. As Philbrick notes: “Modern survival psychologists have determined that this ‘social’—as opposed to ‘authoritarian’— form of leadership is ill suited to the early stages of a disaster, when decisions must be made quickly and firmly” (100). Nantucketers approvingly called authoritarian captains “fishy men” (100). Mates, on the other hand, were to remain sensitive to the crew’s moods. “[T]he Essex,” Philbrick writes, “had ended up with a captain who had the instincts and soul of a mate, and a mate who had the ambition and fire of a captain” (101). This odd reversal of roles led to striking differences in the fate of each whaleboat’s crew. Only two of seven survived in Pollard’s boat, George Pollard and Charles Ramsdell, while three of six survived in Chase’s: Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence, and Thomas Nickerson. All three boats resorted to cannibalism, but this occurred much later in Chase’s boat than in the others. Chase had so strictly rationed water and biscuit that starvation was held at bay much longer. Solely in Pollard’s boat did the men...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 95-98
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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