Wednesday, March 10, 2004

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

I loved this book. The story of the whaleship Essex, which, in 1820 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was attacked by an eighty-five foot long sperm whale, rammed twice with its tremendous head, and sunk. Twenty survivors in three whaleboats found themselves faced with the task of sailing more than 3,000 miles back to the coast of South America with insufficient rations for the journey. Only eight survived the ordeal, three by remaining on one of the few islands they stumbled across on the journey and waiting to be rescued. The other twelve died along the way, seven of whom were eaten by the survivors, one of whom—Owen Coffin—was killed for that purpose after drawing lots. I knew I had stumbled across something special when I read the following description of the discovery of one of the remaining whaleboats in the book’s preface:

First they saw bones—human bones—littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards coated with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. Instead of greeting their rescuers with smiles of relief, the survivors—too delirious with thirst and hunger to speak—were disturbed, even frightened. They jealously clutched the splintered and gnawed-over bones with a desperate, almost feral intensity, refusing to give them up, like two starving dogs found trapped in a pit. Later, once the survivors had been given some food and water (and had finally surrendered the bones), one of them found the strength to tell his story. It was a tale made of a whaleman’s worst nightmare: of being in a boat far from land with nothing left to eat or drink and—perhaps worst of all—of a whale with the vindictiveness and guile of a man.

This is the story on which Melville based the climactic scene in Moby-Dick, but the real story of the Essex’s crew is so much more than that. As the author says, it is a laboratory experiment designed to test the limits of the human animal. The cannibalism aspects of the story are obviously the darkest, but they are also some of the most compelling. The survivor who told his story in the excerpt above was the ship’s captain, George Pollard. Owen Coffin was Pollard’s nephew, and Pollard had been compelled to eat him in order to survive, committing “incestual cannibalism,” its most scarring form, and had to tell his sister and Owen’s mother about it when finally returning to Nantucket. Like Moby-Dick, the book is also filled with the real images and sensations of whaling. Dead whales smell like rotting flesh, not fish, proving beyond doubt that they are warm-blooded mammals. Their bones still ooze oil a hundred years after they have been cleaned and mounted in museum displays. Put this one on the list of books I’ll read again if I ever decide to start re-reading books.

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