February 1, 2016

Book Review - In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

by Nathaniel Philbrick

Having read Moby Dick, I thought I knew what I was in for when I picked up Philbrick's book on the nineteenth-century whaleship Essex: I was very, very wrong. I thought Philbrick's account would be another fictional rendition of man versus the sea. Instead, Philbrick picks up where the climactic conclusion of Moby Dick left off to account for what truly happened when the captain and crew of the Essex were bested by an infamously vengeful eighty-ton sperm whale.

If you've never read accounts of whaling (whether fictional or not), the industry maintained an unquenchable thirst for the fuel derived from whale blubber. As my friend said of the book, it "[j]ust proves how humans have always paid the ultimate price for energy." Philbrick details what happened to the crew, how most died, and how very few were able to survive. Spoiler alert: be prepared for a graphic account of cannibalism.

I have to admit, that last part took me by surprise. While yes, it is well recorded that many sailors lost at sea resorted to cannibalism in order to survive, there are also accounts of others who plotted differently in order to survive (instead of eating one another, one famed crew waited until the first person died of starvation and used his body as bait for fishing for sharks).

Nevertheless, when the crew of the Essex left Nantucket in 1819, they were soon attacked by the infamous sperm whale who was likely tired of being prey and turned the tables to become predator. The ship sank, the crew survived, and thus began a multi-thousand mile journey across the sea to what they believed were "safer" areas away from purported cannibalistic tribes. Very ironic, is it not?

Philbrick's well-researched account of how a group of men reacted to (and in part, survived) a devastating shipwreck earned him a National Book Award. Philbrick brings up many interesting issues, including how race-relations played a role in which men did not survive, the life of these men on isles and on the sea, and the emotional and physical aftermath of their journeys.

The book is stomach-churning and there are definitely graphic parts where you'll either need to set it down, brace your stomach, or race through descriptions of thirst, hunger, and cannibalism. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is compelling, fraught with controversy, issues for debate, and recounts a true-life story well worth reading.


  1. I loved Moby Dick, and this has been on my list for a while. I, uh, would not have expected what you describe. I'll probably still read it, but not over lunch. Ahem.