Monday, December 28, 2015

Nantucket 'Slay Ride' – 'In the Heart of the Sea'

Review by Bill Doughty

From the Warner Bros. film by producer-director Ron Howard.
Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" (2000, Viking Press) plumbs the depths and dimensions of race and religion, survival and sustainability, and leadership and life in the 1800s, where insular thinking could lead to death.

Essex was captained by steady (and ultimately resilient) 28-year-old George Pollard. His first mate was "cocksure" and ambitious Owen Chase, 22. Seven of the crew were free black men in the North during an era of slavery in the South. The cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, was 15.

"Heart" is a true story about whaling, but it's also about understanding our place in the natural world.

The ill-fated whaling ship Essex (not USS Essex) sailed from Nantucket in 1819, just a few years after the end of the War of 1812 and within a generation of the American Civil War – a time of wooden sailing ships and Old World ways. More people lived off the land – and the sea.

Then, as now, people depended on burning oil for energy, and in the United States in the 1700s and 1800s, whale oil was often used for lighting streets and homes. Whales were harpooned, hauled, butchered and rendered at sea. Whalers collected their oil in barrels. They also collected ambergris, a fatty substance found in the intestinal tract.

Philbrick describes the terrible violence, danger and back-breaking work – and stink.
"The repetitious nature of the work – a whaler was, after all, a factory ship – tended to desensitize the men to the awesome wonder of the whale ... Whales were described by the amount of oil they would produce (as in a fifty-barrel whale), and although the whalemen took careful note of the mammal's habits, they made no attempt to regard it as anything more than a commodity whose constituent parts (head, blubber, ambergris, etc.) were of value to them. The rest of it – the tons of meat, bone, and guts – was simply thrown away, creating festering rafts of offal that attracted birds, fish, and, of course, sharks. Just as the skinned corpses of buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West, so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean in the early nineteenth century."
Sperm whales. (photo courtesy NOAA)
Philbrick reports that American whalers killed nearly a quarter million sperm whales between 1804 and 1876. "As a disturbing point of comparison, in 1964, the peak year for modern whaling, 29,255 sperm whales were killed." (But the whales made a comeback. "Today there are between one-and-a-half to two million sperm whales.")

After wiping out the whales near their island, the people of Nantucket ventured throughout the Atlantic by the time of the Revolutionary War. Then, in bigger ships equipped with whaleboats and processing equipment, they sailed around Cape Horn, South America and into the Pacific.

Whalers also devastated the environment in the Galapagos Islands, where hundreds of tortoises were taken for meat. They even temporarily wiped out sea birds on Henderson Island. That happened exactly 195 years ago this month.

Philbrick shows parallels of sperm whale pods with Nantucket whalers' families – where males were separated from females and offspring for years at a time.

We see how whaling ships were outfitted and how whaleboats were maneuvered during the chase. We learn the language of whaling; the term "Nantucket sleigh ride" comes from the rough ride whaleboats would take after whales were harpooned. We feel the brutal life, separation and consequences of whaling, where one quarter of the women in Nantucket over 23 were "widowed by the sea."

Like other Americans of their time, the people of Nantucket relied on letters and word of mouth for most of their communication. Traditions were revered. People on Nantucket Island lived in a "protective bubble," as Philbrick calls it, that helped them know their place in a complicated class pecking order and shape their decision-making. The bubble, he shows, blocked their ability to be innovative.
"Nantucketers were suspicious of anything beyond their immediate experience. Their far-reaching success in whaling was founded not on radical technological advances or bold gambles but on a profound conservatism. Gradually building on the achievements of the generations before them, they had expanded their whaling empire in a most deliberate and painstaking manner. If new information didn't come to them from the lips of another Nantucketer, it was suspect."
An African American whaler
Insulated thinking would have life-and-death consequences for the crew of Essex after their ship was destroyed.

In a story that inspired Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," an enraged 85-foot-long bull sperm whale with "fury and vengeance" attacked and fatally damaged the Essex. And in a sense that's when the suspense "In the Heart of the Sea" begins.

Some people die while others survive, resorting to cannibalism to stay alive. Who lives, who dies, and how it all happens is worth the read.

The story goes deep into the nature of racism, humanity and redemption.

Most of those who survived were brought back from South America by the U.S. Navy aboard the frigate USS Constellation. The U.S. Navy schooner Waterwitch and brig Pearl had roles in verifying the story for historians and writers, including Melville and Philbrick himself.

In a fascinating denoument, Philbrick shows what happened to key characters in the years after the sinking of the Essex. He reveals how Nantucket changed, then and now. Downtown Nantucket "has become a thriving summer resort" where there was once a "decrepit fishing village." 

"Wishbone" jaw and "fingerlike bones from the fins" on display in Nantucket.
Today, the Nantucket Historical Association and whaling museum showcases the skeleton of a sperm whale on display for study and appreciation.

"In the Heart of the Sea" opens our eyes to how much the world has evolved, where we now have more understanding of our place in the environment and our responsibility for conserving resources and protecting the world's oceans and species.

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