The Prequel to Moby-Dick
Not enough people have read Moby-Dick, and most people know it has something to do with a white whale and a nut called Ahab – oh yeah, and it starts off something like, “Call me Ishmael.”
All the above information is correct but deceptively vague. The final scene in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick involves the whale ship in the novel, the Pequod, being struck head-on by the giant white sperm whale. Some have question whether a whale would be able to do such a thing. In the Heart of the Sea proves this to be true.
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is the story about the tragedy of the whale ship Essex, which served as Melville’s research for the climactic final scene in Moby-Dick. In 1819 the Essex set sail on a multiple-year journey around the world in search of whale, specifically sperm whales and their rich and expensive oil. Fifteen months later, in the abyssal depths of the South Pacific, a whale rammed the ship head-on. The hull was crippled and the ship quickly sank; all hands managed to escape on their large whaleboats.
Twenty men in three boats were set adrift in the world’s largest ocean, with little supplies and diminishing hope. Nevertheless, their captain kept his courage: they debated heading west towards the Pacific islands, but feared cannibalism – gruesome details having been brought back from sailors who had sailed through the islands – instead, they struck out east, heading for South America. So began their harrowing journey of starvation, isolation, and madness.
Three months later, two boats were discovered, with only eight of the remaining crew. They were found gaunt and nothing but hanging flesh, the bones of their crew lay in the bottom of the boats, having provided a menial cannibalistic feast for the remaining members.
‘Tis a story of grave irony: a hardy crew set sail in opposite direction to that way which cannibals lie, ultimate suffering the same fate as their supposed enemies, reduced to consuming the flesh, skin and bone of their fellow seamen. Nathaniel Philbrick does an excellent job of telling this gruesome story in vivid detail and moving narration.
Philbrick’s research features newly discovered documents on the fate of the Essex, featuring an account by Thomas Nickerson, who was one of the cabin boys on the Essex, discovered in an attic in New York in 1981.
The story is shocking, exciting and enthralling – and at the time the reader must constantly reaffirm to themselves that the events within these pages really took place. Nathaniel Philbrick masters at telling a grand story of the high seas with a different ending that excels in every way.
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Originally published on May 14th 2001 ©Alex C. Telander.
Originally published in the Long Beach Union.