A real-life blockbuster
Author Nathaniel Philbrick discusses the disaster of the whale ship Essex—and the new film bringing the story to life
In the 2015 Warner Bros. film In the Heart of the Sea, Chris Hemsworth and other actors portray crewmembers of an early 19th-century whale ship in hot pursuit of their prey in the Pacific. During one day’s hunt, a particularly large and ornery sperm whale does the unthinkable: returning the fight to the men who brought it, the whale smashes its gigantic head into the hull of the ship, causing considerable damage. Disembarking into three small whaleboats, the 20 men are faced with a nightmarish realization: their ship—and its stores of food, water and supplies—is going down; they are 1,000 miles or more from land, and no one is around to save them.
Directed by Ron Howard, the film is an edge-of-your seat thriller, akin perhaps to the Russell Crowe-led epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, or—in an even closer comparison—Moby Dick. Of course, what’s most fascinating about In the Heart of the Sea, which opened in theaters around the country in December, is this harrowing whale of a tale . . . is based on true events.
In November of 1820, the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship with a real-life crew, was attacked by a whale in the Pacific Ocean, well off the west coast of South America. In his book In the Heart of the Sea; The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), Nantucket historian Nathaniel Philbrick tells the ship’s tragic story, including the terrifying 96-day journey the men endured in those small boats in an effort to survive. Those familiar with the story are aware that the men endured dehydration, starvation and despair while drifting on the open ocean. Not all of the crew survived, and some of those who died were eaten by their crewmates.
In the book, a New York Times Best Seller and the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Philbrick also provides biographical details of the ship’s captain, officers and crewmembers; descriptions of the whaling profession and the Nantucket community in the early 19th century; and accounts of comparable survival stories, some of which also involved cannibalism. The writer also tells of what became of the few men who survived the ordeal, including the 28-year-old captain, George Pollard, who embarked on another whaling expedition within one year of his safe return to Nantucket. As he had on the Essex, Pollard served as captain of this second expedition, which also resulted with a sunken ship.
“The story of the Essex is not an adventure tale,” Philbrick says. “This was highly personal for these guys. It’s a tragedy—and these poor guys were forced to live through it.”
During an interview in November, Philbrick shed some light on the three years of research he conducted for the book as well as his excitement for the film, for which he served as a consultant and briefly, a movie extra.
“[What happened to the Essex] was big news because never before in history had a whale attacked a ship,” Philbrick says. “This was a very disturbing story. It was inconceivable for whale men that their prey would turn the tables on them.”
As he researched the story, Philbrick found himself wanting to know more: What happened with the whale? What is the science of starvation? Were there other such tragedies that ended in cannibalism? Another question came to him repeatedly: What would I have done? “All I can say is I am no hero,” Philbrick says. “I like sailing . . . and I prefer to keep land in sight.”
Philbrick determined there were two critical moments that decided the men’s fate. The first came as the Essex was sinking. As the men scavenged provisions from the ship to load on the whaleboats, the captain and his first and second mates, Owen Chase, 21, and Matthew Joy, 25, had to decide whether to go west with the current in the direction of the Marquesas and Society Islands including Tahiti, or to head back east, a considerably longer journey of some 2,000 miles. Had they chosen the first option, Philbrick says the men may have arrived at the islands in just a few weeks.
According to Philbrick, it is surprising that in 1820 these Nantucket sailors did not know more about the islands and their inhabitants in that part of the Pacific. The men of the Essex entertained rumors that cannibalism was practiced on the islands, and they feared going there. Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy of the Essex who wrote an account of the tragedy, states that in the end, Chase and Joy convinced the captain to head east, and so in that direction they went. According to Nickerson, this decision proved the “fatal error.”
Philbrick says the second critical point took place weeks later, in Pollard’s whaleboat, after the three whaleboats had been separated at sea. Starving, the men decided that if they did not do anything they would die, so they convinced Pollard that one among them should be killed and eaten to save the others. They decided straws would be drawn to determine which man would be sacrificed, and they drew again to determine who the executioner would be.
“They all knew each other,” says Philbrick. “They grew up with each other. Two of them were cousins.” Days later, a ship called the Dauphin pulled alongside Pollard’s whaleboat off the coast of Chile and found two men inside: Pollard and Charles Ramsdell. “Ultimately,” Philbrick says, “only two of them were found sucking the bones of their dead messmates.” Men were also eaten on Chase’s boat, and the third whaleboat was never seen again; in total, only eight of the 20 men that stepped into the whaleboats survived.
Setting out to write the book, Philbrick says he did not anticipate how emotionally involved he would get in the story, and that tracking down details about this particular aspect of the story was difficult. “It was hard,” he says. “It was really hard.”
Philbrick says another challenge that comes with writing about whaling in the 21st century—and one for which he has fielded some criticism—is that it is difficult to glorify the whaling profession. “This story has a different kind of challenge for modern readers,” he says. “We live in a completely different time. Back then, if you grew up on Nantucket you didn’t think of it as slaughtering noble beasts, but as a way of providing the world with light . . . It’s a story that’s evolved with the times as I guess all stories do.”
Regarding the evolving story, Philbrick says in the years following the disaster, not much was known about what had happened. In 1821, Chase, the first mate of the Essex, published a memoir of the experience. Nickerson also wrote of the tragedy in his journal, but the text wasn’t discovered for decades; the Nantucket Historical Association published the account in 1984.
In the early- to mid-19th century, prior to tales of the 1840s Donner Party tragedy in California, Philbrick says American children would learn of the Essex; it was part of a collection of stories they would read or hear about. It was considered by some the Titanic-like tragedy of the 1800s.
On Nantucket, however, Philbrick says the story was not discussed much in the years after it happened—or even into the early 20th century. “It was said that people don’t talk about this on Nantucket.”
Philbrick says he first learned of the Essex years ago while growing up in Pittsburgh. His father, Thomas, was a professor of maritime literature and he would tell Nat and his siblings about the whale ship that was attacked by a whale. “It’s part of what we grew up with,” he says.
In high school, Philbrick and his classmates had to read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, an assignment that pleased Philbrick’s father, who loved the book. “To my regret,” Philbrick says, “I loved it. When you’re 17 you don’t want your dad to be right all the time. The book blew me away.” An English major at Brown University, Philbrick says Moby Dick became like a “personal Bible in a way.”
Moving to Nantucket in 1986, Philbrick grew fascinated with the history of the island, and in 1994 he published his first book, Away off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People.
A few years back, Philbrick had the opportunity to meet Ron Howard and one of the In the Heart of the Sea screenwriters aboard the historic whaling ship Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. He and his wife, Melissa, were also invited to the Warner Bros. film studios in Leavesden, England in the fall of 2013. There, the crew had built a Nantucket waterfront complete with two massive tanks of water and replicas of an 85-foot whale ship and the island’s famous Pacific National Bank.
Being on set was exciting; Philbrick even got to be an extra in the film, portraying a Quaker. “It was really fun to be involved,” he says, adding that he’s interested to see how the film is received. “Obviously,” he says, “I’m a very interested spectator.”
Prior to attending last fall’s premiere, Philbrick says the world of the silver screen is different than what he is used to as a writer. “It’s very different from the world of books,” he says, “and sitting at my desk for 10 hours a day, and seeing no one but my dog.”
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