I used to know very little about the Nantucket whaling industry. As far as I was concerned, the intrepid crews sailed offshore, filled their holds in a week or so, and soon returned home to their adoring families. Not so, it seems. Far more typical, at least in the early nineteenth century, was the voyage of the whaleship Essex, which set off on a two year voyage that took it from the New England shores, around Cape Horn, and up to fishing grounds somewhere around the middle of the Pacific Ocean. (Seems the supply of whales right around Nantucket was dwindling for some reason…)
Of course, the Essex’s journey eventually deviated from the norm—about the time that a huge sperm whale rammed into the ship, destroying the vessel, and leaving the twenty- man crew adrift in three small whaling boats. The survivors were two thousand miles off the coast of South America, with only meager provisions to sustain them.
Philbrick’s narrative nonfiction account of the Essex story is a real page-turner, and I found it hard to put down after the reading just the first few pages. I learned a lot about Nantucket and the whaling industry, and, on a more gruesome note, the effects of starvation and dehydration on the human body. (As a word of warning to squeamish or sensitive readers, I should tell you in advance that not all of the crew survives, and Philbrick doesn’t pull punches when he describes their fates.) This is a tale wrought with irony, and during its most absurd moments, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Not surprisingly, the Essex’s sensationalistic story was well known in the early nineteenth century. In fact, a certain contemporary author was inspired enough to write his own book about an oversized whale attacking a whaling ship–ten points to the first person who correctly identifies this mystery man! (And really, this contest should be considered more of a race than an intellectual challenge.)