In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 1 : Nantucket | Summary



Thomas Nickerson is 14 when he steps onto the 87-foot Essex, a moment he calls "the most pleasing moment of [his] life." As a Nantucket boy he was taught to "idolize the form of a ship." In July 1819, the Essex is one of 70 whaleships cruising the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Accompanying Nickerson on his first voyage will be his friends Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, and Charles Ramsdell, all teenagers between ages 15 and 18. Owen Coffin is also cousin of the new captain, George Pollard Jr.

The narrator launches into a history of Nantucket, an island off the mainland of New England that was first inhabited by the Wampanoag Indians. European settlers began arriving in 1659. Over time, the large increase in population depleted the land, and farmers turned to the sea to make their living. The Wampanoag had traditionally harvested right whales that washed up on the shores in the fall season. Toward the end of the 17th century, Ichabod Paddock came to Nantucket to teach the islanders how to kill whales, something the settlers on Cape Cod and Long Island had been doing for decades. By the beginning of the 18th century, the English settlers were using open boats and indentured Native Americans to help them kill the right whales close to home.

In 1712 Captain Hussey was blown out to sea and discovered the sperm whale, so named because of the waxy substance that resembles seminal fluid inside its block-shaped head. This substance, named spermaceti, along with the oil from its blubber, was a far superior product than the oil made from right whales, so Nantucketers began pursuing this new type of whale. By 1760, the local whale populations had been mostly wiped out. However, whale blubber, by then, was being processed on the ships, so whalers could roam further from home.

In 1702 Mary Coffin Starbuck, a Nantucket matriarch, converted to Quakerism, and the island followed suit. Two tenets of Quakerism are pacifism (Quakers would never fight in a war) and the rejection of worldliness. Thus, rather than show off their wealth, Nantucket's Quakers reinvested their profits in the whale business, which helped make them rich. Further, they "saw no contradiction between their livelihood and their religion."

Nantucketers were an insular breed and looked down on "coofs," or off-islanders, either from Cape Cod or the mainland. There was a pecking order in which the most respected were people of "old Nantucket stock," with names like "Coffin, Starbuck, Macy, Folger, or Gardner." Many families claimed "direct descent from one of the twenty or so 'first settlers.'"

According to the narrator, besides common heritage and Quakerism, the island's natives shared a bloodlust connected to their obsession with killing whales and pride in their bloody trade. Men who were whalers spent two or three years at a time away from their families, and between voyages, a few months at home. Whaling women raised the children mostly alone. They ran the family and many of the businesses on Nantucket. Since Quakerism stressed spiritual and intellectual equality of the sexes, Nantucketers' religious beliefs meshed with the lifestyle dictated by the whaling business.

Whalemen were paid by earning a share (called a lay) of the profits at the end of a voyage. Those of the lowest rank received such a small lay that they practically worked for free. Gideon Folger and Paul Macy, two major shareholders in the Essex and prominent Quakers, cut costs by underprovisioning the ship, a common practice. Another common practice was to hire "green hands" with no previous sailing experience, since there was not enough homegrown labor to go around. Pollard, as a new captain, was forced to hire seven black sailors from Boston: Samuel Reed, Richard Peterson, Lawson Thomas, Charles Shorter, Isaiah Sheppard, William Bond, and Henry De Witt. Although they didn't expect to be paid much, they would not be paid any less than white sailors with the same rank.


Chapter 1 introduces the reader to some of the crew of the Essex and provides a brief history of Nantucket whaling. The European settlers of Nantucket, like all other European settlers of the United States, quickly exploited and displaced the native population. The Europeans had superior technology and greater numbers, even more so after they inadvertently began wiping out the Native Americans with their foreign diseases. While the Wampanoag Indians had been able to live on subsistence farming before the arrival of the Europeans, the colonists quickly depleted the fragile ecosystem of this sandy island. As time went on, Native Americans were forced to rely on the goods of Europeans for survival, bought at a very high price, which is how white Nantucketers turned the natives into indentured servants who could never pay off their debt. Thus, they became a ready pool of labor aboard the whaling ships, until their numbers dwindled.

Philbrick points out that Nantucketers did not allow any religious group to spread its beliefs on the island until Mary Coffin Starbuck embraced the Quakers. The fact that she had so much power is unusual, but perhaps she liked what the Quakers had to say about equality between the sexes. The fact that the rest of the island converted made it easier for island society to accept the leadership roles women took in the community once the men began whaling. Being 24 miles from the mainland, Nantucket was its own country in a sense, with its own customs, and the islanders felt themselves to be superior to all other groups, something that becomes important in the life-and-death situation the men face after the Essex sinks.

It is hard to reconcile the typical image of a Quaker with the Nantucket sect: early Quakers were particularly pious and unworldly, and the English Quaker William Penn, who founded a large religious community in Pennsylvania in 1682, guaranteed religious freedom to all groups under his charter. Meanwhile, the Quakers of Nantucket at first kept other religious groups off the island and then excommunicated people who married outside the faith. Far from being unworldly, they were hard-nosed capitalists who knew the value of a dollar and were even willing to cheat people to turn a profit. The low wages for the crew and their frequent habit of underprovisioning ships hardly seems to align with Christian ethics. Moreover, it was perhaps a factor in the Essex tragedy. Philbrick doesn't point directly at Paul Macy for the grief the men suffered on the journey, but he does say, "[T]he first step toward that future began with Macy's decision to save a little money in beef and hardtack [bread]." In reconciling Nantucket Quakerism with its expression in other parts of the country, it might be helpful to remember Nantucketers were merchants first before they were Quakers. They had already embraced the "religion" of capitalism. Therefore, Quakerism had to accommodate to capitalism and not vice versa. The Nantucket aristocracy followed the precepts of Quakerism with regard to appearances and did not flaunt their wealth. Philbrick notes they were "[p]acifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires ... simply fulfilling the Lord's will," who they believed had given them dominion over the beasts on land and sea.

Philbrick argues that the bloody business of whaling fostered a "bloodlust" that was apart from any profit motive (even calling it an "almost erotic bloodlust" in Chapter 3) and claims this bloodlust bound Nantucketers together as a clan. This is an interesting idea. It is a psychological fact that violence excites many people, and the hunting of animals is connected to primal human emotions and fraught with symbolism in almost all human cultures. On the deepest level, hunting—the necessary activity of humanity's early ancestors—is connected with survival. Perhaps the killing of so large a creature provided a satisfaction not to be matched by any other prey. Further, perhaps the violence of this activity helped solidify a community that needed to justify these violent acts, so that they could achieve their economic purposes. For this reason, perhaps, Nantucketers saw whaling as a noble enterprise.

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