In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 11 : Games of Chance | Summary



On January 20, 1821, Captain George Pollard Jr. and Obed Hendricks are coming to the end of their provisions, and then Lawson Thomas dies. The narrator says the men finally "dared speak of a subject ... on all their minds ... whether they should eat, instead of bury, the body." The narrator points out that this kind of cannibalism at sea was common in the early 19th century in dire circumstances. Pollard reports later that they roasted the organs and meat, and the more they ate the hungrier they became.

Two days later, another black sailor dies—Charles Shorter—and gets the same treatment. The narrator speculates that the African American men likely had an inferior diet prior to the disaster. Moreover, recent scientific studies comparing body fat by ethnicity found that African Americans have less body fat than their Caucasian counterparts. This may account for the higher percentage of deaths among the black members of the crew. Pollard, being short and stocky and of an older age (when metabolism slows down), probably had the best survival advantage of all the crew.

A third black member of the crew dies, Isaiah Sheppard, and becomes the third eaten in seven days. The next day the only black member of Pollard's crew, Samuel Reed, dies and is eaten. Like other human groups reduced by starvation, these men at sea likely had been reduced to an animal state, in which their feelings are deadened, the narrator says. Sometimes alliances develop within what becomes a "feral community" to ensure survival. The narrator suggests the possibility that "the Nantucketers took a far more active role in insuring their own survival than has been otherwise suggested."

On January 29, the whaleboat of Obed Hendricks disappears, along with Hendricks, William Bond (the black steward), and Joseph West, never to be heard from again.

On February 6, the youngest sailor on Pollard's boat, Charles Ramsdell, suggests they draw lots to kill one of their number so the rest can survive. According to an account told by Thomas Nickerson, the captain at first says no, but then 18-year-old Owen Coffin chimes in, and Pollard relents. The "short straw" falls to Owen Coffin, and the captain offers to take his place, but Owen says no. Lots are also drawn for the job of executioner, and Ramsdell is the unlucky winner. After some delay, he reluctantly shoots his friend, after Owen Coffin reassures everyone the lots had been fairly drawn.

On Owen Chase's ship the men drifting in a windless sea can barely crawl around. Chase has grown softer, less of a harsh disciplinarian and eager to provide encouragement. The narrator then compares Chase's ability to change his leadership style to accommodate the needs of his men to Sir Ernest Shackleton's leadership. Shackleton was an Anglo-Irish explorer who ensured the safety of 27 under his command during a grueling expedition to Antarctica. The men no longer try to do much steering, and they find themselves sailing north, but parallel to and not toward the coast of South America.


Philbrick points out the situational irony in the fact that two months before Lawson Thomas's death, the Essex crew made the decision to avoid the Society Islands because they were afraid of being eaten by cannibals. Now they themselves have been forced to become cannibals or be eaten, just as they feared. He then examines the troubling fact that the first four men cannibalized are African Americans. The narrator discusses at length how the body begins consuming muscle after the fat is gone, which leads to the deterioration of the internal organs and death—and notes this process would have begun earlier for the African American crew.

But despite the mitigating facts, the death of four black men in a row in such a short period of time doesn't sit well with the author, and he says the clannish Nantucketers may have taken active steps to ensure their food supply. For example, they could have refused to share the meat with the black men, he says. Contradicting this idea is that William Bond, the African American steward, is still alive, as is Joseph West, a white off-islander. Moreover, the men in Pollard's boat finally agree not only to eat, but to kill, one of their own. The narrator never overtly raises the possibility that the African American men were killed outright, and, in fairness, he says that the men of the Essex exercised "great discipline and human compunction" throughout their ordeal. However, this is a vital clue. If Pollard is willing to kill his own cousin a short while after the other crew has been devoured, it speaks volumes as to the state of mind they were all in. If anything was amiss in the way in which the black crew died, there was certainly no one to contradict the testimony of the survivors.

The scene in Chapter 11 in which the men agree to draw lots to kill their next meal is perhaps the most harrowing in the entire narrative. To draw lots to kill a man would have gone against the Quaker religion, and both Owen Coffin and Barzillai Ray are practicing Quakers, Philbrick says. Pollard's grandparents had been Quakers, but Charles Ramsdell, the teenager who first broaches the subject, is a Congregationalist. Even so, the act of killing an unarmed man, even if he is agreeable, has to count as an act of wrongdoing according to any Christian religion. While judging a person in an extreme situation is nothing but an act of bad faith, human beings still have to weigh the right or wrong of such actions. Philbrick mentions the psychologists who studied the effects of concentrations camps, in which people were "reduced to an animal state very closely approaching 'raw' motivation." Nonetheless, there were people, albeit the minority, who kept their humanity in those circumstances even in the face of death. It is interesting that Philbrick normalizes cannibalism—in life or death situations—as he is revealing its happening in this part of the story. Thus, at the heart of the book run questions readers are asked to consider. Can human beings be forgiven for committing immoral acts in extreme circumstances? What is morally right to do? Kill or die? Eat the dead, or die? This question, at the heart of the story, connects with other main ideas, and Philbrick explores these subsequent questions. How much is too much when it comes to humans taking from and dominating nature? At what point does dehumanization of "others" happen, and why? How much does the natural will to live play a role in human actions?

The narrator says Thomas Nickerson called Owen Chase a "remarkable man" and claims he recognized his "genius for identifying hope in a seemingly hopeless situation." Chase comes in for high praise from Philbrick because he evolves from a taskmaster into a cheerleader. "Chase reasoned, they owed it to one another to cling as tenaciously to life as possible," Philbrick says. Chase also invokes God, urging the men not to give up hope in "the providence of the Almighty." While Chase deserves praise for keeping the men's spirits up, does he deserve to be compared to the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, as if they are equals? Shackleton kept his men alive for 16 months on the Antarctic ice and then took them on a 7-day journey to Elephant Island in tiny boats when the ice floe cracked in two. Since no one visited Elephant Island, Shackleton had to sail another 800 miles to South Georgia Island with five handpicked men to get help. He climbed the mountainous terrain of South Georgia until he found a whaling station. He then returned to Elephant Island to rescue his remaining crew of 22. This feat hardly compares with Chase's success in delivering two survivors to the coast of Chili after he is separated from the other boats, particularly when he is responsible for the bad decision (avoiding the Society Islands) that cost the lives of most of the crew.

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