In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 12 : In the Eagle's Shadow | Summary



On January 28, 1821, the breeze finally begins blowing Owen Chase's boat east, but the men have lost almost all hope. Chase loosens the rationing rules, since they have hardly any bread left and are close to death. Isaac Cole descends into madness on February 8 and suffers a painful death. The next day Chase stops Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson from burying Cole's remains. They separate the limbs from the body and remove the heart and then bury what is left at sea. Then they begin eating, even before all the meat is cooked. Cole's remains take them through the next week.

Meanwhile, Barzillai Ray dies on Captain George Pollard Jr.'s boat on February 11, five days after Owen Coffin's murder. On February 14, Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence have revived their strength by eating human flesh and increased bread rations. Still, they are suffering from edema—swelling from retaining fluid—and their skin is covered with boils. They are now 300 miles away from their destination of Juan Fernandez island. They might be able to make it in five days, but they have only three days of rations left. Chase continues to encourage the two men left with him, but Nickerson says he wants to die immediately. On the morning of February 18, Benjamin Lawrence, who is at the steering oar, spots a sail. For the next three hours the crew works to catch up with the whaleship, and someone on deck finally sees them. The Indian's captain, William Crozier, immediately takes them on board, but sailors have to lift the men from the boats and carry them to the captain's cabin. The Indian is headed for the Chilean port of Valparaiso, just a few days away.

Captain George Pollard Jr. and Charles Ramsdell sail on, about 300 miles south, attempting to stay alive by sucking the marrow that is left in the bones of the dead sailors. They are near death, drifting in and out of consciousness, as Pollard recalls, and hallucinating. On February 23, a ship named the Dauphin spots Pollard's whaleboat when the sailors happen to look down from the deck and see the two castaways sucking on the bones of their dead shipmates. Pollard and Ramsdell, too weak to climb up the ship, also have to be carried on board. After being given food, Pollard quickly recovers and tells his story to the captain, Zimri Coffin, and Aaron Paddack, captain of the Diana, who comes aboard for dinner. Pollard leaves nothing out and admits to the cannibalism as well as the execution of his cousin Owen Coffin.


Both impressive navigation under the most trying of circumstances as well as a little luck in running into whaling ships combine to deliver the remaining survivors: Captain George Pollard Jr. and Charles Ramsdell on one boat and Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence in the other. In the end, Chase and his men must resort to cannibalism, but they were fortunately spared the choice of whether or not to draw lots, since they were rescued before they became that desperate. Both Chase and Pollard exhibit honor in telling their rescuers their entire story, including the truth about the cannibalism that took place. Pollard does not hold back the fact that they had resorted to drawing lots on his boat and that he cannibalized his own cousin. Philbrick paints a picture of Pollard as a latter day Ancient Mariner, so traumatized by what has happened to him that he cannot help but tell his tale to whoever will listen. "Like many survivors," the narrator says, "Pollard was animated by a fierce but desperate compulsion to tell his story." Pollard's narrative is written out by Captain Paddack of the Diana, who calls it "the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge."

While the men who heard the story of the sinking of the Essex and its aftermath may have been shocked and distressed, they would not have been appalled by the survival cannibalism to which the crew had to resort. As Philbrick notes in Chapter 11, "By the early nineteenth century, cannibalism at sea was so widespread that survivors often felt compelled to inform their rescuers if they had not resorted to it." And "drawing of lots in a survival situation had long been an accepted custom of the sea," the narrator says, with the earliest recorded instance from the 17th century. Thus, the rescuers do not fault the survivors for what they had done.

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