In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 9 : The Island | Summary



The Essex crew has traveled about 1,500 nautical miles when they spot land. Captain George Pollard Jr. and Owen Chase think they've reached Ducie Island, but in fact they are on Henderson Island, about 70 miles west of Ducie. Southwest of them, about 400 miles away, is Pitcairn Island, where the descendants of the mutineers from the ship Bounty still flourished. Although Pitcairn was discovered by Nantucketer Mayhew Folger in 1808, it did not appear in the navigation manual carried by the Essex officers. On Pitcairn they could have been easily resupplied.

The crew lands on the island, dragging up the boats. They collect some crabs and fish, eat, and then stretch out—for the first time in a month—to sleep. In the morning, however, the men are so dehydrated they have difficulty speaking. As they wander the island, they have to rest frequently because they are so weak. The captain and his steward William Bond spend the day gathering crabs and birds, and the men enjoy a feast of sorts when they return, still without water.

Owen Chase is as impatient as ever to get to South America. He thinks they are wasting their time on the island if there is no water, but Captain Pollard convinces Chase that they must exhaust all possibilities to find water. "A spring bubbling up from a hole in a large flat rock" is found the next day. The spring exists well below the tide line, so it is exposed for just a short time at the lowest point of the tide.

Over the next several days they establish a routine of collecting food and water. "Every spare moment of every day was, in Chase's words, 'employed in roving about for food.'" Soon they notice that the birds, "being so constantly harassed," are leaving the island. Additionally, the food supply from the vegetation and birds' eggs has dwindled because of the continuous ransacking. By December 26, "[T]hey had resolved to abandon this used-up island," having been on it for seven days. They are now about 3,000 miles from the coast of Chili and plan to next stop at Easter Island, less than a thousand miles away. Before departure, Thomas Chappel and two Cape Cod teenagers, Seth Weeks and William Wright, step forward and ask to stay on the island. The captain agrees and promises to send someone to rescue them if they make it back to South America.

When the remaining men leave Henderson Island, their boats are no longer leaking, their water casks have been replenished, and they even have some extra food. The captain's boat still has his boatsteerer Obed Hendricks and fellow Nantucketers (Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, and Charles Ramsdell), as well as the black sailor Samuel Reed. Chase has lost a man but still has Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson, along with the black sailor Richard Peterson, and Isaac Cole, a white off-islander. Matthew Joy's crew includes white off-islander Joseph West and four black sailors (Lawson Thomas, Charles Shorter, Isaiah Sheppard, and the steward William Bond).


The men of the Essex finally catch a break when they land on Henderson Island. Philbrick points out that once again the crew misses a chance for rescue. While Henderson Island (which they think is Ducie Island) is uninhabited, Pitcairn Island is not, and they could have picked up fresh provisions there if they had known of its existence. Pitcairn Island is not in the navigation manual. Here is another mystery. Why are the navigation manuals out of date? Further, if a Nantucketer discovered Pitcairn over a decade earlier, why does neither the captain nor his mates know about it? Wouldn't that be information shared among mariners, especially a group as clannish as the Nantucketers? Chapter 9 may raise a lot of questions in the reader's mind, which seems intentional on the author's part. Unfortunately what was motivating the decision makers, Pollard and Chase, during the Essex tragedy will never be known. Philbrick tends to spread out before his readers what is known and let readers draw their own conclusions.

The backstory on Pitcairn Island is that William Bligh, the English commander of the HMS Bounty, was overthrown by the mutinous first mate, Fletcher Christian, in 1789—in one version of the story, because of the captain's poor treatment of the crew. The mutineers put Bligh and 18 men—most of them loyal subordinates—in an open boat with a minimum of navigational instruments and less than a week's worth of food, and the captain successfully reached Timor in Indonesia, some 3,600 miles from where he started. Some of the mutineers escaped punishment by hiding out on Pitcairn Island and starting a colony with Polynesians they had brought with them to Pitcairn. The Essex survivors sailed 4,500 miles, even further than Bligh, but only one man died on Bligh's watch—killed in an attack by hostile natives.

When they arrive on the island and initially have difficulty finding water, Owen Chase once again tries to push the captain into making a hasty decision to continue on the voyage, but this time Captain George Pollard Jr. stands his ground. As a result, the crew finds water and is able to temporarily gain back some of their strength by eating and drinking. The island is less fruitful than they would have hoped for, however, and before long they have depleted the food sources. Since they are now so far from Chili, they will need another refueling station, which is why they plot a course for Easter Island. Finally, they realize it makes sense to brave the unknown terrors of Easter Island rather than try to head straight for the coast of South America.

When three sailors ask to stay behind on Henderson Island, no one can object to the plan, since "the probability of their being able to sustain themselves on the island was much stronger than that of our reaching the mainland," Chase writes later. But here is where more imagination could have made the difference between life and death. At that moment, why did Captain Pollard not command 10 or 12 of his crew to remain on the island and take the best five sailors back out to sea? If he had divided his crew, leaving the weak and inexperienced behind, he could have left two boats on the island and would have had more rations. Further, chances are 13 men could have survived if they had been left with Owen Chase, who insisted on patience and resourcefulness in obtaining food and water. Pollard could have left sick Matthew Joy behind as well, along with those sailors who were least experienced at sea. If Pollard had left with one strong boat crew and more rations, he likely would have reached help sooner, and the rest of the men could also have been rescued quickly. But the necessity for the Nantucketers to stick together and Pollard's inability to forcefully command are two factors that made such a scenario impossible.

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