In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Context


History of Whaling

Norwegians and Japanese were among the first to hunt whales, 4,000 or more years ago. In old whaling cultures, every part of the whale was used—meat, skin, blubber, and organs. The baleen from the whale's jaw, used to filter food (often called whalebone, but made of keratin, the protein found in human hair and fingernails), was used for baskets, fishing line, and roofing materials. Oil from right, bowhead, and sperm whales became a more and more important commodity as populations increased in cities and towns, since it was used for light as well as in manufacturing.

As author Nathaniel Philbrick describes in his retelling of the Essex disaster, the whalemen of Nantucket cared only for the parts of the whale that could yield oil (the blubber and the whale's head), while the rest of the animal was discarded. The head of a sperm whale has a cavity or case called the spermaceti organ. The lower cavity is filled with a waxy substance called spermaceti, which, when processed, produces an even finer quality of oil than what is rendered from the whale's blubber. The leftover solids were sold as wax and made into candles. Spermaceti wax was also used to make ointments, cosmetic creams, and hair products, and was used in textile finishing and as an industrial lubricant. The head of a sperm whale generally yields 200–500 gallons of spermaceti.

The whalers of the Northeast were not concerned about overhunting whales. Rather, they simply assumed that if they depleted one area, they would find some other place to hunt—which is how the Essex came to be rammed in the "Offshore Ground," a new hunting region, of the North Pacific.

Whaling in the United States flourished from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, when it reached its peak. In the latter period, steamships and gun-loaded harpoons made whaling more efficient. The American whaling fleet, based on the East Coast, operated in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Eventually, whale oil was replaced by kerosene and petroleum. But the whale population had been severely depleted, and most countries, including the United States, outlawed whaling in the second half of the 20th century. The Inuit in Alaska and other aboriginal peoples who engage in subsistence whaling are exempted from this rule. The International Whaling Commission works to prevent the overhunting of whales.

Indentured Indian Whalers

The Wampanoag Indians lived in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the early part of the 17th century. They belonged to a political federation within the Algonquin cultural region, encompassing Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Martha's Vineyard. With the growth of European populations in the Northeast, the original inhabitants of these areas were gradually forced to live in smaller and smaller marginal communities. As the Native Americans lost more land and as the soil was depleted by European settlements, their ability to practice subsistence farming decreased, and the Native Americans became more and more dependent on Europeans for goods. Merchants raised the prices of these items and then offered predatory lending (loans at very high interest rates), so that the Indians were unable to pay their debts. Thus began a system of indentured servitude, in which the Indians used their labor to pay their debt.

Indentured servitude is a type of slavery, in which a person is forced to work for very little payment over a period of time. In the case of debtors, the period of service is charged against the debt. These periods could last for a decade or more. In places where the whaling industry was growing, such as Long Island and Nantucket, Native American men were forced to serve on whaling ships. They remained an important source of labor into the late 1700s, when the industry exploded and the number of Native Americans had drastically decreased. This was due in large part to diseases brought by the Europeans for which the Indians had no immunity. Philbrick points out that after the Wampanoag's labor was used up, the Nantucketers made up for the loss by using black sailors on Nantucket whaleships. Philbrick explains how the black sailors were given the same pay as white sailors of the same rank, but they were treated unequally in other ways—for example, by segregating them in the worst part of the ship, the forecastle. Moreover, he points to the fact that most of the men who ended up dying first and being eaten were black.

African American Whalers

By the time the Essex sails in 1819, the New England states (at the time, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire) had outlawed slavery. After the Revolutionary War (1765–83), most African Americans in New England worked as laborers or servants, while a fortunate few were self-employed as barbers, carpenters, or blacksmiths. In the early 19th century, working as a sailor meant better wages and more tolerance. The Quakers were a religious group opposed to slavery, and since the owners of Nantucket whaleships were often Quakers, they had no problem hiring free black men or even escaped slaves.

There was more integration and less racial prejudice on the whaling ships in the 1800s than in other parts of society, but blacks were not treated as the equals of whites, as Philbrick points out. For example, black sailors had to eat and sleep together in the forecastle (the cramped, extremely forward part of the vessel), although they received the same wages as whites. They were also discriminated against in other ways, and the true nature of race relations is clearly demonstrated in the Essex shipwreck, as the officers divided the men among the whaleboats and put most of the seven black sailors with the least experienced officer, Matthew Joy. The black men are the last to be chosen for the whaleboats. In addition, they are the first to die and the first to be eaten, and Philbrick speculates that one or more deaths of the African Americans may not have been entirely accidental.

Quakers and Capitalism

The Quakers of Nantucket, also called the Society of Friends, are the descendants of a dissenting Christian sect begun by evangelist and mystic George Fox. He preached that the light of God was in all and did not require an intermediary, such as a minister or a priest. The first Quakers, persecuted in England, arrived in the Americas in 1656 in Massachusetts, and eventually going to Rhode Island. But the Quakers of Massachusetts as they evolved became less introspective and more politically active than their forebears who were antimaterialistic, believed in peace, and did not dress fancily. Meanwhile, as Philbrick explains, Nantucket became the center of the highly profitable whaling industry during the 17th century, and in 1702, Quakerism got a foothold on the island because a local matriarch, Mary Coffin Starbuck, was converted to the faith. The Nantucket Quakers continued to enjoy accumulating wealth, even if they did not flaunt it and instead plowed much of their profits back into the whaling business. Quakers did not see any contradiction between their religious beliefs and capitalist faith—a faith in the profit motive and the goodness of accumulating wealth without restraint. As Philbrick also notes, the captains of the whaling industry felt no remorse about cutting corners when it came to outfitting their ships—shorting the men on food and other supplies and paying the lowest-ranking sailors almost nothing for their work on long sea voyages.

Cannibalism and the Marquesas Islands

Cannibalism (also called anthropophagy), or the human consumption of human flesh, was a widespread phenomenon in prehistory and has been found among certain groups on most continents. Sometimes human flesh was viewed as food; sometimes portions of a body (such as organs) were eaten as part of a ritual. Ritual murder and cannibalism are also linked. Sometimes the body of a dead person was eaten as a form of respect after he or she had died. Some islands of the South Pacific have been associated with cannibalism, including the Marquesas in the South Pacific Ocean. These volcanic islands, under the control of France, are about 700 miles northeast of Tahiti.

It cannot be said with certainty how much cannibalism was actually practiced on the Marquesas Islands, since some stories may have been invented or exaggerated. According to anthropologist Emily Donaldson, historic instances are hard to prove, since the stories are always secondhand. Still, both historic accounts and tales of islanders mention cannibalism, which means that some form of the practice probably occurred. According to accounts of missionaries, researchers, and travelers, these were ritualized practices that helped maintain social stability among tribes and seemed to be an act of revenge to symbolically strip an enemy of power. However, by the time of the sinking of the Essex, Nantucketers were already getting good reports from sailors who visited the Marquesas and found friendly natives and not cannibals.

As Philbrick explains, after the Essex is sunk by a whale and the crew gets into the whaleboats and must set a course to save themselves, both Captain George Pollard and his officers are afraid to head to the Marquesas, some 1,200 miles away, because they believe these islands are populated by cannibals. Pollard proposes sailing 2,000 miles to the Society Islands, where Tahiti is located, but his ignorant officers overrule this idea as well, fearing the natives are cut from the same cannibalistic cloth as their Marquesan brethren. The lack of information about these South Pacific islands was instrumental in the captain's choosing a much longer destination, which cost the lives of about two-thirds of the crew.

William Bligh and Sir Ernest Shackleton

Nathaniel Philbrick makes frequent allusions to Captain William Bligh, the ill-fated commander of the Bounty, and Sir Ernest Shackleton, the heroic commander of an Antarctic expedition. The author uses the distances they traversed as a point of comparison with the travels of the Essex sailors in open boats. He also compares the leadership styles of Bligh and Shackleton with Captain George Pollard Jr. and first mate Owen Chase.

William Bligh was an English navigator, explorer, and commander of the HMS Bounty, on which members of the crew famously mutinied after setting out on a scientific expedition to Tahiti in 1787. The purpose of the trip was to collect breadfruit cultivars, which the English thought would be a good subsistence food for Caribbean slaves. In April 1789, during the return trip to England, first mate Fletcher Christian and nine other men turned against Bligh and put him in an open boat with navigational instruments, five days' worth of food, and 18 men, mostly loyal followers. Two months later Bligh successfully reached Timor in Indonesia, some 3,600 miles from where he started, in contrast to Captain George Pollard Jr., who sailed 4,500 miles in an open boat. Bligh and his men traveled to Jakarta on the island of Java and then on to England. Bligh famously delivered all but one of his crew members to safety (one had been killed at an island stop where the native people were hostile). Some of the Bounty mutineers escaped punishment by starting a colony on Pitcairn Island, where their descendants live.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, an Anglo-Irish explorer, left England in 1914, leading the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His mission was to cross the continent of Antarctica, but his ship Endurance was trapped for 10 months before being crushed in the pack ice with the spring thaw. He and his crew drifted on an ice floe for another six months, eating local animals and finally their dogs. When the ice floe broke in two, the men got into three lifeboats and escaped to Elephant Island, ice-covered ground off the coast of Antarctica, reaching it after seven days. Shackleton then had to sail 800 miles to South Georgia Island in the South Pole to get help. He took five men, and when they arrived, he and two of his party traversed South Georgia across mountainous terrain. Shackleton returned to Elephant Island, successfully rescuing the remaining 22 men. He is known as an extraordinary leader. Although he didn't travel as far as the men shipwrecked from the Essex, his feat of rescue remains astonishing. Philbrick compares Owen Chase's leadership skills with Shackleton's in a positive vein and notes that Chase was half Shackleton's age.

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