In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Main Ideas


Capitalistic Greed

While the story of the Essex tragedy demonstrates the daring, bravery, inventiveness, strength, and intelligence of 19th century whalers, it also quite effectively draws a picture of the Nantucket whaling industry—in its heyday second to none in the world—as an exemplar of the capitalistic greed that would make the United States the dominant world power. The nature of capitalism is an incessant need to grow the economy, as quickly as possible, and growth is fueled by greed.

When the Nantucket whalers first realized the money to be had in whale oil, they immediately killed all the whales in the vicinity and then began the unbridled killing of whales worldwide with no thought to the consequences. Time and time again humanity has seen how the ecosystem is damaged when a species is killed off. Second, the Nantucketers exploited Native Americans to help them catch whales, to the extent that they turned many of them into virtual slaves as indentured servants until the Indian population was wiped out. The Nantucketers also exploited the whalemen, regardless of race, by underprovisioning ships and giving the low-level workers bad food and not enough of it. The ships themselves were also not as safe as they could be because the ship owners cut corners to accumulate more dollars. Thus, as Philbrick points out, Nantucket can be seen as a microcosm of what then happened on a greater scale as America came to prominence on the world stage. By the 1920s and 1930s the United States began to regulate capitalism, and the tug-of-war between business interests and human interests continues even today.

Man versus the Natural World

For thousands of years of prehistory the human species was at the mercy of nature, but as humans evolved they became more intelligent and got the upper hand. The Scientific Revolution was the beginning of humanity's use of technology to tame the natural world. Technology has made people's lives easier, safer, and more enjoyable. Moreover, Western peoples, who have been the drivers of technological development, adopted a quasi-religious philosophy in which they determined it was their right to dominate nature. In their view, God had made the world so that the top predator could and should use all the resources available in any way they saw fit. Carolyn Merchant, an ecofeminist who famously wrote about this progression in The Death of Nature, explains how Francis Bacon, an early philosopher of science, was the first to formulate this idea as a doctrine. The result was that humanity has a habit of not thinking about the effects of technology or the unbridled exploitation of natural resources.

The story of the whale industry is a perfect illustration of how people sought to dominate the whales and exploit them for commercial purposes. This was made possible by the growth of whaling ventures, along with better killing technology and improved sea craft. In the Heart of the Sea vividly illustrates how the whalemen brutally killed whales as well as other animals (such as the Galapagos turtles) to get on with their work. They used only the parts of the whale that could make them quick money and discarded unfathomable amounts of dead whale carcasses in the ocean. While people might think that some of the whale populations have come back because of active efforts of whale conservation and worldwide moratoriums on rampant whale killing, this is only partially true. What really saved the whales was that man found oil in the ground—and created a whole new set of problems.


Philbrick's account of the Essex disaster clearly shows how much people can suffer in the service of preserving their lives and to what extent they will go to do so. This is not to say this is a bad thing. Human beings are genetically programmed to preserve themselves, as are all living creatures. And the advantage a primate like man has is a highly developed brain with a consciousness of its own mortality. This renders life more precious to a human being, perhaps, than to other species because human beings understand they will cease to exist. This gives them even greater incentive to preserve themselves for as long as possible. Philbrick's account of the whalemen's suffering touches the reader's most visceral fears—not only because it is a reminder of how painful life can get, but also because the story shows how quickly a humane person can turn into a basic animal and shed the veneer of civilization and moral training. The crew of the Essex went through excruciating hunger and thirst, yet still they wanted to live. They did not kill themselves. Moreover, they were even willing to eat dead humans to keep their bodies going. Finally—and most unnerving and upsetting—they were willing to kill another person so they might be able to continue living.

Leadership in Extreme Circumstances

Philbrick stresses the importance of leadership as a key theme by adding the backstories of two exemplary leaders: Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain William Bligh. Shackleton was an Anglo-British explorer who performed the amazing rescue of his crew of 27 over a period of almost two years, after his ship was destroyed by ice. Similarly, William Bligh was the commander of the Bounty who was put out on an open boat with 18 men after his second in command mutinied. Bligh was given only a few days' supply of food and a minimum of navigation equipment, yet he rescued his men, losing only one to a hostile native on an island where he had stopped. Philbrick uses these two extraordinary leaders as points of comparison. Clearly, Captain George Pollard Jr. doesn't measure up. He takes bad advice from his officers instead of telling them what to do, which results in the deaths of about two thirds of his men. Owen Chase is not a good leader either, since he is responsible for the bad advice. Philbrick gives Chase a lot of credit, nonetheless, for keeping up the morale on his whaleboat, and he certainly is responsible for saving two men, while Pollard can be given credit for saving one. As an overall picture, the tragedy of the Essex happens because inexperienced people with mediocre leadership abilities are placed in command.

Role of Race and Class

Not surprisingly, people take their race and class prejudices to sea. First, the Nantucketers consider themselves to be better than everyone else, and therefore they remain clannish after the disaster and assemble the men in the whaleboats to reflect the favoritism of their in-group. Second, the black sailors were the first men to die, following the sickly Nantucketer Matthew Joy, and Philbrick speculates the African Americans may have gotten some help in their dying, although there is no evidence for this in the accounts of the survivors. But no doubt the clannishness of the Nantucketers had some role in the fact that of the eight men who survived, five were from Nantucket. The other three were not, but they stayed on Henderson Island and were rescued later. They chose not to continue the ordeal on the whaleboats.

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