In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Preface : February 23, 1821 and Crew of the Essex | Summary


Each chapter has a section of notes. The notes appear together at the end of the narrative, along with chapter headings. The notes contain some additional information that has not been included in the narrative, mostly related to historical, social, and scientific context. Also provided in the notes is information about the author's source materials. A map of the voyage of the Essex appears in Chapter 3, and a map of the voyages of the Essex whaleboats appears in Chapter 12. Related photographs and a few drawings appear in the epilogue.


The year is 1821. For over a century, the global whale oil business has been centered in the tiny island of Nantucket, just off the coast of southern New England. Many of the whalers are Quakers who espouse pacifism yet engage in the brutal business of killing the planet's largest mammals. Once a whale is sighted, six men leave the whaleship and row out in a smaller boat to harpoon the 60-ton leviathan. Then they stab it to death with a lance. Afterward, they rip off its blubber, cut it up, and boil it into high-grade oil that will be used to light the streets of America.

On a February, morning the whaleship Dauphin spots a small whaleboat, about 25 feet long, on the open sea. When they get close enough, they see that the craft is littered with bones. To their surprise, two men, barely alive and covered in sores, are gnawing on the bones of their dead shipmates. The survivors taken aboard tell the tale of the "sinking of the whale-ship Essex by an enraged sperm whale." Their tale becomes "one of the most well-known marine disasters of the nineteenth century" and the inspiration for "the climactic scene of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick." Of the 20 men who escaped the Essex, only eight survived. The two rescued by the Dauphin had sailed some 4,500 nautical miles.

Most of what is known about the disaster comes from an account written about nine months later by Owen Chase, the ship's first mate. A second account written by Thomas Nickerson, the Essex's cabin boy, surfaced in the 20th century. Written much later in Nickerson's life, at the prodding of a writer who had stayed at Nickerson's boardinghouse on Nantucket, this account was published by the Nantucket Historical Association in 1984. The author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathaniel Philbrick, uses this new information to challenge and expand on some of what is written by Chase. The Essex disaster speaks to the "issues of class, race, leadership, and man's relationship to nature." And it spotlights Nantucket as "relentlessly acquisitive, technologically advanced, with a religious sense of its own destiny," a microcosm of "what America would become."

The captain and 21-member crew are listed after the preface.


The author sets up his story by providing a vivid tableau of the moment when two of the survivors are spotted in the Pacific Ocean after a grueling journey of 4,500 miles. They are gnawing on the bones of their shipmates. The topic of cannibalism, central to the story, is introduced immediately, so the reader knows the shipwrecked men went to the extreme of eating their fellow humans. The violence of whaling is tied to the violence occurring on the whaleboats as well. The narrator points out the situational irony of the Quaker commitment to pacifism, which for them meant nonviolence. Yet the compassion of the Nantucket Quakers was limited to their own species (and even then it was not that expansive, as will be demonstrated in subsequent chapters). Not only were Nantucketers willing to kill whales, among the largest mammals on the planet, in large numbers, they were willing to do so brutally. Although 19th-century whalers may have thought of whales as fish, they knew they were mammals, but it hardly made a difference. In stabbing the whale, usually several times, the whaler had to find the animal's central arteries and cause it to choke to death on its own blood. Also violent was the wanton waste of the rest of the whale carcass, which was eaten, not wasted, in indigenous cultures in America.

Nathaniel Philbrick also hints at the greed inherent in the whale oil business, which made Nantucketers rich. He sees this as a microcosm of what would happen in the America that was evolving—technologically advanced, greedy, and self-righteous about its own destiny. While the author makes this connection at the beginning of his account and clearly demonstrates how Nantucket became a powerhouse of capitalism, he does not explore the larger story of American capitalism in the following chapters.

He makes clear that his retelling of the Essex disaster will come primarily from two eyewitnesses—the first mate Owen Chase and the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson. The advantage Philbrick has over previous scholars is access to Nickerson's account, which became available for the first time in 1984. While Chase wrote his account shortly after the event, Nickerson wrote his at the prodding of a writer when he was past 70. Philbrick is able to use both accounts to provide a more comprehensive understanding of what happened. In fact, Philbrick published Nickerson's and Chase's accounts, along with other related documents, in a book he edited: The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale (2000). This volume provides key documents Philbrick uses to write In the Heart of the Sea.

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