Overview: I decided to read this book because it was on Ryan Holiday’s top books of 2014 list. As in previous years, I wasn’t disappointed with his recwwommendation. The Heart of the Sea is a story about the 1820 journey of a Nantucket whaleship known as the Essex. The ship is plagued by troubles from the onset of the expedition, and the tone is set after the boat nearly capsizes in the first days after leaving the port. Eventually the ship is rammed by a giant sperm whale, causing the Essex to sink, and leaving the crew with a limited amount of supplies spread out among twenty men and three whaleboats (smallest boats used in the capture of the whales). The men endure ninety some days at sea on their small boats, facing severe consequences of starvation, and ultimately resorting to cannibalism in order for a select few to survive.
The story opens you up to a world that is hard to believe ever existed. There was a lot of money to be made in whaling (through the extraction of whale oil), but the difficulty and risk that came with it was insane. This is a truly incredible story that will take you on a journey to the edges of the human primal instinct.
Lesson: In the face of sustained deprivation of the most basic human needs, we are capable of being overwhelmed with some of the most primal instincts as we fight for our survival. As disturbing as something like cannibalism is to think about, after learning about the late stages of starvation in this book, I can understand how it happens.
Several other lessons can be taken from this book (if the captain would have trusted his initial decisions instead of being swayed by the crew the situation likely wouldn’t have been as dire), and in general learning about something I knew nothing about was fascinating.
Important Passages (Per Sean):
EVEN though it is little remembered today, the sinking of the whale-ship Essex by an enraged sperm whale was one of the most well -known marine disasters of the nineteenth century. Nearly every child in America read about it in school . It was the event that inspired the climactic scene of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Still, the portrait that emerges— of a community of achievers attempting to cope with a potentially devastating loneliness— makes the women’s dependence on opium perhaps easier to understand. The ready availability of the drug on the island (opium was included in every whaleship’s medical chest) combined with the inhabitants’ wealth may also help to explain why the drug was so widely used in Nantucket.
In a tight spot , a captain didn’t care if a seaman was white or black; he just wanted to know he could count on the man to complete his appointed task.
It was more than a realization that the whaling life might be harsher than he had been led to believe. Now that the island had slipped over the horizon, Nickerson began to understand, as only an adolescent on the verge of adulthood can understand, that the carefree days of childhood were gone forever: “Then it was that I, for the first time, realized that I was alone upon a wide and an unfeeling world . . . without one relative or friend to bestow one kind word upon me.” Not till then did Nickerson begin to appreciate “the full sacrifice that I had made.”
When a ship is heeled over by forty-five degrees or more, her hull might be compared to a fat man on the short end of a lopsided seesaw.
“It is painful to witness the death of the smallest of God’s created beings , much more, one in which life is so vigorously maintained as the Whale! And when I saw this, the largest and most terrible of all created animals bleeding, quivering , dying a victim to the cunning of man, my feelings were indeed peculiar!”
ambergris is a fatty substance used to make perfume and was worth more than its weight in gold.
Just as the skinned corpses of buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West, so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean in the early nineteenth century.
It was acting strangely. Instead of fleeing in panic, it was floating quietly on the surface of the water, puffing occasionally through its blowhole, as if it were watching them. After spouting two or three times, the whale dove, then surfaced less than thirty-five yards from the ship.
Never before, in the entire history of the Nantucket whale fishery, had a whale been known to attack a ship. In 1807 the whaleship Union had accidentally plowed into a sperm whale at night and sunk, but something very different was happening here.
With only a few casks of wine to share among more than 150 people, the raft quickly became a chaotic hell ship. Vicious fighting broke out between a faction of alcohol-crazed soldiers and some more levelheaded but equally desperate settlers. Two weeks later, when the brig Argus sighted the raft, only fifteen people were left alive.
Strangest of all, as their eyes sunk into their skulls and their cheekbones projected, they all began to look alike, their identities obliterated by dehydration and starvation.
“it could neither be remedied, nor could sorrow secure their return; but it was impossible to prevent ourselves feeling all the poignancy and bitterness that characterizes the separation of men who have long suffered in each other’s company, and whose interests and feelings fate had so closely linked together.”
For as long as men had been sailing the world’s oceans, famished sailors had been sustaining themselves on the remains of dead shipmates. 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 since, according to one historian, “suspicion of this practice among starving castaways was a routine reaction .”
Two months after deciding to spurn the Society Islands because, in Pollard’s words, “we feared we should be devoured by cannibals,” they were about to eat one of their own shipmates.