Your past is always your past. Even if you try to forget it, it will remember you. Every place has its own history, and Nantucket, a small island of 14 miles is no exception. Now a fashionable resort with wide open beaches, Nantucket was once the ruthless whaling capital of the world and one of the wealthiest communities in America. Virtually eliminating the whale population wherever they voyaged with no regard to the environment, the Nantuckers sustained one of the bloodiest businesses in the world. However in the 18th century, the Nantuckers were able to get a glimpse of nature’s true power and a taste of the consequences of their barbarous acts. In 1821, a whaling ship encountered a small boat near the coast of Chile containing two deranged men surrounded by human bones. The two were among eight survivors of one of the most well-known marine disasters of the 19th century. With a mastery of language that rarely falters, Philbrick spins a ghastly, irresistible tale, depicting the vast amount of greed in the brutal whale business carried out in the 19th century, and makes a strong argument about the necessity of man remaining humble in the face of nature.
In ‘In the Heart of the Sea,’ Nathaniel Philbrick tells the chilling story of the 2 year journey of the whaleship Essex, a 240-ton Nantucket whaleship that was sunk by an 80-ton sperm whale. Of the 20 men aboard the two boats, only eight would remain alive through the ravages of thirst, hunger and desperation that beset the voyage. Philbrick begins with a brief history of Nantucket itself, providing information on the Nantucket whaling industry as well as the town economy’s dependence on whaling. With the description Philbrick conveys the punishing regimen of whaling itself, giving context to the story of the officers and crew members who embarked on the Essex. Philbrick then talks about the culture of ruthless greed that defined the Nantucket society at that time. Philbrick wrote, ‘No matter how much the inhabitants might try to hide it, there was a savagery about this island, a blood lust and pride that bound every mother, father and child in a clannish commitment to the hunt.” Disaster struck more than a year after the Essex’s departure. The ship was about 2,000 miles from the nearest coast looking for whales in a freshly discovered whaling area when a huge 80-ton sperm whale, suddenly rammed it. Although whales, even massive ones, usually flee in panic from a ship, this whale came right for the ship. It could have been possible that the first ramming may have been an accident with the whale mistaking the ship for another member of its species. However, the second attack was clearly intended, this mysterious whale came right back with even more rage and rammed the ship a second time, successfully sinking it. The crew members managed to get a small amount of food and water off the ship before it went down. With just three operational whaleboats, and thousands of miles of open sea to cross, what came was a voyage of shocking adversity, which the survivors survived by eating those who died.
Throughout the book Philbrick describes with emphasis the various acts of greed, exposing the horrendous consequences of Big Businesses being left to run awry. The whole whaling industry in the 19th century was driven by greed. As whale populations near whaling towns depleted, ships began to voyage farther and farther to more remote grounds in hope of filling up their hold with precious sperm whale oil. Why did Captain Pollard and First Mate Chase decide to sail thousands of miles west despite warning from shipwrecked Spaniards that claimed to have been attacked by a white whale? Greed. Greed didn’t limit itself to just the crew, the shipowners held profits above the irreplaceable lives of the crew as well. ‘One naval architect’s calculations project that if the Essex had been a new ship, her oak planking would have withstood even this tremendous blow. Since the whale did punch a hole in the bow, the Essex’s twenty-one-year-old planking must have been significantly weakened by rot or marine growth.’. Clearly this ghastly disaster could have been avoided if the shipowners garnered less greed and more prudence. Keeping off repairs until absolutely necessary contributed to the shipwreck and the lives lost. Philbrick shows the reader the impact of acts of greed through powerful imagery that has a lasting effect. Although this greed remains unchecked for the bulk of “In the Heart of the Sea”, there’s one thing that is certain — what goes around, comes around.
One of the powerful arguments made by Philbrick in the book is the need for man to remain humble in the face of nature. Throughout the book the whalers’ audacity in front of the natural world is shown – they believed that they were above all, the weather, the sea, and even its creatures. The image of a lone ship in a vast ocean gave a different statement. Often the story of The Essex is seen as the story of two men, Captain Pollard and First Mate Chase, at odds with each other. But this is not true; it is really the story of man against nature and nature saying, ‘No.’ The whalemen finally started to experience the consequences of their years of barbarous acts and suffer for their crimes. “Without their ship to protect them, the hunters had become the prey.” The whalemen learnt to respect nature the hard way. This is one of the arguments Philbrick develops throughout the book skillfully, showing the cruel acts committed against nature with vivid imagery Philbrick makes the reader reflect upon their own contribution to the unethical and perilous quest for dominion over nature and its resources.
“In The Heart Of The Sea” conveys two simple but profound messages; greed destroys, nature prevails. Nathaniel Philbrick does an amazing job of telling the story. Every story’s most important part is its lessons. Even for a history novel, there isn’t much of a moral lesson to be learnt. A short closing remark on the state of America’s economy due to greedy big businesses or the importance of environmentalism would have made the book a more contemporary read. However, the story itself, written so magnificently with multiple first person accounts, makes up for this lack of stress on the current lessons. In a world where the environment is being polluted at massive levels and big businesses are thriving, “In The Heart Of The Sea” is a must read for all ages. Not only is the story captivating and one that strikes awe, but it is also one that teaches us that every action has a reaction – we must think deeply about the negative impact we are creating on natural resources and how our greed might pay us back very soon into the future.