In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1: Nantucket


Thomas Nickerson, a fourteen-year-old, remembered the sheer glee he felt upon the moment that he stepped aboard the whaleship Essex for the first time. He explored the every cranny of the oak and pine construction that reeked of oil, blood, tobacco juice, food, and salt. While the rest of the world's economy sunk in depression, Nantucket was on its way to becoming the richest town in America. Nantucket was home to a bustling port that Nickerson and other children had considered their playground for much of their lives. In fact, some of these friends, Barzillai Ray, Charles Ramsdell, and the Essex's new captain's cousin, Owen Coffin, were also boarding the ship that day. The Essex had a reputation on Nantucket as a lucky ship, making good returns at each two-year interval. But a town so obsessed with omens could not help but take note that a comet appeared in the night sky while the Essex was being outfitted for the journey.

A common feature of Nantucket homes is a roof-mounted platform known as a walk, which was used to put out chimney fires with a bucket of sand, but also served as a nice space to look out to sea with a spyglass. The local newspaper made a note that the appearance of this comet could be a sign that something unusual was about to happen. There were also rumors of a fifty-foot underwater serpent with black eyes dwelling near the coast of New England. Nantucketers' superstition came from their daily experience with the unpredictable sea - in winter, wrecks occurred almost daily. Though the first settlers had tried to live as farmers, it proved unsustainable and the sea looked more and more attractive to them as the years went on. They started harvesting right whales, so named because they were the "right whale to kill," but they did not have the courage to pursue these whales in boats. But one day, as legend has it, a Cape Codder named Ichabod Paddock saw some whales spouting much further off and determined that his grandchildren would be hunting them for their bread. The first boats were small and launched from the shore with the help of the native Wampanoag islanders. They killed a sperm whale, which turned out to have far more readily available and far superior oil in its head than the right whale. It didn't take long for this information to wipe out the entire local whale population.

Their efforts were applauded by writers like Emerson, and even by a British Parliament member in a speech in 1775. The trips that used to last only nine months now increased to two- and three-year voyages, traveling to distant places such as the African coast and the Falkland Islands by the southern tip of South America. However, most Nantucketers only witnessed the presence of a full whale when it washed on shore, which happened very rarely. Nickerson was five years old when he saw his first whale.

Through the seventeenth century, Nantucketers successfully resisted establishing any sort of religion on the island, but by 1702, the matriarch of the island, Mary Coffin Starbuck, whose word was the law, had succumbed to the charisma of a Quaker missionary. The Society of Friends, as the Quakers called themselves, depended on their own witnessing of God's presence rather than a minister's; they were also rather economically savvy, reinvesting money into the whaling industry rather than building fancy homes. Indeed, the islanders had a peaceful life on the island, but at sea their pacifism was disbanded by the bloody havoc of their whaling endeavors.

In fact, the town was rather ramshackle, in spite of their incredible wealth and familial society. But this generosity extended only to the specific bunch of people who were lucky enough to have two Nantucket-born parents and had been born on the island themselves. Thomas Nickerson was not so lucky as to have this distinction. Though he was practically the same as the other boys, his father was a Cape Codder and he had been born on a different sound. The island was organized so that the wealthy shipowners lived far from the shore, while the mates would live "under the bank" at the foot of the hill. But regardless of class, the citizens of Nantucket came together on Thursdays and Sundays to the Great Meeting House of the Society of Friends, where young men and women courted each other with eye contact amid the long silences of a typical Quaker meeting.

There was rumored to be a secret society of young women on the island whose members pledged to marry only men who had already killed a whale. But this was accompanied by the uncomfortable reality that almost a quarter of the women over the age of twenty-three had been widowed by the sea. Nickerson's parents had both passed away as well. He was one of three orphans aboard the Essex.

As for the other three-quarters of married women on Nantucket, they led relatively empowered and educated livelihoods in a three-years-away, three-months-at-home rhythm. Although a quaint, innocent portrait of their social life may be painted with the understanding of their religious devotions, historical accounts have shown that opium addictions were many, and sexual aids known as "he's-at-homes" were abundant.

Nickerson may have enjoyed exploring the Essex's interior at first, but it was soon time for him to clean it out as newly signed members were always expected to do. The wage was uncertain because whalemen worked for a share of the total take at the end of the voyage. Of the approximate $26,500 profit, the cabin boy would often be paid less than $150 for two years' work.

The Essex was 20 years old by the time Nickerson boarded, which meant that it had begun to exhibit serious structural deterioration. Gideon Folger and Sons, the owners of this ship, were waiting for the delivery of a new, much larger ship, the Aurora, so they would not have spent too much money on this repair, though the Essex certainly required it. Some historians have speculated that it was Quakerism itself that was at the root of ruthless business practices such as under-provisioning the ship and offering fractions as low as 1/777 lay for the crew's many years of work. Since there were only so many Nantucketers to go around, shipowners also had to hire "green hands," off-islanders with no sailing experience. A sign that a man was looking for work was his being by the shores whittling; depending on the direction of the whittling, toward himself or away, the man would indicate whether he was looking to be on crew or to become a mate. Off-islanders whittled in any way they could, lacked the Quakerian vernacular and distinctly Nantucket accent, so they were unwittingly making themselves known in many ways.

The ship was loaded with two and a half years of food and thousands of gallons of freshwater which would be replaced with whale oil along the trip, keeping the ship constantly full. In a tight spot, Pollard, the first-time captain, had to amass a crew for the ship and took on many green hands and Africans, whom the officers commonly treated like brutes.

The final eve before their departure had arrived, but not without what was called a "gam" - something like a party between two ships' crews that were to leave the port at the same time. Although their neighbor crew would come back with only a quarter of the oil they were after, the men aboard the Essex had a far worse fate.


Nantucket gets a reputation as a superstitious place as well as the center of the whaling industry. Children are literally brought up by the harbor, where their playing activities and vocabularies are all concerned with whaling. In a place so riddled with stories of whales, it is no wonder that everyone has 'walks' built on the tops of their houses to see the ocean and the stars. An isolated place like Nantucket has grown bigger than its britches with the advent of the whaling industry, and this chapter reflects that. Perhaps it also shows just how out of place the men really are in the great Pacific Ocean.

The unfairness of the wages aboard the ship demonstrates Nantucket's ambitious capitalism and echoes back to its resistance to an establishing religion. It seems that they use Quakerism as a way to justify their lavish endeavors rather than to discourage them. Once cannot help but think of Benjamin Franklin and his intense belief in capitalism despite his Puritanical faith. Indeed, his own mother was born in Nantucket.

The chapter ends in a social gathering - the last that they will have for a long while, which foreshadows the men's dependence on journaling to keep themselves socially sane on the journey. Instead of singing and talking, there seems to be a great silence within the men who would console themselves by writing.