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 11: Games of Chance


There was barely a pound of tack left and Lawson Thomas, one of the African Americans on Hendricks's boat, was dead. Nobody dared say what was on all of their minds - should they deliver the body to the sea or to their mouths? This wasn't a new prospect: for as long as sailors had traveled the world, dead shipmates were sources of sustenance. Whereas they had feared being eaten by cannibals months before, they were now contemplating cannibalism themselves.

First they had to consign the most obvious signs of humanity to the sea: the head, hands, feet, and skin. Only two days later, another African American perished and was eaten. Whereas a normal human body may yield up to 66 pounds of edible meat, the starvation diets afforded to these men likely provided only 30 or so pounds of extremely lean meat.

Pollard had the biggest advantage with his stout figure and tendency toward corpulence, but meanwhile, Chase's crew barely had the strength move about the boat, resorting to attempts at gnawing off the leather holders on the oars, only to realize that they didn't have to strength to penetrate the hide. Yet they owed it to each other to cling as tenaciously to life as possible.

The rain turned cold and they had no choice but to try to head north, back to the equator to avoid the very real threat of hypothermia. The most they could do was move parallel to the coast of South America. Meanwhile, yet another of Hendricks's crew died. An African American member of Pollard's crew also died and was eaten. William Bond was the only African American surviving in the whole crew of the Essex, which may have been predicted because, with his position as steward on the ship, he enjoyed a much more balanced and nutritional diet than his black colleagues.

The availability of meat really didn't matter though, because without the fat that the human body requires to digest meat, the 3000+ calories that they would consume had extremely limited nutritional value. But the men in Pollard's boat could not withstand the hunger pangs after having consumed the very last bit of Samuel Reed, the last man to have died. They looked at each other with horrid thoughts, and Charles Ramsdell finally uttered that they should cast lots.

Quakers, or 'Friends' as they call themselves, not only disallow murder, but also playing games of chance, so this situation was expressly forbidden for most of the men. Had they employed the strategy employed by the Polly ten years earlier, using their dead shipmate's body as bait to catch sharks, they never would have ended up in this dire situation. But they didn't know about the Polly or its fate.

Owen Coffin agreed that they must cast lots. When the lots were drawn, however, it was upon his name that it fell. Pollard felt so terribly that the lot had landed on his first cousin that he offered to take his place. Nickerson truly believed that Pollard would have done so in a heartbeat, but Coffin made clear that there would be no trading of lots. The lots were cast again to see who would have to kill him and it fell upon Ramsdell, Coffin's closest friend and originator of the idea.

He refused to do it, but Coffin assured him that the lots had been fairly drawn. He spoke a parting message to his mother, which Pollard promised to deliver to his mother if he should survive the journey home. After a moment of silence, Coffin was dispatched.


The racism that had led to the early deaths of the African Americans onboard was already completed beforehand, so their deaths were unfortunately somewhat predictable. As Philbrick points out though, the cruelty of these cannibalistic meals is that the men were left feeling more hunger than before and did not have the fat required to digest the meat.

The sailors did not think of the ingenuity of the earlier crew on the Polly - they ate the bodies as they were. But considering the episode last chapter in which Chase could not even dent the skin of an attacking shark, they might not have had much luck in getting a creature onboard to eat. In any case, they were still in the 'desolate region' and hope was severely limited in all regards as they attempted to reach the shore.

Ramsdell's following through on the dirty deed of killing his best friend is perhaps one of the most horrific moments of this story. It is a moment that would haunt Pollard for the rest of his days because of his relationship to Owen Coffin and Owen's mother. In Ron Howard's film adaptation, Coffin draws the lot to shoot Pollard instead. But he won't do it because he says the boat needs the captain's leadership. Instead, he shoots himself and the gun falls into the ocean. While there were rumors of Pollard switching his fate with Coffin on the boat, Philbrick lays out Nickerson's account, which is perhaps the most trustworthy of the accounts: this clarifies that it was Pollard who had offered to take the bullet in place of his cousin. Coffin refused. Again, we see the value of the crew over any particular individual, even in life-and-death matters.