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 12: In the Eagle's Shadow


The only narrow chance at survival at this point was to be sighted by a ship. Chase allowed the men whatever ration they needed to stave off death, because they would not be likely to survive beyond five days on this diet. Unfortunately the increase in food intake brought back the hunger pangs that had left in their miserable states. Isaac Cole suddenly sat up and declared to Chase's boat that he would live as long as the whole lot of them, only to descend into frightful and incoherent ranting with an almost manic physical possession. For six hours, he twitched, moaned, whimpered, ran about, and then finally by 4pm, he was dead. It was theorized that in addition to dehydration and hypernatremia, he may have been suffering from a lack of magnesium, which can cause violent and strange behavior in extreme cases.

No one dared eat the flesh of the man who had died insane, though. They let the body sit baking in the sun for hours, but Chase's steely logic finally brought them to their senses: either they eat the kid or cast lots in a few days. They ate him.

Over in Pollard's boat, five days had passed since the execution of Owen Coffin and Barzillai Ray was dead. Psychologists who studied battle units in World War II discovered that no soldiers were able to function if their unit experienced losses of 75 percent or more. Not only did Pollard and Ramsdell witness the death of every man on their boat, but they also killed one, and ate the bodies.

Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence, and Thomas Nickerson had eaten the last of Isaac Cole, and there was now three days of hardtack left. They were five days from land and Chase was having tormented dreams of far-away ships and lands just out of reach. In reality, there was a cloud looming ahead of their track and the final leg was here. Nickerson could not take it, though. He drew a canvas over his face and declared that he wished to die immediately. Although Chase spoke encouraging words to Nickerson, he felt himself being persuaded by Nickerson's earnestness and had to draw away for his own safety. Lawrence stood at the front of the boat with remarkable fortitude and very wide eyes: "There's a sail!" (185) he cried.

He was right. There was no lookout on deck, so it took them over three hours to get sighted by the ship.

The accounts of shipwreck survivors are riddled with stories of captains refusing to take castaways aboard. Fortunately for these men, the captain of the Indian from London immediately insisted that they come onboard. The captain heard Chase's story and ordered the cook to serve the men tapioca pudding, a high-calorie, easy-to-digest food.

Meanwhile, Pollard and Ramsdell sailed on for the next five days about 300 miles south of the Indian. They were bashing the human bones of their colleagues open in order to suck out the bone marrow, which contained the fat their bodies required to survive. They drifted in an out of consciousness and shared a "collective confabulation" (187), a sort of shared fantasy world. They would talk to deceased shipmates, and family members who were not present, and lost their sense of time completely. They stuffed their pockets with finger bones until on February 23, the crew of the Dauphin discovered the men in their whaleboat.

Pollard was desperate to tell his story and Captain Paddack wrote it down, calling it the most "distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge" (189).


Philbrick's depiction of the end of life is about as historically and scientifically accurate as has ever been recorded. The men's instincts lead them to find the fat within their colleagues bones for their survival, and if cannibalism wasn't enough of a taboo to overcome, the men also overcome the taboo of consuming an insane person's body.

By this point in the book, we also begin to see a pattern that deaths and large events happen at approximately 4pm - from Matthew Joy's death to the sighting of Henderson Island to Isaac Cole's death. There is an odd significance in this time of day.

Philbrick includes many scientific studies in this chapter, both to heighten the suspense of their possible salvation as well as to demonstrate how precarious a situation they were really in. Whereas other sailors have been rejected by their rescuers, the men of the Essex were far too gone to not be saved. The captain could easily see that they would die the next day if they did not take them aboard.

Once again, it seems that the sailors find the most solace during this journey by writing, or in this case dictating to another person to write. Similarly, Philbrick's account of the journey can be seen as his own authorial reckoning with the past. By writing down the tale, it can finally rest. Whereas Nickerson and Chase both left out key details of the journey, the combination of these tales crushes egos and heightens the most important part: the truth of the story.