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 4: The Lees of Fire


"Land ho!" cried the lookout (62). But once again, the lookout had witnessed nothing more than a fog-bank mirage. The Essex was headed around Cape Horn, one of the most dangerous passages in all the world's oceans. While squalls and mountainous waves slammed the ship with the force of cannonballs, the Nantucketer ship was hardly fazed, taking just over a month to pass around the cape. When they arrived at the island of St. Mary's, they found themselves among the good company of other Nantucket vessels, but only to learn of the bad news in South America: the political situation in Chile and Peru was extremely volatile and most vessels were having a miserable whaling season.

But Pollard's men had filled over 450 barrels of oil, the equivalent of 11 whales, which had really exhausted the crew. But their energy would be renewed with what was always the greatest motivator: letters from home. Of course, not all the sailors received letters, and so they turned to newspapers and looking on as others read their letters, though neither remedy seemed to help. On land, the sailors would exchange stories about ships that had fallen to scurvy, others that had landed over 2000 barrels of oil in a single vicinity, and lament the frightening and unfamiliar sounds of the night in South America.

They had gotten what they came for, so it was time to head toward the Galapagos Islands, which sat approximately 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador. It was there that the crew witnessed the rare sight of copulating sperm whales and baby whales. The baby whales are raised by herds of females and then leave on their own only to come back in their late twenties, much like the social traditions back on Nantucket.

The Essex had developed a leak. They turned the boat on its side and did the best they could to fill it with a sludge like substance not exactly suited to the job. They had made it to Hood Island and began collecting tortoises for the ship. Benjamin Lawrence was unlucky enough to have carried a tortoise across the island only to discover that he had gone in the exact opposite direction as what he had intended. He cut off another tortoise's head and drank its cool blood to gather the energy to carry the tortoise back to the ship through the long night ahead. These tortoises were special because they could live for more than a year without sustenance of any kind.

Thomas Chappel, one of the boatsteerer's decided to play a prank on the men's last day on the island. He set a small forest fire that ended up encapsulating the entire island. Pollard was furious, but the culprit did not reveal himself until much later, perhaps out of embarrassment.


Like in Chapter 3, there is a mirage at sea. Instead of a penguin or a man overboard, the crew thinks that they have come upon land. Perhaps their desire to see land had overtaken their consciences. When they did finally reach the coast of South America, they were met with a similar mixture of pleasantries and fright that had accompanied them the whole trip. Some of the men received letters from home - a welcome wake-up from their own isolated thoughts and journals - but the political situation was volatile. They would not be traveling into town and drinking beers like in Ron Howard's film version of the events, but rather moving as quickly as possible back to the sea.

Philbrick does not take the reader through the killing of each whale, because the process has already been laid out in detail. The reader can comprehend the exhaustion felt after the killing of one whale, but perhaps the 11 whales they had recently killed left them in a state so far gone that the reader could not possibly relate. Indeed, the sheer length of the journey is much more than can be expounded on in a single book.

The witnessing of copulation and young whales (calfs) is a milestone, because it gives the whales, previously referred to as "warm-blooded oil deposits" (ii), a likeness to humans that the sailors probably did not desire to acknowledge. Nevertheless, the men depended on the death of these creatures for their own livelihoods, providing yet another paradox of their lives at sea.

The tortoise that Lawrence carried on his back represents the stern leadership that must be strictly followed. If he were to not come back with a tortoise, he would be shamed and told to get one, so he might as well put the pressure on himself. When Chappel set fire to the island, it was a sign that disobeying commands is not only ill-advised by the leadership, but also from the sailors. Nobody appreciated this prank.