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 Preface: February 23, 1821


It's 1821 and a whaleship zig-zags across the Pacific Ocean in search of sperm whales to harvest their oil. It takes the entire crew equipped with harpoons and lances from inside small specialized rowboats to take down these sixty-ton creatures, but that is only the beginning of their work. Transforming the whale carcass into prized oil requires just as much, if not more, stamina, strength, and tenacity all while floating adrift across the limitless Pacific Ocean. For over a century, it was the Quaker island of Nantucket that would dominate the this brutal business of whaling across the world. In fact, on that very February morning in 1821, a Nantucket whaleship bore witness to a strangely bare whaleship with makeshift walls and salt-encrusted masts near the Chilean coast. The captain ordered the crew to stop the boat.

Given a closer look, they saw that the floorboards were littered with human bones and there are two derelict men covered in sores and sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. Instead of smiling at their rescue-team, they desperately clung to their bones. Later on, one of the survivors told his nightmarish story, the story that inspired the climactic scene of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

In contrast to Melville's novel though, the sinking of the ship was only the beginning of these men's trouble. Originally a crew of twenty, they were now eight. In the Heart of the Sea seeks to put together the various individual, and at times contrasting, accounts of what happened during that fateful trip. Owen Chase, the ship's first mate, had the most widely distributed version of the story, having the help of a ghostwriter, but Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy and youngest member of the crew, also published a ragged manuscript account of the attack on the whaleship Essex.

Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of this book, has several points of contact with the Essex, including a father who taught English and focused on American sea fiction, an uncle who wrote a poem about the attack, and his own recent migration to Nantucket to reside with his family. Having made it to the island, he found that many others had written accounts of the attack as well, yet his thirst to know more about the disaster only increased. Problems of psychology, physiology, navigation, oceanography, and even animal behavior all created an unbelievably difficult narrative to account for, but also served to show how Nantucket foreshadowed the future of America as a nation.


Philbrick uses the preface to foreshadow the true horror of the events as they are told in the respective narratives of Nickerson, Chase, and Pollard's tales as opposed to Melville's. Strangely enough, Ron Howard's 2015 film based on Philbrick's book highlights Melville's relationship to the story by having him interview Thomas Nickerson later in life. Whereas Moby-Dick has been adapted several dozen times, this was the first time that the true tale of the crash of the Essex was told, yet it remains entangled with Melville's fictional account.

Philbrick's own deep research into this event also shows in this preface. Unlike Nickerson and Chase, Philbrick has the added perspective of being able to combine the anthropological account of Nantucket and America in the early 19th century to the story as well. Nickerson's ghostwriter was another boy from Nantucket who went on to Harvard and studied English. This is one of the few instances of Nantucketers not being whalers or generally being a part of the industry. Nantucket also values itself as an abolitionist town, though its treatment of blacks was not exactly up to par with modern standards. Although Frederick Douglass, a famous escaped slave, gave his first speech to an all-white audience in Nantucket, we can see that the treatment of blacks on the whaleship Essex did not exceed many parts of the nation in terms of equity.