I recently–and belatedly–read “In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning account of the shipwreck that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick. A fascinating story for any sailor who’s ever known the nagging anxiety of being to sea in a small boat. In this case, the captain and crew are set adrift when their ship is stove in by an angry sperm whale and sinks. Left to their three open, light-weight whaleboats, they begin a 4,000-mile journey upwind from the waters northeast of the Marquesas toward what they hope is salvation in Chile. Only 8 of the 20 stranded sailors survive. Several of those that perish are eaten by the others. Bad things happen.
The survival-at-sea-story is a genre, of course. This one is richer than most because it’s larded with so much history and industry backstory. There’s all the fabulous detail about Nantucket and its brief moment as an industrial powerhouse during the heydays of whaling, when the island whale oil barons were the John D. Rockefellers of their era. And there’s the fine description of the dirty business of whaling–harpooning the harmless (usually) beasts, spearing them to death, then hauling them ship-side and laboriously flencing them of their blubber and beheading them and emptying their great heads of hundreds of gallons of spermaceti, the high quality oil that whalers mistook for semen and that give the sperm whale its name. The whole ghastly business was concluded in the conflagration of the trying pots, where the thick sheets of blubber were rendered into oil before being packed in barrels and stowed in the hold. A successful whaling expedition might bring in between 2,000 and 3,000 barrels of oil and take two to three years.
But for a writer, maybe the best parts of the book are the artifacts of its research. Philbrick lards his tale with descriptions of the first-hand sources that he used to write it: local histories, private journals, company correspondence, ship’s logs, personal letters, business documents et al. He also itemizes the historians (and one novelist) that came before him, and hints at their strengths and weaknesses. And, as a historian, he concludes with a hell of an index. It was all so fascinating, that I promptly returned to the library and checked out Philbrick’s follow-up work, “Sea of Glory, America’s Voyage of Discovery”. Perhaps another time, I’ll talk about that one.
What stands out about both books, though, is how intimately the small island of Nantucket and the remote Kingdom of Hawaii were tied together in the 19th Century. Whaling was part of it, albeit mostly after the sinking of the Essex. By 1846, more than 700 whaling ships a year visited Honolulu and Lahaina, most of them from either Nantucket or New Bedford. George Pollard, the unfortunate captain of the Essex, would get another ship when he finally returned to Nantucket. That ship would run aground on the unmarked reefs of French Frigate Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and Pollard and his mostly Nantucket crew would be rescued and carried to Honolulu to try to find passage home. (Pollard never got another berth; he finished his life as a nightwatchman in Nantucket.) Even today, curators at Honolulu’s Mission House Museum communicate regularly with their peers at the Nantucket Historical Association and its Whaling Museum. Several so-called Kanaka crewmen from the whalers lived in Nantucket boarding houses, and thousands of Nantucket crewmen caroused in the ports of Honolulu, Lahaina and Kealakekua. At the peak of the whale oil boom, whaling was the main engine of the Hawaii economy, and Hawaii was the most important port of call for the Nantucket whalers.
Pretty cool stuff for a sailor living in Hawaii.