The epic true-life story of one of the most notorious martime disasters of the 19th century which was the inspiration for Herman Melville's classic novel "Moby Dick". The author uses a hitherto unknown diary of one of the survivors discovered in an attic in Connecticut in spring 1998 to tell the tale. The sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged sperm whale in the Pacific in November 1820 set in motion one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time: the twenty sailors who survived the wreck took to three small boats (one of which was again attacked by a whale) and only eight of them survived their subsequent 90-day ordeal, after resorting to cannibalizing their mates. Three months after the Essex was broken up, the whaleship Dauphin, cruising off the coast of South America, spotted a small boat in the open ocean. As they pulled alongside they saw piles of bones in the bottom of the boat, at least two skeletons' worth, with two survivors - almost skeletons themselves - sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead ship-mates.
The appeal of Dava Sobel's Longitude
was, in part, that it illuminated a little-known piece of history through a series of captivating incidents and engaging personalities. Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea
is certainly cast from the same mold, examining the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry through the arc of the sinking of the whaleship Essex
by a boisterous sperm whale. The story that inspired Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick
has a lot going for it--derring-do, cannibalism, rescue--and Philbrick proves an amiable and well-informed narrator, providing both context and detail. We learn about the importance and mechanics of blubber production--a vital source of oil--and we get the nuts and bolts of harpooning and life aboard whalers. We are spared neither the nitty-gritty of open boats nor the sucking of human bones dry.
By sticking to the tried and tested Longitude formula, Philbrick has missed a slight trick or two. The epicenter of the whaling industry was Nantucket, a small island off Cape Cod; most of the whales were in the Pacific, necessitating a huge journey around the southernmost tip of South America. We never learn why no one ever tried to create an alternative whaling capital somewhere nearer. Similarly, Philbrick tells us that the story of the Essex was well known to Americans for decades, but he never explores how such legends fade from our consciousness. Philbrick would no doubt reply that such questions were beyond his remit, and you can't exactly accuse him of skimping on his research. By any standard, 50 pages of footnotes impress, though he wears his learning lightly. He doesn't get bogged down in turgid detail, and his narrative rattles along at a nice pace. When the storyline is as good as this, you can't really ask for more. --John Crace, Amazon.co.uk