A sea-going tragedy that was as well known in its day as the Titanic disaster is now, Mr. Philbrick provides an extremely thorough look into the loss of the whale ship Essex and all that her few survivors endured. The Essex, out of Nantucket Island, set out in 1819 on a routine 3-year expedition to hunt sperm whale, whose blubber and “spermaceti” made the islanders extremely wealthy. An enraged sperm whale (the eventual model for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”) attacks the aging vessel twice, sending the sailors into the small whaleboats while the damaged ship lists, barely afloat. Of the twenty-two men (one as young as 14) who survived the attack, only a few overcame the hardships of floating in the endless Pacific, thousands of miles from land, without reliable food or water. Rather than charting a course for the closer Marquesas Islands for fear of cannibals, they chart a dangerous course for the much more distant coast of South America, a choice that dooms most of the sailors to death. Cannibalism on board the tiny vessels inevitably ensues, with the native Nantucketers banding together against all others to survive.
A powerful true story, I love the tiny historical tidbits (i.e. that the islanders said “ile” for “oil”, how young Nantucket ladies identified good marriage prospects, and how many of the island residents had never seen an actual whale, even though their entire way of life depended upon it). The focus on how the ordeal shaped each of the survivors’ lives was also fascinating. Incredibly, most went back to sea but none fully escaped the shadow cast by those events.
Amazon link is here.