Excerpt from In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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In the Heart of the Sea

The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick X
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
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  • First Published:
    May 2000, 302 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2001, 302 pages

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The next day the wind vanished, leaving the Essex to languish in a complete calm. Seals played about the ship, "plunging and swimming as though they desired our attention," Nickerson remembered. There were several varieties of penguins, along with gulls and gannets pinwheeling in the sky-a sure sign that the Essex was approaching land.

While the seals and birds may have provided a distraction, morale about the Essex had reached a nadir. So far it had been a slow and unprofitable slog toward Cape Horn. With the knockdown several days out from Nantucket setting the unfortunate tone of the voyage, they had been more than four months at sea and had only a single whale to show for it. If the voyage continued in this fashion, the Essex would have to be out a good deal longer than two years if she were to return with a full cargo of oil. With the temperatures dropping and the legendary dangers of the Horn looming ahead of them, tensions aboard the Essex were reaching the breaking point.

Richard Henry Dana experienced firsthand how the morale of a ship's crew could deteriorate to the extent that even the slightest incident might be perceived as a horrendous, unbearable injustice:

[A] thousand little things, daily and almost hourly occurring, which no one who has not himself been on a long and tedious voyage can conceive of or properly appreciate-little wars and rumors of wars,-reports of things said in the cabin,-misunderstanding of words and looks,-apparent abuses,-brought us into a state in which everything seemed to go wrong.

Aboard the Essex, the crew's discontent focused on the issue of food. At no time were the differences that existed between the officers and the men more pronounced than at mealtimes. In the cabin, the officers ate much as they did back home on Nantucket-on plates, with forks, knives, and spoons, and with plenty of vegetables (as long as they lasted) to add to the ship's fare of salt beef and salt pork. If there was fresh meat available-as from those thirty Maio hogs-the officers were the ones who enjoyed most of it. As an alternative to hardtack (biscuits with the consistency of dried plaster), the steward regularly provided the officers with freshly baked bread.

The men in the forecastle and steerage enjoyed an entirely different dining experience. Instead of sitting at a table to eat, they sat on their sea chests around a large wooden tub, known as a kid, containing a hunk of pork or beef. Referred to as horse or junk, the meat was so salty that when the cook placed it in a barrel of saltwater for a day (to render it soft enough to chew), the meat's salt content was actually lowered. The sailors were required to supply their own utensils, usually a sheath knife and a spoon, plus a tin cup for tea or coffee.

Rather than the heaping portions provided to the officers, those before the mast were given only a negligible amount of this less-than-nutritious fare, their daily diet of hardtack and salt beef occasionally augmented with a little "duff," a flour pudding or dumpling boiled in a cloth bag. It has been estimated that sailors in the latter part of the nineteenth century were consuming around 3,800 calories a day. It is unlikely that the men in the forecastle of a whaler in 1819 consumed even close to that amount. Complained one green hand on a Nantucket whaler, "Alas, alas, the day that I came a-whaling. For what profiteth a man if he gain the whole world but in the meantime starveth to death?"

One day soon after passing the Falkland Islands, the men went below to find in the kid a ration of meat even paltrier than usual. An impromptu meeting was held. It was decided that no one would touch the meat until the kid had been shown to Captain Pollard and a complaint officially filed. The sailors took their stations on the forward portion of the deck while one of the men, the tub of beef on his shoulder, made his way aft toward the cabin gangway. Nickerson, who had been assigned to tar the netting of the main staysail, was well above the deck and had a good view of the ensuing confrontation.

From In the Heart of the Sea : The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick. © 2000 , Nathaniel Philbrick used by permission of the publisher.

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