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 kid was no sooner set down than Captain Pollard came up onto the quarterdeck. Pollard glanced at the tub of beef, and Nickerson watched as his complexion seemed to shift from red, to blue, to almost black. Food was a difficult and sensitive issue for Captain Pollard. As he knew better than anyone, the Essex had been woefully underprovisioned by the parsimonious owners. If there was any hope of providing for the men in the several years ahead, he had to limit their provisions now. He may not have felt good about it, but he had no alternative.

In bringing the kid aft, the men had dared to violate the sacred space of the quarterdeck, normally reserved for the officers. Even if the crew's anger might be justified, this was a challenge to the ship's authority that no self-respecting captain could tolerate. It was a critical moment for a commander who desperately needed to shake his crew out of a corrosive and potentially disastrous malaise.

Casting aside his normal reticence, Pollard roared out, "Who brought this kid aft? Come here, you damned scoundrels, and tell me!"

No one dared speak. The men sheepishly made their way toward the quarterdeck as a group, each trying to hide himself behind the others. It was just the display of timidity this first-time captain needed.

Pollard paced the quarterdeck in a fury, working a quid of tobacco in his mouth and spitting on the deck, all the while muttering, "You'll throw your kid in my face, you damned scoundrels, will you?"

Finally, he made his way to the forward part of the quarterdeck, pulled off his jacket and hat, and stamped on them. "You scoundrels," he snarled, "have not I given you all the ship could afford? Have not I treated you like men? Have you had plenty to eat and drink? What in hell do you want more? Do you wish me to coax you to eat? Or shall I chew your food for you?"

The men stood there dumbfounded. Pollard's eyes strayed up into the rigging where Nickerson sat with his tar brush. Pointing a finger at him, the captain bellowed, "Come down here, you young rascal. I'll kill the whole bunch of you together and then bang up northwest and go home."

Not having any idea what the captain meant by "banging up northwest," Nickerson slunk down to the deck, fully expecting to be, if not killed, at least flogged. But much to everyone's relief, Pollard dismissed all hands, saying, "If I hear any more from you about provisions, I'll tie the whole of you up together and whip it out of you."

As the crew dispersed, Pollard could be heard growling what became known among the men as his "soliloquy," which they parodied in a bit of doggerel that Nickerson still remembered fifty-seven years later:

Thirty hogs in the Isle of May
Duff every other day
Butter and cheese as much as you could sway
And now you want more beef, damn you.


Pollard's behavior was fairly typical of Nantucket whaling captains, who were famous for oscillating wildly between tight-lipped reserve and incandescent rage. Pollard was, according to Nickerson, "generally very kind where he could be so....[This] display of violence was only one of his freaks and passed off with the setting sun. The next morning found him as kind as before."

Yet everything aboard the Essex had changed. Captain Pollard had proved he had the backbone to put the men in their place. From that day forward, no one ever complained about provisions.

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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