“By Guess or by God:” Catastrophe In The Heart of the Sea

The whaleship Manhattan watercolor
The whaleship Manhattan, 1845 watercolor by an anonymous Japanese artist
Via New Bedford Whaling Museum

by Colin D. Dewey 

In Nantucket, on Aug 5, 1819, the ship Essex: 87 feet at waterline, 238 tons, sailed.  The Essex, an old, tired, ship, began what was planned as a routine two or three year whaling voyage: and the story began the way sea stories have always begun: like Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells it in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner

‘The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,

Merrily did we drop

Below the kirk, below the hill,

Below the lighthouse top. 

But Nathaniel Philbrick knows that the classical way to tell a story is by beginning in the middle, and so he opens his very popular retelling of the Essex tale, In the Heart of the Sea (Viking, 2000), with a “Preface” dated “Feb 23 1821,” which relates the scene of the discovery of two men adrift in a small boat in the eastern Pacific ocean. The language describing the moment is vivid, cinematic, requiring the reader to visualize the much larger whaleship drifting silently past the battered small boat and to imagine the way “the brief seconds during which the ship loomed over the open boat presented a sight that would stay with the crew the rest of their lives …”

 In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Related Book: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

First they saw bones—human bones—littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates.  (Philbrick 24)

This is shocking imagery, but it’s no real surprise for the expectant reader to learn that these are the cannibal survivors of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, adrift at sea for 93 days after being sunk as the result of being rammed, maybe attacked, by an apparently enraged sperm whale.  It’s no surprise, because we know the most important elements of the story of the Essex already. We know them from In the Heart of the Sea’s subtitle: “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” and we think we know it for the connection that’s often claimed to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick I said that Feb 23, 1821 was the middle of the story, not the end, because the rest of the story is the persistence of the Essex narrative, and how its telling unfolded in the months and years after the events, and still, its reappearance after nearly 200 years, in Philbrick’s book. 

The Essex story seems uncannily familiar.  In the Heart of the Sea gives us a fable in the form of a history lesson: a cultural fable with a long history and a complex genealogy re-presented in a form that speaks to an “information” age which, Philbrick may want to warn us, may have forgotten something vital about the sea even as we gather more data and “facts” all the time.  What is this “modern fable” with such deep historical roots?  

The sea tale of shipwreck and starvation, disaster in boats and cannibalism that inhabits the historical account and makes it compelling, almost irresistible, is a story told over and over all throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even twenty-first centuries.  Although the tale can be told many ways, the loss of a ship and the harrowing experience of the surviving crew remain current, poignant and effective. These stories live on, told and retold in ballads, novels, poems and songs from both sides of the Atlantic, in children’s stories, and in modern books and films. 

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea 1st Edition by Sebastian Junger
Related Book: The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea 1st Edition
by Sebastian Junger

It is significant, I think, that for the decades when both Moby-Dick and the memory of the Essex were nearly lost, the story survived, as Philbrick reports, in a children’s book used in schools all throughout New England. It’s also not quite accidental, I don’t think, that the publication of Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea followed by only a few years the 1997 bestseller (and blockbuster movie) The Perfect Storm, set in the very recent past, and Titanic, all heralding a kind of popular cultural rediscovery of the ocean in the 21st century. So I ask myself: “why did Philbrick write it in 2000? What does In the Heart of the Sea add? What is it about the Essex story that is so attractive to readers that Philbrick had to tell it again?”

The main source for Essex lore is the Narrative of first mate Owen Chase. In a very modern, media-savvy move, Chase got his publication out fairly quickly and thereby set the standard for all the other versions that followed.  His book, ghostwritten by a skilled and fairly sophisticated writer with a knowledge of literature and rhetoric, was probably itself influenced by the form and pattern established for and expected in such tales by preceding narratives.  Philbrick also researched many other accounts of shipwreck, cannibalism, and survival for In the Heart of the Sea, many of which include details chillingly similar to the Essex, such as casting lots for a victim, murdering, and eating the bodies of deceased shipmates.  He uses these accounts to offer horrific illustrations of the experience of the men from the Essex, while also serving as historical corroboration for the details of the survivors’ narratives. 

What these countless narratives: many of which were well-known to sailors and literate landsmen indicate, is that a fairly narrow set of prevalent assumptions existed in the public imagination regarding shipwreck and survival at sea.  Carl Thompson is a scholar whose recent “Shipwrecks, Mutineers and Cannibals” (in Framing the Ocean, 1700 to the Present: Envisaging the Sea as Social Space. Ed. Tricia Cusack, Ashgate, 2014) argues that literary texts, when added to the “non-fiction” publications of the period, show the existence in the public imagination of an expectation that a shipwreck or stranding would probably lead a civilized crew to mutiny and cannibalism.  Philbrick states – as a fact – what must surely have been a conviction, or a fear, among mariners worldwide: “as long as men have been sailing the world’s oceans, famished sailors have been sustaining themselves on the remains of dead shipmates” (Philbrick 164).

One of the most popular and influential cannibal narratives ever printed is the shipwreck episode in Canto II of Lord Byron’s mock-epic poem Don Juan, published in 1819, the year the Essex sailed.  This part of the poem is loosely based on the wreck of the French frigate Medusa, which ran on a shoal in 1816.  After the Medusa went aground, chaos and fighting broke out, and by the time they were rescued, only fifteen of approximately 150 survived.  In the intervening time, many had resorted to eating the corpses of the dead.  This story was a worldwide scandal, published in English by 1818.  Byron added the detail of the survivors casting lots to choose a cannibal victim on his own, so that grisly feature, common to the Essex, seems to have been very much in circulation at the time.  

Byron was a rock star — “the favourite poet of the Americans” in the 1820’s.  Philbrick discusses Don Juan in his endnotes and mentions the Medusa at the beginning of Chapter 8 of In the Heart of the Sea, as he wonders whether the men in the Essex’s boats had heard the story they were now living.  Whether or not the Essex castaways knew the Medusa story, it’s certain that the public who greeted the survivors on their return to America did, probably through Byron, and that their expectations shaped what they thought, if not what they heard.  

When Philbrick wonders if the men in the Essex whaleboats knew about the Medusa, he is missing the point.  The experienced seamen among them, and perhaps the green hands too, had certainly heard stories about “what happens in lifeboats” and “what happens to castaways” before.  It is not too much to say that their expectations, their experience, and even the survivors’ recollections must have been shaped by the existing “template” for shipwreck stories current in nineteenth century maritime culture, including literary, historical, legendary and imaginary influences.

Where does that leave us today?  Where are we in relation to the cultural tradition of shipwreck and disaster?  Now I’m back to my question, why In the Heart of the Sea, why now?  More than a nostalgic pop-culture genre, these stories are popular, and perhaps useful, because they allow us to glimpse the anxieties lurking beneath the efficiency and decorum of the modern world; the stories alert us to the fragility, the vulnerability, of the systems we rely on.  They’re not always the same – here it’s the Essex, sometimes it’s the Titanic, or the Deepwater Horizon.  Social critics and scholars today speak of the “culture of the accident:” a time in which the accident does not represent the exception, or limit, for a technology but is rather a part of its functioning, and hence catastrophe becomes almost an accepted event (Paul Virilio, The Original Accident. Cambridge: 2007).  The historical Essex disaster, while unthinkable to the men on the ship, and sensational to the shore-dwelling public, was not in the end unique or of great social or economic consequence.  Today’s sea disasters are “unthinkable” in a new way: as the MOL Comfort, the MV Rena, and the MSC Napoli and the uncountable numbers of containers now lost in the ocean have shown, the catastrophic loss of a ship and cargo only momentarily affects the illusion of clean, smooth technological perfection that modern global logistics represents. 

The Container Principle
Related Book: The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think by Alexander Klose

It is easily forgotten, as Alexander Klose writes, that the modern maritime logistics system is “a matter of heavy metal, a gigantic technological system of steel and silicon that requires tens of thousands of human workers to function.” However, he goes on, “in the accident, the façade shatters, the panels fall, and the housing bursts.  The machinery is temporarily opened up and its wheelworks, circuits, and networks become visible; the political and financial contexts, the legal foundations, the social organization, and the ethical decisions are laid bare.  How much is a human life worth? How much is a nonhuman life worth? How great a price is a society prepared to pay for the functioning of a technology? How are progress and security balanced?” (Alexander Klose, The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think, MIT Press, 2015).

The highly specialized industry that, at its best, produced the American whaling ship diversified into a variety of international trades and industries; at its worst, it was insular, narrow-minded, inward looking.  When Pollard and Chase  – by guess or by God – made the fatal decision to sail upwind and east to South America, instead of Southwest, with the trades, to Polynesia, the cultural blinders and single-mindedness that made the Nantucketers turn away from an achievable open boat voyage doomed them (and especially the off-islanders among the crew) to a destruction in the vast Pacific that could have been avoided. In our coming century it may be an invisible catastrophe that captivates us: a software malfunction, or virus whose cause is never seen by the general public.  It may be the catastrophic malfunction of the planet itself.  The maritime professions today should, at all costs, avoid the example of the Essex.

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Note: This article was developed from “By Guess or by God: A Discussion of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea,” the Cal Maritime 2015 Common Reading Lecture, given on September 15, 2015.

WORKS CITED

Klose, Alexander. The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think. Trans. Charles Marcrum. The MIT Press, 2015. Print. Infrastructures.

Nickerson, Thomas, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Thomas Philbrick. The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale: First-Person Accounts. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Viking, 2000. Print.

Thompson, Carl. “Shipwrecks, Mutineers and Cannibals: Maritime Mythology and the Political Unconscious in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Framing the Ocean, 1700 to the Present: Envisaging the Sea as Social Space. Ed. Tricia Cusack. N.p., 2014. Print.

Virilio, Paul. The Original Accident. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.