Conversation with Nathaniel Philbrick
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RAY SUAREZ: The book is “In the Heart of the Sea: The tragedy of the whale ship ‘Essex’” by Nathaniel Philbrick. It’s a story of misfortune, suffering and heroism, all in the search for the liquid gold of the 19th century, whale oil. And Nathaniel Philbrick joins us now from Boston. Welcome.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: It seems like faced with the choice between writing a really gripping adventure story and writing a history of whaling, you decided not to decide and did both.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Exactly. It was a story that was so good that I was hopeful to insert as much history as I could so that when the reader got through it, they would have had quite a sea yarn, but also learned about Nantucket and American history, as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s take a look at the “Essex.” Is it a big ship, a small one, when you look at the whalers that were plying the world’s waters at that time?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: She was a pretty typical whale ship of the early 19th century, although on the small side. She was about 87 feet on the deck, had a 21-man crew, equipped with three 25-foot whaleboats, in which six men would go out in pursuit of the whale to kill it.
RAY SUAREZ: After some mishaps and some misfortunes, they managed to make it around the horn, around the tip of South America and into Pacific waters; then disaster strikes. Tell us what happened.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Well, they were about 1,500 miles to the west of the Galapagos Islands, right on the equator, when a huge, 85-foot sperm whale, the biggest whale they had ever seen on the voyage, appeared on the port side of the ship. It started moving towards the ship, picking up speed, and rammed into the side of the ship, knocking every man off his feet. And then the whale surfaced on the her side stunned, came back to life, swam ahead of the ship and rammed it at twice the original speed, stoving in the bow as if it was an eggshell and sinking the ship.
RAY SUAREZ: Had this ever happened before that people had recorded?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Never before in the history of American whaling had a whale attacked a ship. So these men were absolutely stunned. The whale was their prey, and this whale had turned them into the victim.
RAY SUAREZ: So they gathered their whaleboats, these open boats on the surface of the ocean, and had a decision to make.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Yeah. They had the three whaleboats. They were divided among those. And they were about as far out as is possible to get into the Pacific when it comes to land. This was relatively early in Pacific whaling, and they had no real hard information on the islands to the west, the Marquesas and the Society Islands. And the only thing they really knew about them were rumors, rumors of cannibalism. And so they were fearful of those islands, so elected instead to head for South America, almost 3,000 miles to the east, upwind, up current, in retrospect, an impossible voyage.
RAY SUAREZ: So everything was pointed against heading for South America? They had to go south instead of just heading directly east to the continent?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Right. They equipped their whaleboats with sails, so they could sail them, but they had no centerboards. So it made it very difficult for them to sail against the southeasterly trade winds. But they had a plan. They figured they had about 60 days worth of provisions: Some water, hard tack and some Galapagos tortoises. And they figured if they sailed directly south for about 30 days, more than 1,500 miles, they’d reach a band of variable breezes, they called them, take a left towards South America, and if all went well, in another 30 days they’d be on the coast of Chile. They’d be living skeletons, but they’d be in a civilized port — and once again, if all went well.
RAY SUAREZ: But all didn’t go well. And it’s good for us to remember just how grueling these conditions were. These were open boats, right?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Yes. These were open boats only 25 feet long; six men jammed with what provisions they could assemble. And so they encountered just about every terrible condition a sailor can encounter. There was terrible storms, but really what got them in the first month of the ordeal were the terrible calms, where they would be out beneath the baking sun for weeks at a time, and in these open boats, they had no way to conceal their bodies from the rays of the sun. So it was dehydration that really caught up to them. They were only subsisting on just a cup of water a day.
RAY SUAREZ: And eventually succumbed to the very thing they feared?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Right. I mean, this is the great, terrible irony of the “Essex” story. Their fear of cannibalism drove them on this impossible voyage and ultimately required them to enact their own worst fears, to cannibalize the bodies of the dead sailors because they had nothing left to eat.
RAY SUAREZ: And eventually execute one?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Yeah. It was in the captain’s boat. All the boats would eventually become separated, and it was the captain’s boat with four Nantucketers, including the captain. And one of these young Nantucketers was the captain’s young teenage cousin. And they had nothing left to eat, and they knew that if something wasn’t done, they all might die. So they elected to go with what was known as the custom of the sea, where they drew lots, pieces of paper from a hat, to see who should be sacrificed so that the rest might live.
RAY SUAREZ: Eventually the boats do make it to the coast of South America, but the crew by then is much reduced and in… from your description, just horrifying shape.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Yeah. All the boats would become separated. One of them would never be heard from again. And it was really the captain’s boat, which was out for 94 days, more than three months, where the most excruciating sufferings occurred. It would come down to the captain and a teenage boy, Charles Ramsdel, just two of them. And they would be found by the crew of a Nantucket whale ship almost within sight of the Chilean coast. And these men were found sucking the bones of their dead messmates. And I’m quoting here, “which they were loathe to part with.” Even after they had been rescued, these men with were so delirious with their sufferings, that they were reluctant to surrender the bones. And they had been living for about a week on just the marrow that they could get out of the center of these bones.
RAY SUAREZ: So let’s take a look at that second map. How long in miles was their trip in these open boats, with ill winds and no provisions and no water?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Yeah. It was one of the longest open- boat voyages that was ever accomplished. In the case of Captain Pollard, he would sail at least 4,500 nautical miles across the Pacific, longer than Captain Bly’s very well-known open boat voyage after the “Bounty” mutiny, and these men –they encountered such terrible conditions. They were out there twice as long as Bly was, so more than three months.
RAY SUAREZ: Sometimes I read a history book, and I think to myself, “why didn’t I know about this before?” Why didn’t I know about the “Essex”? Was this a big story in the mid-19th century that just sort of disappeared for us today?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Yeah. It really was a fairly big story in the early 19th century. This was a time in American history when America really had two frontiers. It was not only the forests and wilderness to the west, but there was the sea. And the Nantucketers, chasing the sperm whale into the Pacific, were pioneers discovering islands on an almost weekly basis, exploring a wilderness larger than all the world’s land masses combined. And so these Nantucketers had quite a high profile when it came to the American consciousness. And the disaster of the “Essex” was something that was widely known. It was kind of the Donner Party story of its day. There was an abridged version of the “Essex” story that would appear in McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader, kind of the Dick and Jane of its day, and so that just about any child who grew up in America in the early 19th century knew the story of the “Essex.”
RAY SUAREZ: As did a young whaler named Herman Melville?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: That’s right. 20 years after the sinking of the “Essex,” a young whale man named Herman Melville was cruising in a whale ship about on the same latitude as the “Essex” sunk. And he had heard stories of the “Essex,” because all whale men told this story. And they came across another whale ship that happened to have the young son of Owen Chase, the first mate of the “Essex,” who had written an account of the disaster soon after he returned to Nantucket. Melville questioned Chase’s son very closely, asking him in detail about the disaster, and the boy took from his sea chest his own copy of his father’s narrative. Melville would read it that night. It would profoundly influence him. And about a decade later, he would write “Moby Dick,” in which the climax is, of course, involves a whale ship being rammed by a whale.
RAY SUAREZ: So for decades after, we’ve read a story that may be of the “Essex,” but we know it as the “Pequot”?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Right. And what would happen… When “Moby Dick” came out in 1851, America was much more interested in the west than the sea. With the discovery of gold, people really began to focus on the American West, and the sea was something that you don’t read about in popular literature. And Melville would find out the hard way, “Moby Dick” was a flop. It was not a critical or popular success. And yet for us today, the “Essex” disaster is known almost exclusively as raw material for Melville’s art in “Moby Dick.” And with my book, I’d really like to return the “Essex” disaster to its rightful place as a piece of history, as something that was very important to American culture in the early 19th century.
RAY SUAREZ: The book is “In the Heart of the Sea.” Nathaniel Philbrick, thanks a lot.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Thank you.