A vivid account of a 19th-century maritime disaster that engaged the popular imagination of the time with its horrors of castaways and cannibalism.
Just west of the Galápagos Islands, the Nantucket whale ship Essex was struck on November 20, 1820, by an 85-foot bull sperm whale. Yet the sinking was only the beginning of a fantastic voyage, narrated with brio and informed speculation by Philbrick, director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. For three months the 20 men who escaped the Essex drifted in three smaller open boats, enduring squalls, attacks by sharks and another whale, starvation, dehydration, madness, and despair, capped by eating the flesh of comrades who had begun to die off – and, in one instance, casting lots to see who would be killed and eaten next. When eight remaining castaways were retrieved off the coast of Chile, they had sailed almost 4,500 nautical miles across the Pacific – farther than both William Bligh’s post-Bounty voyage and Ernest Shackleton’s trek to South Georgia Island nearly a century later. An account by first mate Owen Chase provided fodder for, most famously, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which took Chase’s description of the whale’s “decided, calculated mischief” as its central motif. Philbrick uses Chase’s narrative and an unpublished memoir by the ship’s cabin boy, as well as recent medical and psychological discoveries, to limn the terror of men faced with their most elemental fears. He also brings to life the Quaker-dominated society of Nantucket, including its ambivalence toward African-American sailors and its short existence as a microcosm of an emerging America: “relentlessly acquisitive, technologically advanced, with a religious sense of its own destiny.”
A gripping chronicle of an epic voyage of hardship and survival that deserves to be as well known now as it once was. (16 pages b&w illustrations) (First serial rights to Vanity Fair; author tour)