Real-life tale of survival that inspired 'Moby Dick'

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick (HarperCollins, £16.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In February 1821, Captain Zimri Coffin of the whaleship Dauphin was cruising off the coast of Chile. Something caught his eye - an open boat, sails caked with salt, and no sign of life. Once alongside, he saw something almost worse than death: a litter of bones and two skeletal figures curled at opposite ends of the boat. Delirious, caked with salt and blood, they were sucking marrow out of clumsily splintered human ribs with feral intensity. Even when taken on board, "they were loth to part with the bones of their dead mess mates".

Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell had been in the 7.5m whaleboat for 93 days, ever since a gigantic whale had twice charged their ship, the Essex of Nantucket. The second time he had "a tenfold fury and vengeance in his countenance," according to the First Mate, Owen Chase. Chase, who survived the disaster in another boat, kept notes about his ordeal and his Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex (reprinted by Pimlico, £10) would inspire the most famous of all sea stories: Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

But Melville's novel ends at the point at which the tribulations of the crew of the Essex begin. He allows the enraged whale to exterminate all the crew of the Pequod except for Ishmael, who only has to float for 48 hours on Queequeg's coffin. Melville was more interested in the nature of the whale, and the characters of the men who hunted it, than in the human capacity for survival.

To Chase, the value of the story, which he got a Harvard-educated schoolmate to set down for him, was its disclosure of "new and astonishing traits of human character". He plots emotions as well as facts. "A desperate instinct bound us together," he reflects. The writing is full of startling images, as "Our sails almost whiten the distant confines of the Pacific". "More real chivalry is not often exhibited on the deck of a battleship," Chase concludes, "than is displayed by these hardy sons of the ocean in some of their gallant exploits among the whales".

When I found myself popping the notes I attach to potential quotes to virtually every page, I realised I might as well just deliver a rousing injunction to read the book for yourselves. The Pimlico edition, introduced by Tim Cahill, also includes two shorter narratives by other survivors and facsimile pages of Melville's notes.

If Chase's account is so good, why should you read In the Heart of the Sea? For one thing, Nathaniel Philbrick - not just a native of Nantucket but director of its Institute of Maritime Studies - puts the Essex and her crew into broader historical and geographical perspective, adding extraordinary new dimensions, some ennobling, others less so, to the tale and its aftermath. I had not grasped that, when the leaky Essex sank in the most desolate part of the Pacific, her crew of 20 had already suffered a dismasting after leaving Nantucket and a three-month voyage westward to the Azores, south-eastward round the Horn, and then north-west.

Philbrick points out the irony of their decision to sail thousands of miles south-east in order to avoid reputed cannibals a few days' sail to the west. He vividly recreates the atmosphere of the whaling community of Nantucket and of life aboard the Essex, and visits Henderson Island, the almost-desert coral atoll that afforded the crew a little succour. He also makes use of another little-known account: that of the youngest crew member, the 15-year-old cabin boy Thomas Nickerson. This reveals that Chase was at times more in charge than the ship's own captain.

But no amount of scholarly questioning can lessen the most outstandingly memorable aspect of the story: the extraordinary good behaviour shown by all concerned. Most of the men who died were sewn into sails and dispatched overboard with prayers. Only at the greatest extremity of need did the survivors stoop to cannibalism. "I have no language to paint the anguish of our souls in this dreadful dilemma," wrote Chase. He had nightmares about it for the rest of his life, eventually going insane.