I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea at the bookstore at Logan Airport and finished it before landing in Chicago. Excellent book which tells the story of the whaling ship Essex, which in the 1820s was rammed by a whale some 2000 miles west of the South American coast, sank, and then subjected its crews to a horrific open-sea voyage of 93 days.
Cannibalism was involved. People in the 19th century liked cannibalism in their tabloids the way American’s today like Angelina and Britney and Whitney.
This tale inspired Melville to write Moby Dick, and was the most lurid tale in America in the first half of the 19th century. Philbrick is an excellent writer and historian. I think I enjoyed his descriptions of Nantucket more than the sea story itself. I worked on Nantucket for six years (summers, as a deckhand on the ferry) and while its fishy history has always been in the back of my mind, I had no idea about the social dynamics of the island, the strength of the women who ran the local economy while the men were off on their two to three year voyages, and the immense wealth accumulated by the Quakers.
Nantucket in the 19th and 18th centuries was the Silicon Valley of its day. Ship owners like Obed Macy and the Howlands of New Bedford were the venture capitalists of their time, seeking at least a 25% profit on their ventures — ventures which personified the meaning of risk. The crews and their captains were among the best traveled, culturally aware men of their time, discovering new islands in the south Pacific, as they chased the dwindling whales around the world, up into the Arctic.
Philbrick has me all fired up to turn Chatfield into a book.