In 1819 the Whaleship Essex sets off from Nantucket bound towards South America. On board are twenty crew members. There is going to be tragedy; the story of Moby Dick was styled on the real-life Essex voyage.
The book begins with an interesting background to the whaling industry in Nantucket. Men were gone from Nantucket families, sometimes for many months and it was the women left behind who largely ran the community. There was a lot of money to be made through whaling and Nantucket thrived.
As the voyage begins we get to know something of the characters but the Essex soon runs into trouble, literally, when a sperm whale attacks the ship not once but twice and the men are forced to man three lifeboats. Here the real story starts and it’s a grim one. Thirst, disease and hunger gradually reduce the numbers. Terrible errors of judgment are made regarding where to head for in the little boats and places that could have offered much earlier salvation are disregarded because of a fear of cannibals. The awful irony is that, in prolonging their ordeal, the men do resort to this last measure to survive, eating their dead and even drawing lots to be killed and devoured. Of course, this isn’t the only instance of desperate people consuming human flesh to survive. There have been numerous instances, none more prominent than the account of the plane that crashed in the Andes, much later in history. Reading that particular story I felt admiration for those who came through.
However the story of the Essex is also a story of suffering caused by humans to our fellow creatures. Descriptions of whaling, the killing and the processing would give any horror story a run for its money. This is carnage of a truly awful kind. So too the fate of Galapagos tortoises, taken on board and kept unfed where they would survive an agonisingly long time, licking at the deck for ‘sustenance’ until it wasn’t their time for the pot.
This book is well written, well researched and a valuable record. It is a tale of survival but also a grim and horrible reminder that humans not only suffer tragedy but cause it.