Saturday, May 5, 2012

How hungry...?

Have you ever said you were "so hungry [you] could eat a horse" or that you were "starving to death?" If you're like me the longest you've actually gone without food is probably about 24 hours which is a far cry from "starving." In my religion we fast once a month, and while I sometimes dread it beforehand, afterwards I realize it's not that hard. But how hungry would you have to be to eat something really unpleasant? What would you eat if you were really – truly – hungry?

In the early 1800s whale oil was as important as crude oil and gas is today, and the island of Nantucket was the center of the whale oil universe. Atlantic whales had already become so depleted that the Nantucket fleet hunted in the South Pacific, and the whale they sought was the sperm whale. But one very large and angry whale found the whaleship Essex in November 1820, ramming and destroying it in a matter of minutes. The 20 crewmen were left afloat in three small and leaky whaleboats for ninety days. Knowledge of the South Pacific was limited in those days, and fearing cannibals on the islands, the crew opted instead to try to sail 3,000 miles back to the coast of South America. But in a cruelly ironic twist of fate, their decision doomed many of them to starvation, and the rest to eating... each other.

Although mostly forgotten today, the story was legendary in the 19th century and inspired an unknown young novelist named Herman Melville thirty years later. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick tells again the events that were once on everyone's hushed lips. He illuminates the whale oil industry, the life amidships and pecking order among crews, and the back-breaking work of killing and rendering whales in all its bloody mess. I found myself sympathizing with the whales, and almost cheering when a whale estimated at 85 to 90 feet long (twice as large as is common today) turned the tables and attacked the ship. But Philbrick is sympathetic to the men, too, and he brings their sufferings into such sharp focus that I found myself feeling sorry for them too. It's a fascinating but sometimes disturbing tale, and one I found difficult to put down.

As for me, I'll think of the men of the Essex the next time I fast, and remind myself that I'm not actually starving.

(For more books I've reviewed by Nathaniel Philbrick, see: "Who needs an Indian fighter?" and "Charles who?".)

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