In the Heart of the Sea: stories of the whaling ship 'Essex'

06 January 2016

Cultural Studies | History | Literature

Ron Howard’s new blockbuster, In the Heart of the Sea, is the latest retelling of the ill-fated final voyage of the Essex. Two years ago I wrote a blog to coincide with a BBC adaptation of the story, in which I summarised the account of Thomas Nickerson, a teenage boy who partook in that harrowing journey. Howard has used Nickerson as the narrator of his film, and this prompted me to look again at the memoir, which can be found in China, America and the Pacific.

Whaling in the Southern Seas. Image (c) Nantucket Historical Association. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whale oil was a major fuel for lighting and a profitable commodity for ship owners. Working on a whaleship, however, was an unpleasant experience. Nickerson’s account describes hard work and extreme weather – from the severe cold experienced around Cape Horn to the unbearable heat of the tropics. Then there were the fierce currents and pounding storms that had to be faced.

The crew’s work was laborious and often tedious, only broken up by occasional whale hunts, which were inherently dangerous and had no guarantee of success. When a whale was caught, the grim task of dismembering and boiling down the blubber to extract the oil began. Nickerson says the first time he experienced this it left the crew so greasy and covered with grime that they had to destroy the clothes they were wearing.

The hunting and killing of whales took place in small boats, rather than the main ship. These were easily damaged, and twice Nickerson reports being in one when a whale capsized it and threw all on board into the sea. Far less common was a whale attacking the mother ship, but this is what happened to the Essex. Nickerson describes the sight of an enormous sperm whale which 'struck the ship with his head,' then turned around to strike a second blow with even more force.

Drawing of the whaleship Essex. Image (c) Nantucket Historical Association. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The rarity and ferocity of the attack played on the minds of the whalers. First mate Owen Chase described the whale as ‘fired with revenge’ and committing ‘decided, calculating mischief.’ Whale experts have speculated that the defence of a calf may have been the explanation, but the crew saw more complex emotions in the animal, fearing that it would track them across the ocean in its desire for vengeance.

This idea of the whale acting with human emotion and thought is depicted in Howard’s film when the animal and Chase share a moment of understanding as they make eye contact. The relationship between man and beast was explored further in the novel that the Essex’s sinking inspired, Moby Dick. Here, the whale assumes epic symbolic significance for Captain Ahab, with the narrator stating ‘...all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.’ The captain came to see his personal battle with the creature as the story of the struggle between good and evil.

This projection of human emotion or symbolism on to the natural world grew out of true stories, such as that of the Essex. At a time when whaling was vital, dangerous and mysterious to outsiders, stories of voyages could easily grow into allegorical tales constructed around profound ideas about life and the world.


Nickerson’s account is free to read here for a limited time.

China, America and the Pacific, which also includes Owen Chase's narrative of the voyage, is available now. Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence. For more information, trial access and price enquiries, please e-mail us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Ben Lacey

Ben Lacey

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2013. My academic background is in medieval history, although I enjoy learning about all historical periods. I have worked on a wide range of projects since joining the company, with the American History and Colonial America resources being recent highlights.