Study Guide

The Crew of the Essex in In the Heart of the Sea

By Nathaniel Philbrick

The Crew of the Essex

There are a lot of guys on the Essex who don't exactly become main characters, but they're still worth mentioning. Some of these guys meet gruesome deaths. Some of them abandon their comrades. Some of them get straight-up eaten. Though we might not learn much about them as individuals, their lives teach us volumes about the society they come from.

Let's go ahead and run down these fellows' fates, shall we?

  • William Wright, Seth Weeks, and Thomas Chappel decide to stay on Henderson Island. Here's a key point: none of these three men are from Nantucket. Besides Henry De Witt (who deserts the Essex prior to its sinking), these are the only non-Nantucketers to survive the Essex disaster.
  • Matthew Joy and his entire crew (Obed Hendricks, Joseph West, and William Bond) die. Matthew Joy was sicker than a dog even before the Essex sank. Given that—and the fact that he's the lowest-ranking officer on the ship—Joy's crew has no other Nantucketers onboard aside from himself. Months after their comrades are rescued, a roving ship "discovered a whaleboat washed up [...] with four skeletons inside" (13.23). Yikes.
  • Everyone dies on Pollard's boat except for Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell. The first four people to die—and be eaten—on Pollard's boat are all African American. Coincidence? Probably not. Nantucketer Barzillai Ray dies soon after being forced to eat his best friend, Owen Coffin.
  • Only two men (Richard Peterson and Isaac Cole) die on Chase's boat. Although Peterson (an African American) is buried at sea, the crew is forced to eat Isaac Cole after his death. Still, that's the only human these guys will eat before the three of them—Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence, and Thomas Nickerson—are rescued.

Are you noticing a pattern here? As it turns out, Nantucketers have a much higher survival rate than their mainland-born peers: an effect that's amplified when the men in question are African American. In our eyes, there are two reasons for this. First, this is a consequence of the class system aboard whaling ships: mainlanders are given worse food than the Nantucket-born officers, while African American sailors are given even worse than that. That's like starting a race with a broken ankle.

But this also illustrates the power (for good or ill) of community. If the Nantucketers were already sticking together before the Essex sank, then it's only logical that this would be amplified after a disaster. And it's true: "the Nantucketers provided one another with support and encouragement that they did not offer the others" (9.45). With morale at a high premium in the aftermath of the Essex disaster, it seems that a little bit of encouragement goes a long way.