Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Greed

By Nathaniel Philbrick


With whale-oil prices steadily climbing and the rest of the world's economy sunk in depression, the village of Nantucket was on its way to becoming one of the richest towns in America. (1.3)

And so it begins. To be honest with y'all, Nantucket sort of stumbles into its newfound wealth—it's not like the city's founders knew they were sitting on a veritable gold mine. It would be like waking up one day to discover that you have an iPhone Tree growing in your backyard. Regardless, this stroke of fate defines the course of Nantucket's future.

Nantucket was now the whaling capital of the world, but there were more than a few islanders who had never even seen a whale. (1.21)

This is the perfect representation of the Nantucketers' greed. There was once a point when their waters were filled with whales ripe for the picking. Or stabbing, we suppose. These days, however, there's nothing left except an increasing desire to make beaucoup bucks at any cost.

Instead of building fancy houses or buying fashionable clothes, Nantucket's Quakers reinvested their profits in the whale fishery. (1.24)

This seemingly frugal move actually reveals the whaling industry's immense greed. By reinvesting all of their money into their businesses, these men are forcing their operations to grow at an untenable rate. Ever heard of a financial bubble? Here's the thing about bubbles—no matter how big they get, they always pop.

We know that Nickerson's predecessor, the cabin boy Joseph Underwood of Salem, received a 1/198 lay for the previous voyage. (1.61)

To put this in context, Nickerson will probably make a couple hundred bucks for two years of work. Talk about a low minimum wage. Basically, the whale fishery owners know that "green" sailors like Nickerson are dime a dozen. If he decides to complain, they'll fire him faster than you can say "labor violation."

They might "act the Quaker," but that didn't keep them from pursuing profits with a lethal enthusiasm. (1.66)

The weirdest part about this whole business is that it's run by Quakers. Quakerism, in case you are unaware, is a brand of Christianity known for its strict pacifism, its dedication to social justice, and its passionate opposition to slavery. Those beliefs don't seem to apply to the Nantucketers' business dealings, however.

While it would be unfair to point to Paul Macy as responsible [...] the first step toward that future began with Macy's decision to save a little money in beef and hardtack. (1.69)

We're not convinced this is entirely unfair. It has already been established that the Essex was in dire need of repairs before it launched from Nantucket. And then the bosses undercut them on food on top of that? That's not going to fly. At a certain point, Macy and his peers are just setting up their crews for failure.

Nickerson estimated that [...] he and his fellow green hands would owe the ship's owners close to 90 percent of their total earnings from the voyage. (3.41)

The whaling business basically scams novice sailors into working for free. Sure, it's great to gain experience, but in a field as dangerous as this one, you'd better be earning a pretty penny for your efforts. But that doesn't matter—despite his horrendous experiences at sea, Nickerson will walk away from the Essex no richer than when he started.

"Yet old whalemen delight in it. The fetid smoke is incense to their nostrils. The filthy oil seems to them a glorious representative of prospective dollars." (4.12)

Even the whalers themselves can get a little greedy at times. This image just emphasizes how powerful money can be—even the most disgusting process in the world can become a beautiful thing if mucho dinero is involved. Still, what's the value of all of this money if you never get the chance to enjoy it?

A yellowish slime [...] slopped over the gunwales with the waves. [...] The fluid that only a few days before had been their fortune, their obsession, was now their torment. (6.12)

This is the perfect symbol for the Essex disaster—and the whaling industry as a whole. In their greed to make as much cash as possible, these men stepped headlong into one of the most horrendous naval disasters of all time. In the end, however, the thing that keeps you going can ultimately do you in. And to think—all of that oil is will now simply sink beneath the waves, never to be seen again.

As the strictures of Quakerism relaxed, Nantucketers were free to display the wealth they had once felt obliged to conceal. (14.59)

It's not until the whaling industry is finished that the bosses finally decide to show off their wealth. Pretty ironic, huh? Still, with the whaling industry a shadow of its former self, these men are going to find something else to fuel their garish lifestyles.