Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Society and Class

By Nathaniel Philbrick

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Society and Class

English Nantucketers had instituted a system of debt servitude that provided them with a steady supply of Wampanoag labor, (1.16)

From the start, the Nantucket whale industry depends on the undervalued labor of Native Americans. Doesn't that contradict the Quaker Nantucketers' much-avowed opposition against slavery? Absolutely. Is that going to stop them? No way. Not when money is involved.

But for the men who were typically rounded up by shipping agents in cities such as Boston, it was a different story. Instead of the beginning of something, shipping out on a whaling voyage was often a last and desperate resort. (1.87)

For a Nantucketer, the whaling industry offers a lucrative and respectable career path. It's a completely different story for the working-class men hired as low-ranking ship hands—it's not like those dudes are going to be made captains anytime soon.

It wasn't lofty social ideals that brought black sailors to this Quaker island, but rather the whale fishery's insatiable and often exploitative hunger for labor. (1.92)

Once again, we see this squeaky clean Quaker town seem awfully sleazy. Basically, these money-hungry men have replaced their Wampanoag oarsmen with African Americans, paying them chump change simply because they can. Instead of using their wealth to inspire social change, these Nantucketers exploit racism for their own financial gain.

Significantly, Nantucketers referred to the packet that delivered green hands from New York City as the "Slaver." (1.92)

So that just about settles it, right? Not only do whalers exploit racism to gain cheap labor, but they also actively think about their employment practices as slavery. In an irony to end all ironies, they're doing this as their devout Quaker wives write passionate treatises opposing slavery.

The divide between the forecastle and the other living quarters was not just physical but also racial. (2.29)

The class structure of a whaling ship is literally defined by its physical layout. Officers stay in the front; white working-class men stay in the middle; and black ship hands stay in the back.

In bringing the kid aft, the men had dared to violate the sacred space of the quarterdeck, normally reserved for the officers. (3.53)

Naturally, there are consequences to breaking this unspoken class structure. Just look at how the normally chill Captain Pollard freaks out harder than a teenaged girl at a One Direction concert. A One Direction concert without Zayn, that is. Cue horrified gasps.

Their ignorance of the Society Islands, in particular Tahiti, is even more extraordinary. Since 1797, there had been a thriving English mission on the island. (6.22)

Ultimately, the crew of the Essex pays a big price for their racial and cultural ignorance. If only they had been able to get over their misplaced nightmares about cannibalistic natives, they might have been able to avoid becoming cannibals themselves. Ouch—that one's got to sting.

The food served in the forecastle (where the blacks lived) had been a grade below the miserable fare that had been served to the boatseerers and young Nantucketers. (9.44)

Here, we see how the power imbalance between white and black sailors has devastating consequences. It's no coincidence that the black crewmembers are the first to die after the Essex disaster—they were in bad health even before things went bad. When "miserable fare" would be considered an upgrade, you know you've stumbled into a messed up situation.

Since there would be no black survivors [...] the possibility exists that the Nantucketers took [an] [...] active role in insuring their own survival. (11.31)

Even though this might seem far-fetched, it deserves some consideration: after all, the book presents plenty of examples of this very thing happening on other ships. Regardless, it's hard to dispute that the African American crewmembers' deaths can be attributed to their low social status.

In particular, the fact that five out of the first six men to die were black is never commented on by Chase. (13.52)

This shows that Chase and his fellow officers have no interest in delving into these questions. Even if they can't go back in time and change things, it's hugely important to be aware of how these issues affect our lives.

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