For young Thomas Nickerson, stepping aboard the Essex, a Nantucket whaleship, is "the most pleasing moment of [his] life" (1.1). It's his first whaling voyage, so he's stuck with the lowly position of cabin boy.
It's July 1819. Although most of America is mired in an economic crisis, Nantucket is doing quite well due to high oil prices. And where does that oil come from? Whales.
As a Nantucket native, Nickerson is psyched to be joining his first crew. Even better is the fact that his bros Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, and Charles Ramsdell are a part of the crew—though that's because Coffin's uncle is the Essex's new captain.
That's Captain George Pollard, the ship's former first mate. Another longstanding member of the crew, Owen Chase, is taking over the new captain's former position.
There's only one problem: as the Essex is being readied, a "comet appeared in the night sky" (1.1). In Nantucket's unique brand of superstition, that can only mean bad things.
Let's rewind for a second and talk about Nantucket. While the small island was once home to a native population, the arrival of the English in 1659 led to the founding of the town of Nantucket.
Things aren't great at first—Nantucket's no place for a bunch of farmers. But then these settlers realize that they have something far more valuable swimming in their sea: whales.
Right whales, to be specific. These dudes are relatively small, so they regularly make their way into Nantucket's harbor. Also, in case you don't know, whales were once the world's preeminent source for oil.
It isn't until the beginning of the 18th century that Nantucketers first start hunting whales. These missions are always led by white Nantucketers, but the Nantucketers also employ Native Americans via a system of "debt servitude" (1.16).
In 1712, Captain Hussey stumbles into a massive success. After his boat is pushed out to sea unexpectedly, Hussey stumbles upon—and kills—the biggest whale he's ever seen. It's a sperm whale. Though they're far tougher than those yellow-bellied right whales, sperm whales contain oodles more oil.
Over the next century, Nantucket whalers wipe out the local whale population, which forces them to voyage as far as Africa and South America just to meet quotas. Unfortunately, this means that whaling missions now average out at two to three years.
Besides whales, Nantucket is chiefly defined by Quakerism. In fact, the entire town had converted because one prominent woman, Mary Coffin Starbuck, was moved to tears by a roving Quaker preacher.
As you might have guessed, this is one tight-knit community. This does have some nasty side effects, though—for example, Nickerson is left "on the outside looking in" because his father wasn't born in Nantucket (1.31).
Regardless, every Nantucketer is raised to be a whaler from the day he or she is born. Walk around town and you'll likely find old women and little kids alike spouting so much nautical terminology that they might as well be extras in Waterworld.
Whaling also affects the way that Nantucketers' marriages operate: wives must be independent, because their husbands are always out at sea. These ladies are also known for having devices known as "he's-at-homes,'' which even the most innocent among you should be able to figure out (1.57).
For his part, Nickerson loses his romantic view of whaling as he prepares the ship. Money is a factor: in the best-case scenario, Nickerson will earn "about $150 for two years' work" (1.61).
Quaker whalers are known for being pretty cheap. For example, Essex is both (a) in need of repairs and (b) in need of additional supplies. The owner of the Essex chooses (c) none of the above.
Although these crews consist mostly of Nantucketers, there are a few off-islanders in the mix as well. Often, these dudes are looked at with great suspicion by the Nantucketers.
The Nantucket whaling industry also uses African Americans as cheap labor, essentially filling the role that Native Americans had a century before. Of course, this "exploitative hunger for labor" flies in the face of the Quakers' much-avowed distaste for slavery, but that's America for you (1.92). There are seven black men hired to the Essex's crew.
Finally, on August 11, 1819, the Essex sets out for the open sea.