Sunday, 20 March 2011
Revenge of the Whale by Nathaniel Philbrick
In November 1820 an American whaling ship in the Pacific Ocean was rammed and sunk by a vengeful sperm whale. All twenty members of the crew escaped alive in three small boats with limited supplies of food and water. What follows has to be one of the most terrifying and horrific ordeals a human being has endured as the survivors end up lost at sea with little hope of getting home. As the crew slowly starve to death in agony they are forced to think the unthinkable; Should their dead crewmates be buried at sea or eaten to sustain the remaining sailors?
I can't recall how I stumbled upon this book but i'm delighted I did as it turned out to be one of those little gems in the world of non-fiction: an account of true events that is easy to read and consistently gripping throughout.
What the whalers went through is quite amazing and disturbing at the same time. The author has a way of making the reader very uncomfortable indeed with vivid descriptions of the living conditions these men were forced to tolerate bobbing around in a small boat contending with storms, the burning sun, sleep deprivation and sharks not to mention the lack of food and water. The description of what happens to the human body when it is dying of dehydration alone made me reach for a glass of water before continuing!
The book poses all sorts of questions and really provides food for thought. I suppose some people would have little sympathy for the men considering the cruel and violent way they earned a living and would think it poetic justice that the whale had its revenge on them. I tried to view their plight objectively and put aside what the men did and focused on how they behaved after their shipwreck. Eventually the crew had to resort to eating their shipmates to stay alive. Keeping in mind that the majority of the twenty survivors were white I noticed that when a black sailor died he was quickly devoured with seemingly little or no concern however when a white sailor died there was uncertainly, hesitation and even outright rejection of the idea of eating them. Make of that what you will.
I find it remarkable that so few people in the UK have heard of the whaling ship Essex and the plight of her crew, to me it is a tale that epitomises the sheer lengths a human being will go to in order to survive not to mention the punishment a human body and mind can tolerate.
It is worth mentioning that this book has been adapted from a longer, more detailed account of the same event written by the same author called 'In The Heart of the Sea'
Final verdict 4/5