Cannibals of Nantucket

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Seeing his ship laid over helplessly on its side, the captain cried out, "My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?" The first mate replied, "We have been stove by a whale." Moby Dick? No, this leviathan was part of the real-life drama that inspired the Melville story. Halfway around the world from its home port of Nantucket, Mass., while chasing whales in the South Seas, the 238-ton whaler Essex was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The episode, in November 1820, was the Titanic disaster of its day, much discussed because of what ensued.

Nantucket historian Nathaniel Philbrick has now re-examined the old tale, after digging up just about every scrap ever written about it. In the Heart of the Sea (Viking; 302 pages; $24.95) is a spellbinding yarn, and, like Melville's classic, awash with human frailty.

After the whale struck, Captain George Pollard Jr. and his crew took to their whaleboats. But he was no Ahab. Instead of riding wind and current to the Society Islands, he opted for a harder journey back to South America--because of fears they might run into cannibals.

And they did, in their midst. Hit by storms, low on food and water, even attacked by a killer whale, the men began dying and the survivors ate the remains. Pollard's 18-year-old cousin was sacrificed after a drawing of lots. When they were rescued, after three months adrift, only eight of the Essex's 21 men were alive.

Philbrick avoids moralizing, but his story has a Melvillean coda. Nantucket's pious Quakers never discussed their kinfolks' cannibalism publicly. Pollard wrecked his second ship and wound up a night watchman. With increasing competition and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, Nantucket's whaling industry went into a tailspin, and the heirs to old families like the Macys, Coffins and Folgers went off-island to seek their fortunes. Score one for the whales.