Of Whales and History

I have begun reading Nathaniel Philbrick's book "In the Heart of the Sea." It is the type of history that I enjoy most -- social history of people and how they survive.

The book deals with the Nantucket, Mass., whaling ship the Essex, which left Nantucket in August 1819 for a voyage to the the South Pacific to bring back whale oil. The port of Nantucket had been the chief shipping point for whale oil, and the receiving point for whales for more than 150 years.

By the time the Essex sailed, the whales had left the immediate area around Nantucket, and were on their way to being an endangered species around the island. They had been hunted and killed for their oil, which was used as fuel for lighting lamps in the 1700s and 1800s.

The Essex encountered a sperm whale in the South Pacific that literally attacked the ship, destroying it and putting the crew out to sea for nearly two years. The story eventually made its way back to Nantucket, and became the basis for Herman Melville's novel "Moby Dick."

Philbrick's book has amazing details about the men on board the ship, the social conditions that surrounded Nantucket, and the reasons that men would sail half way around the world to obtain a commodity of their times.

This book is interesting in light of the oil spill near Louisiana, because that spill deals with the social implications of how we go after a commodity today. How many men lost their lives over our pursuit of today's fuel. If supplies of oil continue to dwindle, what are the future prices we will pay to obtain it?

Philbrick's book is a way to evaluate how far people will go to maintain and sustain their lives and livelihoods, even risking death, and the elimination of a species to do it.


Daniel M.

SHE -- Social Studies, History, English

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