Of Whaling, Pilgrims and Custer

Of Whaling, Pilgrims and Custer

National Book Award winner discusses works in President's Lecture Series.

Nathaniel Philbrick learned something strange when he moved to Nantucket, the small Massachusetts island that launched Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:

Melville had never even been there.

Addressing a Rowan audience as part of the President’s Lecture Series March 23, Philbrick chuckled at the oddity, marveling at the power of good writing and Melville’s ability to imagine the dank, salty burg so believably.

When it comes to good writing, Philbrick is no hack himself. His blockbuster non-fiction account of the true story that inspired Melville’s tale, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), won the National Book Award and spent 40 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list.

Philbrick, a former journalist and competitive sailor, was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006). His latest, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, retold the story of that historic battle and was published last year.

Humorous and unassuming, Philbrick said he started researching Essex while a stay-at-home dad on Nantucket.

“I’d go to the archives while my kids were at school,” he said.

He described the Essex, the inspiration for Melville’s Pequod, as “a typical whale ship” that met a very untypical fate: while sailing in the South Pacific it was attacked – headbutted, actually – by a giant sperm whale, the same type of beast that haunted Melville’s Ahab.

“This was the first time in the history of American whaling that a whale attacked a ship,” Philbrick said. “It was about 85 feet long, moving about 6 knots (around 7 mph), when BAM! It drove right into the ship!”

Modern day researchers believe that hammering aboard the Essex, a noise similar to sounds whales make among themselves, may have antagonized the whale and caused it to strike, Philbrick said.

Following the assault, the Essex sank and her 21-man crew fled aboard shipside whaleboats. They headed east, toward South America, and most died en route, but some, resorting to murder and cannibalism, reached the mainland 95 days later, nearly dead themselves.

“Only five of those Nantucketers would get out of those whaleboats,” Philbrick said.

Philbrick became interested in the Pilgrims while researching Essex and used documents created by the Pilgrims themselves in writing his celebrated work on the early settlers. And, contrary to popular belief, they were not as kind to the Indians as history generally painted them to be.

Within decades of their arrival, he said, “the settlers began to see the Indians as impediments to what they wanted” and the first major conflict with the Indians, King Philips War, soon began.

The war, from 1675-1676, claimed an estimated 3,000 Native American lives and some 800 colonists’ lives.

“The iconic event – the landing at Plymouth Rock – actually ended not with the first Thanksgiving but with a war,” Philbrick said.

In discussing Custer he said the storied Civil War general built a reputation after the war as an Indian fighter but badly underestimated his foe at Little Bighorn.

“Like the captain of the Essex, Custer was in a situation where he didn’t know what was coming next,” Philbrick said.

After the program Rowan President Donald Farish said the Philbrick lecture, like others in the series, provided a casual but engaging lesson. Previous speakers have included Cornel West, Stephen Jay Gould, Sergei Khrushchev, and Dan Rather.

“The idea behind this series was to augment our students’ experience,” Dr. Farish said. “The goal is an engaging lesson but it doesn’t all have to be heady stuff. I thought this was a great example.”