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In the Heart of the Sea

The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

by Nathaniel Philbrick

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The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Nathaniel Philbrick

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Book Summary

Tells the story of the 1820 wreck of the whaleship Essex, which in its time was as mythic as the sinking of the Titanic and which inspired Melville's classic Moby Dick, recounting its doomed crew's ninety-day attempt to survive whale attacks and the elements on three tiny lifeboats. Reprint.

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Awards and Recognition

National Book Award (2000)

11 weeks on NPR Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: In The Heart Of The Sea

In the Heart of the Sea

The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2001 Nathaniel Philbrick
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0141001828

Chapter One


It was, he later remembered, "the most pleasing momentof my life"—the moment he stepped aboard the whaleshipEssex for the first time. He was fourteen years old, with a broadnose and an open, eager face, and like every other Nantucket boy, he'dbeen taught to "idolize the form of a ship." The Essex might not looklike much, stripped of her rigging and chained to the wharf, but forThomas Nickerson she was a vessel of opportunity. Finally, after whathad seemed an endless wait, Nickerson was going to sea.

    The hot July sun beat down on her old, oil-soaked timbers until thetemperature below was infernal, but Nickerson explored every cranny,from the brick altar of the tryworks being assembled on deck to thelightless depths of the empty hold. In between was a creaking, compartmentalizedworld, a living thing of oak and pine that reeked of oil,blood, tobacco juice, food, salt, mildew, tar, and smoke. "[B]lack andugly as she was," Nickerson wrote, "I would not have exchanged herfor a palace."

    In July of 1819 the Essex was one of a fleet of more than seventyNantucket whaleships in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. With whale-oilprices steadily climbing and the rest of the world's economy sunk indepression, the village of Nantucket was on its way to becoming one ofthe richest towns in America.

    The community of about seven thousand people lived on a gentlysloping hill crowded with houses and topped by windmills and churchtowers. It resembled, some said, the elegant and established port ofSalem—a remarkable compliment for an island more than twentymiles out into the Atlantic, below Cape Cod. But if the town, high onits hill, radiated an almost ethereal quality of calm, the waterfront belowbustled with activity. Sprouting from among the long, low warehousesand ropewalks, four solid-fill wharves reached out more than ahundred yards into the harbor. Tethered to the wharves or anchored inthe harbor were, typically, fifteen to twenty whaleships, along withdozens of smaller vessels, mainly sloops and schooners, that broughttrade goods to and from the island. Each wharf, a labyrinth of anchors,try-pots, spars, and oil casks, was thronged with sailors, stevedores,and artisans. Two-wheeled, horse-drawn carts known as calashes continuallycame and went.

    It was a scene already familiar to Thomas Nickerson. The childrenof Nantucket had long used the waterfront as their playground. Theyrowed decrepit whaleboats up and down the harbor and clambered upinto the rigging of the ships. To off-islanders it was clear that thesechildren were a "distinctive class of juveniles, accustomed to considerthemselves as predestined mariners.... They climbed ratlines likemonkeys—little fellows of ten or twelve years—and laid out on theyardarms with the most perfect nonchalance." The Essex might beNickerson's first ship, but he had been preparing for the voyage almosthis entire life.

    He wasn't going alone. His friends Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, andCharles Ramsdell, all between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, werealso sailing on the Essex. Owen Coffin was the cousin of the Essex'snew captain and probably steered his three friends to his kinsman'sship. Nickerson was the youngest of the group.

    The Essex was old and, at 87 feet long and 238 tons displacement,quite small, but she had a reputation on Nantucket as a lucky ship.Over the last decade and a half, she had done well by her Quaker owners,regularly returning at two-year intervals with enough oil to makethem wealthy men. Daniel Russell, her previous captain, had been successfulenough over the course of four voyages to be given command ofa new and larger ship, the Aurora. Russell's promotion allowed the formerfirst mate, George Pollard, Jr., to take over command of the Essex,and one of the boatsteerers (or harpooners), Owen Chase, to move upto first mate. Three other crew members were elevated to the rank ofboatsteerer. Not only a lucky but apparently a happy vessel, the Essexwas, according to Nickerson, "on the whole rather a desirable shipthan otherwise."

    Since Nantucket was, like any seafaring town of the period, a communityobsessed with omens and signs, such a reputation counted formuch. Still, there was talk among the men on the wharves when earlierthat July, as the Essex was being repaired and outfitted, a comet appearedin the night sky.

Nantucket was a town of roof dwellers. Nearly every house, its shinglespainted red or left to weather into gray, had a roof-mounted platformknown as a walk. While its intended use was to facilitate puttingout chimney fires with buckets of sand, the walk was also an excellentplace to look out to sea with a spyglass, to search for the sails of returningships. At night, the spyglasses of Nantucket were often directedtoward the heavens, and in July of 1819, islanders were looking towardthe northwest sky. The Quaker merchant Obed Macy, who kept meticulousrecords of what he determined were the "most extraordinaryevents" in the life of his island, watched the night sky from his houseon Pleasant Street. "The comet (which appears every clear night) isthought to be very large from its uncommonly long tail," he wrote,"which extends upward in opposition to the sun in an almost perpendiculardirection and heaves off to the eastward and nearly points forthe North Star."

    From earliest times, the appearance of a comet was interpreted asa sign that something unusual was about to happen. The New BedfordMercury, the newspaper Nantucketers read for lack of one of theirown, commented, "True it is, that the appearance of these eccentricvisitors have always preceded some remarkable event." But Macy resistedsuch speculation: "[T]he philosophical reasoning we leave tothe scientific part of the community, still it is beyond a doubt that themost learned is possessed of very little undoubted knowledge of thesubject of cometicks."

    At the wharves and shipping offices there was much speculation,and not just about the comet. All spring and summer there had beensightings up and down the New England coast of what the Mercurydescribed as "an extraordinary sea animal"—a serpent with black,horselike eyes and a fifty-foot body resembling a string of barrels floatingon the water. Any sailor, especially if he was young and impressionablelike Thomas Nickerson, must have wondered, if only fleetingly, ifthis was, in fact, the best time to be heading out on a voyage aroundCape Horn.

    Nantucketers had good reason to be superstitious. Their liveswere governed by a force of terrifying unpredictability—the sea. Dueto a constantly shifting network of shoals, including the Nantucket Barjust off the harbor mouth, the simple act of coming to and from the islandwas an often harrowing and sometimes catastrophic lesson in seamanship.Particularly in winter, when storms were the most violent,wrecks occurred almost weekly. Buried throughout the island were thecorpses of anonymous seamen who had washed up on its wave-thrashedshores. Nantucket, which means "faraway land" in the languageof the island's native inhabitants, the Wampanoag, was a moundof sand eroding into an inexorable ocean, and all its residents, even ifthey had never left the island, were all too aware of the inhumanity ofthe sea.

    Nantucket's English settlers, who began arriving in 1659, hadbeen mindful of the sea's dangers. They had hoped to support themselvesnot as fishermen but as farmers and sheepherders on this grassy,pond-speckled crescent without wolves. But as the increasing size ofthe livestock herds, combined with the growing number of farms,threatened to transform the island into a wind-blown wasteland, Nantucketersinevitably looked seaward.

    Every fall, hundreds of "right whales" appeared to the south ofthe island and remained until the early spring. So named because theywere "the right whale to kill," right whales grazed the waters off Nantucketmuch like seagoing cattle, straining the nutrient-rich surface ofthe ocean through the bushy plates of baleen in their perpetually grinningmouths. While English settlers at Cape Cod and eastern Long Islandhad already been hunting right whales for decades, no one onNantucket had had the courage to pursue the whales in boats. Insteadthey left the harvesting of whales that washed up onto the shore(known as drift whales) to the Wampanoag.

    Around 1690, a group of Nantucketers was standing on a hill overlookingthe ocean where some whales were spouting and playing withone another. One of the onlookers nodded toward the whales and theocean beyond. "There," he asserted, "is a green pasture where ourchildren's grandchildren will go for bread." In fulfillment of hisprophecy, a Cape Codder by the name of Ichabod Paddock was soonthereafter lured across Nantucket Sound to instruct the islanders inthe art of killing whales.

    Their first boats were only twenty feet long, and they launchedthem from the beaches along the island's south shore. Typically awhaleboat's crew was comprised of five Wampanoag oarsmen, with asingle white Nantucketer at the steering oar. Once they'd killed thewhale, they towed it back to the beach, where they removed the blubberand boiled it into oil. By the beginning of the eighteenth century,English Nantucketers had instituted a system of debt servitude thatprovided them with a steady supply of Wampanoag labor. Without theisland's native inhabitants, who outnumbered Nantucket's white populationwell into the 1720s, the island would never have become a successfulwhaling port.

    In the year 1712, a Captain Hussey, cruising in his little boat forright whales along Nantucket's south shore, was blown out to sea in afierce northerly gale. Many miles out, he glimpsed several whales of atype he had never seen before. Unlike a right whale's vertical spout,this whale's spout arched forward. In spite of the high winds and roughseas, Hussey managed to harpoon and kill one of the whales, its bloodand oil stilling the waves in an almost biblical fashion. This creature,Hussey quickly realized, was a sperm whale, one of which had washedup on the island's southwest shore only a few years before. Not onlywas the oil derived from the sperm whale's blubber far superior to thatof the right whale, providing a brighter and cleaner-burning light, butits block-shaped head contained a vast reservoir of even better oil,called spermaceti, that could be simply ladled into an awaiting cask. (Itwas spermaceti's resemblance to seminal fluid that gave rise to thesperm whale's name.) The sperm whale might be faster and more aggressivethan the right whale, but it was far more enriching. Withno other means of support, Nantucketers dedicated themselves to thesingle-minded pursuit of the sperm whale, and they soon outstrippedtheir whaling rivals on the mainland and Long Island.

    By 1760, the Nantucketers had practically wiped out the localwhale population. But no matter—by that point they had enlargedtheir whaling sloops and equipped them with brick tryworks capableof processing the oil on the open ocean. Now, since it would not needto return to port as often to deliver bulky blubber, their fleet had a fargreater range. By the outbreak of the American Revolution, Nantucketershad made it to the verge of the Arctic Circle, to the west coast ofAfrica, the east coast of South America, and as far south as the FalklandIslands.

    In a speech before Parliament in 1775, the British statesman EdmundBurke looked to the island's inhabitants as the leaders of a newAmerican breed—a "recent people" whose success in whaling had exceededthe collective might of all of Europe. Living on an island thatwas almost the same distance from the mainland as England was fromFrance, Nantucketers developed a British sense of themselves as a distinctand superior people, privileged citizens of what Ralph WaldoEmerson called the "Nation of Nantucket."

    The Revolution and the War of 1812, when the British navymarauded offshore shipping, proved disastrous to the whale fishery.Fortunately, Nantucketers possessed enough capital and inherentwhaling expertise to survive these trials. By 1819, Nantucket was wellon its way to reclaiming and, as the whalers ventured into the Pacific,even surpassing its former glory. But the rise of the Pacific sperm-whalefishery had an unfortunate side effect. Instead of voyages thathad once averaged about nine months, two- and three-year voyageshad become the norm. Never before had the division between Nantucket'swhalemen and their people been so great. Long gone were thedays when Nantucketers could watch from shore as the men and boysof the island pursued the whale. Nantucket was now the whaling capitalof the world, but there were more than a few islanders who hadnever even seen a whale.

    In the summer of 1819 people were still talking about the timewhen, nine years earlier, a pod of right whales was spotted to the northof the island. Whaleboats were quickly dispatched. A crowd gatheredon shore to watch in fascination as two whales were killed and towedback into the harbor. For the people of Nantucket, it was an epiphany.Here at last were two of the creatures they had heard so much about,creatures upon which their livelihood depended. One of the whaleswas pulled up onto the wharf, and before the day was out, thousands ofpeople—including, perhaps, the five-year-old Thomas Nickerson—hadcome to see it. One can only imagine the intensity of the Nantucketers'curiosity as they peered at the giant creature, and poked andprodded it, and said to themselves, "So this is it."

    Nantucket had created an economic system that no longer dependedon the island's natural resources. The island's soil had longsince been exhausted by overfarming. Nantucket's large Wampanoagpopulation had been reduced to a handful by epidemics, forcingshipowners to look to the mainland for crew. Whales had almost completelydisappeared from local waters. And still the Nantucketers prospered.As one visitor observed, the island had become a "barrensandbank, fertilized with whale-oil only."

Throughout the seventeenth century, English Nantucketers resistedall attempts to establish a church on the island, partly because awoman by the name of Mary Coffin Starbuck forbade it. It was said thatnothing of consequence was done on Nantucket without Mary's approval.Mary Coffin and Nathaniel Starbuck had been the first Englishcouple to be married on the island, in 1662, and had established a lucrativeoutpost for trading with the Wampanoag. Whenever an itinerantminister came to Nantucket looking to establish a congregation,he was firmly rebuffed by Mary Starbuck. Then, in 1702, Mary succumbedto a charismatic Quaker minister named John Richardson.Speaking before a group assembled in the Starbucks' living room,Richardson succeeded in moving Mary to tears. It was Mary Starbuck'sconversion to Quakerism that established the unique fusion of spiritualityand covetousness that would make possible Nantucket's rise as awhaling port.

    Quakers or, more properly, members of the Society of Friends, dependedon their own experience of God's presence, the "Inner Light,"for guidance rather than relying on a Puritan minister's interpretationof scripture. But Nantucket's ever growing number of Quakers werehardly free-thinking individuals. Friends were expected to conform torules of behavior determined during yearly meetings, encouraging asense of community that was as carefully controlled as that of any NewEngland society. If there was a difference, it was the Quaker belief inpacifism and a conscious spurning of worldly ostentation—two principlesthat were not intended to interfere, in any way, with a person'sability to make money. Instead of building fancy houses or buying fashionableclothes, Nantucket's Quakers reinvested their profits in thewhale fishery. As a result, they were able to weather the downturnsthat laid to waste so many mainland whaling merchants, and MaryStarbuck's children, along with their Macy and Coffin cousins, quicklyestablished a Quaker whaling dynasty.

    Nantucketers saw no contradiction between their livelihood andtheir religion. God Himself had granted them dominion over thefishes of the sea. Peleg Folger, a Nantucket whaleman turned Quakerelder, expressed it in verse:

Thou didst, O Lord, create the mighty whale, That wondrous monster of a mighty length; Vast is his head and body, vast his tail, Beyond conception his unmeasured strength.
But, everlasting God, thou dost ordain That we, poor feeble mortals should engage (Ourselves, our wives and children to maintain), This dreadful monster with a martial rage.

    Even if Nantucket's Quakers dominated the island economicallyand culturally, room was made for others, and by the early nineteenthcentury there were two Congregational church towers bracketing thetown north and south. Yet all shared in a common, spiritually infusedmission—to maintain a peaceful life on land while raising bloodyhavoc at sea. Pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires, the whalemenof Nantucket were simply fulfilling the Lord's will.

* * *

The town that Thomas Nickerson knew had a ramshackle feel aboutit. All it took was one walk through its narrow sandy streets to discoverthat despite the stately church towers and the occasional mansion,Nantucket was a far cry from Salem. "The good citizens of [Nantucket]do not seem to pride themselves upon the regularity of their streets[or] the neatness of their sidewalks," observed a visiting Quaker. Thehouses were shingled and unpretentious and, as often as not, includeditems scavenged from ships. "[H]atchways make very convenientbridges for gutters ...; a plank from the stern of a ship—having thename on it—answers the double purpose of making a fence—and informingthe stranger if he can be at a loss—in what town he is."

    Instead of using the official street names that had been assignedfor tax purposes in 1798, Nantucketers spoke of "Elisha Bunker'sstreet" or "Captain Mitchell's." "The inhabitants live together likeone great family," wrote the Nantucketer Walter Folger, who happenedto be a part-owner of the Essex, "not in one house, but in friendship.They not only know their nearest neighbors, but each one knowsall the rest. If you should wish to see any man, you need but ask the firstinhabitant you meet, and he will be able to conduct you to his residence,to tell what occupation he is of, and any other particulars youmay wish to know."

    But even within this close-knit familial community, there weredistinctions, and Thomas Nickerson was on the outside looking in.The unhappy truth was that while Nickerson's mother, Rebecca Gibson,was a Nantucketer, his father, Thomas Nickerson, had been fromCape Cod, and Thomas Junior had been born in Harwich in 1805. Sixmonths later, his parents moved him and his sisters across the sound toNantucket. It was six months too late. Nantucketers took a dim view ofoff-islanders. They called them "strangers" or, even worse, "coofs," aterm of disparagement originally reserved for Cape Codders butbroadened to include all of those unlucky enough to have been born onthe mainland.

    It might have earned Thomas Nickerson some regard on the islandif his mother had at least come from old Nantucket stock, with a lastname like Coffin, Starbuck, Macy, Folger, or Gardner. Such was notthe case. On an island where many families could claim direct descentfrom one of the twenty or so "first settlers," the Gibsons and Nickersonswere without the network of cousins that sustained most Nantucketers."Perhaps there is not another place in the world, of equalmagnitude," said Obed Macy, "where the inhabitants [are] so connectedby consanguinity as in this, which add[s] much to the harmonyof the people and to their attachment to the place." Nickerson'sfriends and shipmates Owen Coffin, Charles Ramsdell, and BarzillaiRay could count themselves as part of this group. Thomas might playwith them, go to sea with them, but deep down he understood that nomatter how hard he might try, he was, at best, only a coof.

    Where a person lived in Nantucket depended on his station in thewhaling trade. If he was a shipowner or merchant, he more than likelylived on Pleasant Street, set back on the hill, farthest from the clamorand stench of the wharves. (In subsequent decades, as their ambitionsrequired greater space and visibility, these worthies would gravitatetoward Main Street). Captains, in contrast, tended to choose the thoroughfarewith the best view of the harbor: Orange Street. With a houseon the east side of Orange, a captain could watch his ship being outfittedat the wharf and keep track of activity in the harbor. Mates, as arule, lived at the foot of this hill ("under the bank," it was called) onUnion Street, in the actual shadow of the homes they aspired one dayto own.

    On the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets was the Friends' immenseSouth Meeting House, built in 1792 from pieces of the even biggerGreat Meeting House that once loomed over the stoneless field ofthe Quaker Burial Ground at the end of Main Street. Just becauseNickerson had been brought up a Congregationalist didn't mean hehad never been inside this or the other Quaker meetinghouse on BroadStreet. One visitor claimed that almost half the people who attended atypical Quaker meeting were not members of the Society of Friends.Earlier that summer, on June 29, Obed Macy recorded that two thousandpeople (more than a quarter of the island's population) had attendeda public Quaker meeting at the South Meeting House.

    While many of the attendees were there for the good of their souls,those in their teens and early twenties tended to have other motives.No other place on Nantucket offered a better opportunity for youngpeople to meet members of the opposite sex. Nantucketer CharlesMurphey described in a poem how young men such as himself used thelong gaps of silence typical of a Quaker meeting

To sit with eager eyes directed On all the beauty there collected And gaze with wonder while in sessions On all the various forms and fashions.

    Yet another gathering spot for amorous young people was theridge of hills behind the town where the four windmills stood. Herecouples could enjoy a spectacular view of the town and Nantucket Harbor,with the brand-new lighthouse at the end of Great Point visible inthe distance.

    What is surprising is how rarely Nantucketers, even young and adventurousNantucketers like Nickerson and company, strayed beyondthe gates of the little town. "As small as [the island] is," one whale-oilmerchant admitted in a letter, "I was never at the extreme east or west,and for some years I dare say have not been one mile from town." In aworld of whales, sea serpents, and ominous signs in the night sky, allNantucketers, whalemen and landsmen alike, looked to the town as asanctuary, a fenced-in place of familiar ways and timeless ancestral alliances,a place to call home.

Passions stirred beneath Nantucket's Quaker facade. Life mightseem restrained and orderly as hundreds, sometimes thousands, ofpeople made their way to meeting each Thursday and Sunday, the menin their long dark coats and wide-brimmed hats, the women in longdresses and meticulously crafted bonnets. But factors besides Quakerismand a common heritage also drove the Nantucket psyche—inparticular, an obsession with the whale. No matter how much the inhabitantsmight try to hide it, there was a savagery about this island, abloodlust and pride that bound every mother, father, and child in aclannish commitment to the hunt.

    The imprinting of a young Nantucketer began at the earliestage. The first words a baby was taught included the language of thechase—"townor," for instance, a Wampanoag word meaning that thewhale has been sighted for a second time. Bedtime stories told ofkilling whales and eluding cannibals in the Pacific. One mother approvinglyrecounted how her nine-year-old son attached a fork to theend of a ball of darning cotton and then proceeded to harpoon the familycat. The mother happened into the room just as the terrified pet attemptedto escape, and unsure of what she had found herself in themiddle of, she picked up the cotton ball. Like a veteran boatsteerer,the boy shouted, "Pay out, mother! Pay out! There she sounds throughthe window!"

    There was rumored to be a secret society of young women on theisland whose members pledged to marry only men who had alreadykilled a whale. To help these young women identify them as hunters,boatsteerers wore chockpins (small oak pins used to keep the harpoonline in the bow groove of a whaleboat) on their lapels. Boatsteerers, superbathletes with prospects of lucrative captaincies, were consideredthe most eligible of Nantucket bachelors.

    Instead of toasting a person's health, a Nantucketer offered invocationsof a darker sort:

Death to the living, Long life to the killers, Success to sailors' wives And greasy luck to whalers.

Despite the bravado of this little ditty, death was a fact of life withwhich all Nantucketers were thoroughly familiar. In 1810 there wereforty-seven fatherless children on Nantucket, while almost a quarter ofthe women over the age of twenty-three (the average age of marriage)had been widowed by the sea.

    In old age, Nickerson still visited the graves of his parents in theOld North Burial Ground. In 1819, during the last few weeks before hisdeparture aboard the Essex, he undoubtedly made his way to thisfenced-in patch of sun-scorched grass and walked among its cantedstones. Nickerson's father had been the first of the parents to die, onNovember 9, 1806, at the age of thirty-three. His gravestone read:

Crush'd as the moth beneath thy hand We moulder to the dust Our feeble powers can ne'er withstand And all our beauty's lost.

Nickerson's mother, who had borne five children, died less than amonth later at the age of twenty-eight. Her oldest living daughter waseight years old; her only son was not yet two. Her inscription read:

This mortal life decays apace How soon the bubble's broke Adam and all his numerous race Are Vanity and Smoke.

    Nickerson, who was raised by his grandparents, wasn't the only orphanaboard the Essex. His friend Barzillai Ray had also lost both hisparents. Owen Coffin and Charles Ramsdell had each lost a father.This may have been their closest bond: each of them, like so many Nantucketers,was a fatherless child for whom a ship's officer would bemuch more than a demanding taskmaster; he would be, quite possibly,the first male authority figure the boys had ever known.

Perphaps no community before or since has been so divided by itscommitment to work. For a whaleman and his family, it was a punishingregimen: two to three years away, three to four months at home.With their men gone for so long, Nantucket's women were obliged notonly to raise the children but also to run many of the island's businesses.It was largely the women who maintained the complex web ofpersonal and commercial relationships that kept the community functioning.J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, whose classic Letters froman American Farmer describes his lengthy stay on the island a fewyears prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, suggested that the Nantucketwomen's "prudence and good management ... justly entitlesthem to a rank superior to that of other wives."

    Quakerism contributed to the women's strength. In its emphasison the spiritual and intellectual equality of the sexes, the religion fosteredan attitude that was in keeping with what all Nantucketers sawplainly demonstrated to them every day: that women, who on Nantuckettended to be better educated than the island's men, were just asintelligent, just as capable as their male counterparts.

    By necessity and choice, the island's women maintained active sociallives, visiting one another with a frequency Crèvecoeur describedas incessant. These visits involved more than the exchange of meregossip. They were the setting in which much of the business of the townwas transacted. The ninteenth-century feminist Lucretia Coffin Mott,who was born and raised on Nantucket, remembered how a husbandback from a voyage commonly followed in the wake of his wife, accompanyingher to get-togethers with other wives. Mott, who eventuallymoved to Philadelphia, commented on how odd such a practice wouldhave struck anyone from the mainland, where the sexes operated inentirely different social spheres.

    Some of the Nantucket wives adapted quite well to the three-years-away,three-months-at-home rhythm of the whale fishery. The islanderEliza Brock recorded in her journal what she called the "NantucketGirl's Song":

Then I'll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea, For a life of independence, is the pleasant life for me. But every now and then I shall like to see his face, For it always seems to me to beam with manly grace, With his brow so nobly open, and his dark and kindly eye, Oh my heart beats fondly towards him whenever he is nigh. But when he says "Goodbye my love, I'm off across the sea," First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I'm free.

    The mantle of power and responsibility settled upon the Nantucketwoman's shoulders on her wedding day. "[N]o sooner have theyundergone this ceremony," said Crèvecoeur, "than they cease toappear so cheerful and gay; the new rank they hold in the societyimpresses them with more serious ideas than were entertainedbefore.... [T]he new wife ... gradually advises and directs [thehousehold]; the new husband soon goes to sea; he leaves her to learnand exercise the new government in which she is entered."

    To the undying outrage of subsequent generations of Nantucketloyalists, Crèvecoeur claimed that many of the island's women had developedan addiction to opium: "They have adopted these many yearsthe Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and sodeeply rooted is it that they would be at a loss how to live without thisindulgence." Why they took the drug is perhaps impossible to determinefrom this distance in time. Still, the portrait that emerges—of acommunity of achievers attempting to cope with a potentially devastatingloneliness—makes the women's dependence on opium perhapseasier to understand. The ready availability of the drug on the island(opium was included in every whaleship's medical chest) combinedwith the inhabitants' wealth may also help to explain why the drug wasso widely used in Nantucket.

    There is little doubt that intimacy—physical as well as emotional—betweena wife and a husband must have been difficult to establish underthe tremendously compressed circumstances of the few monthsavailable between voyages. An island tradition claims that Nantucketwomen dealt with their husbands' long absences by relying on sexualaids known as "he's-at-homes." Although this claim, like that of druguse, seems to fly in the face of the island's staid Quaker reputation, in1979 a six-inch plaster penis (along with a batch of letters from thenineteenth century and a laudanum bottle) was discovered hidden inthe chimney of a house in the island's historic district. Just becausethey were "superior wives" didn't mean that the island's women werewithout normal physical desires. Like their husbands, Nantucket'swomen were ordinary human beings attempting to adapt to a most extraordinaryway of life.