In the Heart of the Sea is the latest film from director Ron Howard, a special effects extravaganza with a rumored $100 million price tag. With a star-studded cast, it tells the story of the whaling ship Essex, which was attacked by a giant killer whale in 1820, a survivor’s tale so stirring that it became the inspiration for the classic book Moby Dick. But the film, which actually sank at the box office in its debut weekend, doesn’t tell the whole story of that seafaring catastrophe, a history I suspect many have tried to bury for nearly two centuries.
The truth is, there were six African-American seamen aboard the Essex, who, under unthinkable conditions, were to die under mysterious circumstances. The lingering question: Did some of them die at the hands of others?
I originally learned of this story as a researcher for a local PBS show in Boston called Say Brother, the earliest television weekly produced for and by the African-American community. The program had been approached in 1997 regarding the possibility of doing a documentary on the history of Nantucket Island’s black residents.
As I systematically checked off all volumes ever published on Nantucket, it didn't take too long before I started becoming increasingly intrigued by allusions to the whaling tragedy on which the film is based but that, all the more mystifying to me, 19th-century writers refused to describe, ominously referring to it only as "the secret."
It was the account of the Essex, the whaling brig that, in one of the most unusual and ironic of occurrences in maritime history, had been sunk by one of the great ocean-dwelling animals it hunted. If that was not sensational in itself, what so devastated the islanders was that those who survived the incident and the three months it took before they were rescued had done so by resorting to cannibalism. The first people to be eaten were black.
Once I'd gotten over the shock, I became even more appalled by how successfully later historians who by then knew the episode to be the source of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick had avoided mentioning that all six of the ship’s black crew members had perished. This, of course, became a major highlight in the chronological outline our production team submitted and, in hindsight—coming up on two decades now—the probable reason that Say Brother was not commissioned to do the documentary.
Two years later, we heard that Nathaniel Philbrick, a Nantucketer, had been awarded a million-dollar-plus contract to write a book on the subject.
It isn't too difficult to guess why the racial detail of this nautical horror story always seems to get scuttled in the retelling. Nor should we be surprised, for instance, that there was never an inquest or, for that matter, a legal investigation held at any level of the judiciary—local, state or federal.
As with many of the vessels from our literary tradition that have served as microcosms of the social world they navigated, the story of the Essex is a confounding one, perhaps a contradiction of the pride New Englanders have taken in their anti-slavery history. It must appall modern scholars just as much as it might have the Nantucket Quakers back then whose religious beliefs had spearheaded the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts.
A retelling of the tale in Life magazine in 1952 and in American Heritage magazine in 1983 left out the sordid details, and Howard's account of the Essex story has once again succeeded in glossing over the racial implications. Not surprisingly for that particular period of the nation's history, the presence of black crew members on board the Essex was not even mentioned by Life. Although American Heritage did describe the death of one, in that version only two whites were actually eaten by their shipmates.
A 2010 documentary about the Essex by Ric Burns makes this reference to the racial dimensions of the tragedy:
One by one the men died in extremes of horror and agony, the men next to them near death themselves, unable to do anything to help or relieve their suffering companions. The African-American crew members fared worst. By February all six were dead, and the remains of four of them had been butchered and eaten by their companions.
Even Philbrick himself could not help wondering, in his 2000 best-seller on which the movie is based, whether the white sailors had been complicit in killing the blacks on board:
Since there would be no black survivors to contradict the testimony of whites, the possibility exists that the Nantucketers took a far more active role in ensuring their own survival than has otherwise been suggested. Certainly the statistics raise suspicions—of the first four sailors to be eaten all were black.
It is this, and only this, that should have been the heart of Howard's script. Appallingly, the combined screen time of the only three black characters cast in the film can be counted in seconds—just seconds.
Black lives matter—even those whose horrific loss served as the inspiration for what many scholars consider the greatest American novel.
Mario Valdes works as a contract researcher and television producer in Boston, specializing in the history of the African Diaspora.