It was, he later remembered, "the most pleasing moment
of my life"the moment he stepped aboard the whaleship
Essex for the first time. He was fourteen years old, with a broad
nose and an open, eager face, and like every other Nantucket boy, he'd
been taught to "idolize the form of a ship." The Essex might not look
like much, stripped of her rigging and chained to the wharf, but for
Thomas Nickerson she was a vessel of opportunity. Finally, after what
had seemed an endless wait, Nickerson was going to sea.
The hot July sun beat down on her old, oil-soaked timbers until the
temperature below was infernal, but Nickerson explored every cranny,
from the brick altar of the tryworks being assembled on deck to the
lightless depths of the empty hold. In between was a creaking, compartmentalized
world, a living thing of oak and pine that reeked of oil,
blood, tobacco juice, food, salt, mildew, tar, and smoke. "[B]lack and
ugly as she was," Nickerson wrote, "I would not have exchanged her
for a palace."
In July of 1819 the Essex was one of a fleet of more than seventy
Nantucket whaleships in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. With whale-oil
prices steadily climbing and the rest of the world's economy sunk in
depression, the village of Nantucket was on its way to becoming one of
the richest towns in America.
The community of about seven thousand people lived on a gently
sloping hill crowded with houses and topped by windmills and church
towers. It resembled, some said, the elegant and established port of
Salema remarkable compliment for an island more than twenty
miles out into the Atlantic, below Cape Cod. But if the town, high on
its hill, radiated an almost ethereal quality of calm, the waterfront below
bustled with activity. Sprouting from among the long, low warehouses
and ropewalks, four solid-fill wharves reached out more than a
hundred yards into the harbor. Tethered to the wharves or anchored in
the harbor were, typically, fifteen to twenty whaleships, along with
dozens of smaller vessels, mainly sloops and schooners, that brought
trade 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 continually
came and went.
It was a scene already familiar to Thomas Nickerson. The children
of Nantucket had long used the waterfront as their playground. They
rowed decrepit whaleboats up and down the harbor and clambered up
into the rigging of the ships. To off-islanders it was clear that these
children were a "distinctive class of juveniles, accustomed to consider
themselves as predestined mariners.... They climbed ratlines like
monkeyslittle fellows of ten or twelve yearsand laid out on the
yardarms with the most perfect nonchalance." The Essex might be
Nickerson's first ship, but he had been preparing for the voyage almost
his entire life.
He wasn't going alone. His friends Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, and
Charles Ramsdell, all between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, were
also sailing on the Essex. Owen Coffin was the cousin of the Essex's
new captain and probably steered his three friends to his kinsman's
ship. 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 make
them wealthy men. Daniel Russell, her previous captain, had been successful
enough over the course of four voyages to be given command of
a new and larger ship, the Aurora. Russell's promotion allowed the former
first mate, George Pollard, Jr., to take over command of the Essex,
and one of the boatsteerers (or harpooners), Owen Chase, to move up
to first mate. Three other crew members were elevated to the rank of
boatsteerer. Not only a lucky but apparently a happy vessel, the Essex
was, according to Nickerson, "on the whole rather a desirable ship
Since Nantucket was, like any seafaring town of the period, a community
obsessed with omens and signs, such a reputation counted for
much. Still, there was talk among the men on the wharves when earlier
that July, as the Essex was being repaired and outfitted, a comet appeared
in the night sky.
Nantucket was a town of roof dwellers. Nearly every house, its shingles
painted red or left to weather into gray, had a roof-mounted platform
known as a walk. While its intended use was to facilitate putting
out chimney fires with buckets of sand, the walk was also an excellent
place to look out to sea with a spyglass, to search for the sails of returning
ships. At night, the spyglasses of Nantucket were often directed
toward the heavens, and in July of 1819, islanders were looking toward
the northwest sky. The Quaker merchant Obed Macy, who kept meticulous
records of what he determined were the "most extraordinary
events" in the life of his island, watched the night sky from his house
on Pleasant Street. "The comet (which appears every clear night) is
thought to be very large from its uncommonly long tail," he wrote,
"which extends upward in opposition to the sun in an almost perpendicular
direction and heaves off to the eastward and nearly points for
the North Star."
From earliest times, the appearance of a comet was interpreted as
a sign that something unusual was about to happen. The New Bedford
Mercury, the newspaper Nantucketers read for lack of one of their
own, commented, "True it is, that the appearance of these eccentric
visitors have always preceded some remarkable event." But Macy resisted
such speculation: "[T]he philosophical reasoning we leave to
the scientific part of the community, still it is beyond a doubt that the
most learned is possessed of very little undoubted knowledge of the
subject of cometicks."
At the wharves and shipping offices there was much speculation,
and not just about the comet. All spring and summer there had been
sightings up and down the New England coast of what the Mercury
described as "an extraordinary sea animal"a serpent with black,
horselike eyes and a fifty-foot body resembling a string of barrels floating
on the water. Any sailor, especially if he was young and impressionable
like Thomas Nickerson, must have wondered, if only fleetingly, if
this was, in fact, the best time to be heading out on a voyage around
Nantucketers had good reason to be superstitious. Their lives
were governed by a force of terrifying unpredictabilitythe sea. Due
to a constantly shifting network of shoals, including the Nantucket Bar
just off the harbor mouth, the simple act of coming to and from the island
was 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 the
corpses of anonymous seamen who had washed up on its wave-thrashed
shores. Nantucket, which means "faraway land" in the language
of the island's native inhabitants, the Wampanoag, was a mound
of sand eroding into an inexorable ocean, and all its residents, even if
they had never left the island, were all too aware of the inhumanity of
Nantucket's English settlers, who began arriving in 1659, had
been mindful of the sea's dangers. They had hoped to support themselves
not as fishermen but as farmers and sheepherders on this grassy,
pond-speckled crescent without wolves. But as the increasing size of
the livestock herds, combined with the growing number of farms,
threatened to transform the island into a wind-blown wasteland, Nantucketers
inevitably looked seaward.
Every fall, hundreds of "right whales" appeared to the south of
the island and remained until the early spring. So named because they
were "the right whale to kill," right whales grazed the waters off Nantucket
much like seagoing cattle, straining the nutrient-rich surface of
the ocean through the bushy plates of baleen in their perpetually grinning
mouths. While English settlers at Cape Cod and eastern Long Island
had already been hunting right whales for decades, no one on
Nantucket had had the courage to pursue the whales in boats. Instead
they 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 overlooking
the ocean where some whales were spouting and playing with
one another. One of the onlookers nodded toward the whales and the
ocean beyond. "There," he asserted, "is a green pasture where our
children's grandchildren will go for bread." In fulfillment of his
prophecy, a Cape Codder by the name of Ichabod Paddock was soon
thereafter lured across Nantucket Sound to instruct the islanders in
the art of killing whales.
Their first boats were only twenty feet long, and they launched
them from the beaches along the island's south shore. Typically a
whaleboat's crew was comprised of five Wampanoag oarsmen, with a
single white Nantucketer at the steering oar. Once they'd killed the
whale, they towed it back to the beach, where they removed the blubber
and boiled it into oil. By the beginning of the eighteenth century,
English Nantucketers had instituted a system of debt servitude that
provided them with a steady supply of Wampanoag labor. Without the
island's native inhabitants, who outnumbered Nantucket's white population
well into the 1720s, the island would never have become a successful
In the year 1712, a Captain Hussey, cruising in his little boat for
right whales along Nantucket's south shore, was blown out to sea in a
fierce northerly gale. Many miles out, he glimpsed several whales of a
type 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 rough
seas, Hussey managed to harpoon and kill one of the whales, its blood
and oil stilling the waves in an almost biblical fashion. This creature,
Hussey quickly realized, was a sperm whale, one of which had washed
up on the island's southwest shore only a few years before. Not only
was the oil derived from the sperm whale's blubber far superior to that
of the right whale, providing a brighter and cleaner-burning light, but
its block-shaped head contained a vast reservoir of even better oil,
called spermaceti, that could be simply ladled into an awaiting cask. (It
was spermaceti's resemblance to seminal fluid that gave rise to the
sperm whale's name.) The sperm whale might be faster and more aggressive
than the right whale, but it was far more enriching. With
no other means of support, Nantucketers dedicated themselves to the
single-minded pursuit of the sperm whale, and they soon outstripped
their whaling rivals on the mainland and Long Island.
By 1760, the Nantucketers had practically wiped out the local
whale population. But no matterby that point they had enlarged
their whaling sloops and equipped them with brick tryworks capable
of processing the oil on the open ocean. Now, since it would not need
to return to port as often to deliver bulky blubber, their fleet had a far
greater range. By the outbreak of the American Revolution, Nantucketers
had made it to the verge of the Arctic Circle, to the west coast of
Africa, the east coast of South America, and as far south as the Falkland
In a speech before Parliament in 1775, the British statesman Edmund
Burke looked to the island's inhabitants as the leaders of a new
American breeda "recent people" whose success in whaling had exceeded
the collective might of all of Europe. Living on an island that
was almost the same distance from the mainland as England was from
France, Nantucketers developed a British sense of themselves as a distinct
and superior people, privileged citizens of what Ralph Waldo
Emerson called the "Nation of Nantucket."
The Revolution and the War of 1812, when the British navy
marauded offshore shipping, proved disastrous to the whale fishery.
Fortunately, Nantucketers possessed enough capital and inherent
whaling expertise to survive these trials. By 1819, Nantucket was well
on its way to reclaiming and, as the whalers ventured into the Pacific,
even surpassing its former glory. But the rise of the Pacific sperm-whale
fishery had an unfortunate side effect. Instead of voyages that
had once averaged about nine months, two- and three-year voyages
had become the norm. Never before had the division between Nantucket's
whalemen and their people been so great. Long gone were the
days when Nantucketers could watch from shore as the men and boys
of the island pursued the whale. Nantucket was now the whaling capital
of the world, but there were more than a few islanders who had
never even seen a whale.
In the summer of 1819 people were still talking about the time
when, nine years earlier, a pod of right whales was spotted to the north
of the island. Whaleboats were quickly dispatched. A crowd gathered
on shore to watch in fascination as two whales were killed and towed
back 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 whales
was pulled up onto the wharf, and before the day was out, thousands of
peopleincluding, perhaps, the five-year-old Thomas Nickersonhad
come to see it. One can only imagine the intensity of the Nantucketers'
curiosity as they peered at the giant creature, and poked and
prodded it, and said to themselves, "So this is it."
Nantucket had created an economic system that no longer depended
on the island's natural resources. The island's soil had long
since been exhausted by overfarming. Nantucket's large Wampanoag
population had been reduced to a handful by epidemics, forcing
shipowners to look to the mainland for crew. Whales had almost completely
disappeared from local waters. And still the Nantucketers prospered.
As one visitor observed, the island had become a "barren
sandbank, fertilized with whale-oil only."
Throughout the seventeenth century, English Nantucketers resisted
all attempts to establish a church on the island, partly because a
woman by the name of Mary Coffin Starbuck forbade it. It was said that
nothing of consequence was done on Nantucket without Mary's approval.
Mary Coffin and Nathaniel Starbuck had been the first English
couple to be married on the island, in 1662, and had established a lucrative
outpost for trading with the Wampanoag. Whenever an itinerant
minister came to Nantucket looking to establish a congregation,
he was firmly rebuffed by Mary Starbuck. Then, in 1702, Mary succumbed
to 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's
conversion to Quakerism that established the unique fusion of spirituality
and covetousness that would make possible Nantucket's rise as a
Quakers or, more properly, members of the Society of Friends, depended
on their own experience of God's presence, the "Inner Light,"
for guidance rather than relying on a Puritan minister's interpretation
of scripture. But Nantucket's ever growing number of Quakers were
hardly free-thinking individuals. Friends were expected to conform to
rules of behavior determined during yearly meetings, encouraging a
sense of community that was as carefully controlled as that of any New
England society. If there was a difference, it was the Quaker belief in
pacifism and a conscious spurning of worldly ostentationtwo principles
that were not intended to interfere, in any way, with a person's
ability to make money. Instead of building fancy houses or buying fashionable
clothes, Nantucket's Quakers reinvested their profits in the
whale fishery. As a result, they were able to weather the downturns
that laid to waste so many mainland whaling merchants, and Mary
Starbuck's children, along with their Macy and Coffin cousins, quickly
established a Quaker whaling dynasty.
Nantucketers saw no contradiction between their livelihood and
their religion. God Himself had granted them dominion over the
fishes of the sea. Peleg Folger, a Nantucket whaleman turned Quaker
elder, 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 economically
and culturally, room was made for others, and by the early nineteenth
century there were two Congregational church towers bracketing the
town north and south. Yet all shared in a common, spiritually infused
missionto maintain a peaceful life on land while raising bloody
havoc at sea. Pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires, the whalemen
of Nantucket were simply fulfilling the Lord's will.
* * *
The town that Thomas Nickerson knew had a ramshackle feel about
it. All it took was one walk through its narrow sandy streets to discover
that 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. The
houses were shingled and unpretentious and, as often as not, included
items scavenged from ships. "[H]atchways make very convenient
bridges for gutters ...; a plank from the stern of a shiphaving the
name on itanswers the double purpose of making a fenceand informing
the stranger if he can be at a lossin what town he is."
Instead of using the official street names that had been assigned
for tax purposes in 1798, Nantucketers spoke of "Elisha Bunker's
street" or "Captain Mitchell's." "The inhabitants live together like
one great family," wrote the Nantucketer Walter Folger, who happened
to be a part-owner of the Essex, "not in one house, but in friendship.
They not only know their nearest neighbors, but each one knows
all the rest. If you should wish to see any man, you need but ask the first
inhabitant you meet, and he will be able to conduct you to his residence,
to tell what occupation he is of, and any other particulars you
may wish to know."
But even within this close-knit familial community, there were
distinctions, 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 from
Cape Cod, and Thomas Junior had been born in Harwich in 1805. Six
months later, his parents moved him and his sisters across the sound to
Nantucket. It was six months too late. Nantucketers took a dim view of
off-islanders. They called them "strangers" or, even worse, "coofs," a
term of disparagement originally reserved for Cape Codders but
broadened to include all of those unlucky enough to have been born on
It might have earned Thomas Nickerson some regard on the island
if his mother had at least come from old Nantucket stock, with a last
name like Coffin, Starbuck, Macy, Folger, or Gardner. Such was not
the case. On an island where many families could claim direct descent
from one of the twenty or so "first settlers," the Gibsons and Nickersons
were without the network of cousins that sustained most Nantucketers.
"Perhaps there is not another place in the world, of equal
magnitude," said Obed Macy, "where the inhabitants [are] so connected
by consanguinity as in this, which add[s] much to the harmony
of the people and to their attachment to the place." Nickerson's
friends and shipmates Owen Coffin, Charles Ramsdell, and Barzillai
Ray could count themselves as part of this group. Thomas might play
with them, go to sea with them, but deep down he understood that no
matter how hard he might try, he was, at best, only a coof.
Where a person lived in Nantucket depended on his station in the
whaling trade. If he was a shipowner or merchant, he more than likely
lived on Pleasant Street, set back on the hill, farthest from the clamor
and stench of the wharves. (In subsequent decades, as their ambitions
required greater space and visibility, these worthies would gravitate
toward Main Street). Captains, in contrast, tended to choose the thoroughfare
with the best view of the harbor: Orange Street. With a house
on the east side of Orange, a captain could watch his ship being outfitted
at the wharf and keep track of activity in the harbor. Mates, as a
rule, lived at the foot of this hill ("under the bank," it was called) on
Union Street, in the actual shadow of the homes they aspired one day
On the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets was the Friends' immense
South Meeting House, built in 1792 from pieces of the even bigger
Great Meeting House that once loomed over the stoneless field of
the Quaker Burial Ground at the end of Main Street. Just because
Nickerson had been brought up a Congregationalist didn't mean he
had never been inside this or the other Quaker meetinghouse on Broad
Street. One visitor claimed that almost half the people who attended a
typical Quaker meeting were not members of the Society of Friends.
Earlier that summer, on June 29, Obed Macy recorded that two thousand
people (more than a quarter of the island's population) had attended
a 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 young
people to meet members of the opposite sex. Nantucketer Charles
Murphey described in a poem how young men such as himself used the
long 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 the
ridge of hills behind the town where the four windmills stood. Here
couples could enjoy a spectacular view of the town and Nantucket Harbor,
with the brand-new lighthouse at the end of Great Point visible in
What is surprising is how rarely Nantucketers, even young and adventurous
Nantucketers like Nickerson and company, strayed beyond
the gates of the little town. "As small as [the island] is," one whale-oil
merchant 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 a
world of whales, sea serpents, and ominous signs in the night sky, all
Nantucketers, whalemen and landsmen alike, looked to the town as a
sanctuary, a fenced-in place of familiar ways and timeless ancestral alliances,
a place to call home.
Passions stirred beneath Nantucket's Quaker facade. Life might
seem restrained and orderly as hundreds, sometimes thousands, of
people made their way to meeting each Thursday and Sunday, the men
in their long dark coats and wide-brimmed hats, the women in long
dresses and meticulously crafted bonnets. But factors besides Quakerism
and a common heritage also drove the Nantucket psychein
particular, an obsession with the whale. No matter how much the inhabitants
might try to hide it, there was a savagery about this island, a
bloodlust and pride that bound every mother, father, and child in a
clannish commitment to the hunt.
The imprinting of a young Nantucketer began at the earliest
age. The first words a baby was taught included the language of the
chase"townor," for instance, a Wampanoag word meaning that the
whale has been sighted for a second time. Bedtime stories told of
killing whales and eluding cannibals in the Pacific. One mother approvingly
recounted how her nine-year-old son attached a fork to the
end of a ball of darning cotton and then proceeded to harpoon the family
cat. The mother happened into the room just as the terrified pet attempted
to escape, and unsure of what she had found herself in the
middle of, she picked up the cotton ball. Like a veteran boatsteerer,
the boy shouted, "Pay out, mother! Pay out! There she sounds through
There was rumored to be a secret society of young women on the
island whose members pledged to marry only men who had already
killed a whale. To help these young women identify them as hunters,
boatsteerers wore chockpins (small oak pins used to keep the harpoon
line in the bow groove of a whaleboat) on their lapels. Boatsteerers, superb
athletes with prospects of lucrative captaincies, were considered
the most eligible of Nantucket bachelors.
Instead of toasting a person's health, a Nantucketer offered invocations
of 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 with
which all Nantucketers were thoroughly familiar. In 1810 there were
forty-seven fatherless children on Nantucket, while almost a quarter of
the 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 the
Old North Burial Ground. In 1819, during the last few weeks before his
departure aboard the Essex, he undoubtedly made his way to this
fenced-in patch of sun-scorched grass and walked among its canted
stones. Nickerson's father had been the first of the parents to die, on
November 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 a
month later at the age of twenty-eight. Her oldest living daughter was
eight 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 orphan
aboard the Essex. His friend Barzillai Ray had also lost both his
parents. 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 be
much 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 its
commitment to work. For a whaleman and his family, it was a punishing
regimen: two to three years away, three to four months at home.
With their men gone for so long, Nantucket's women were obliged not
only to raise the children but also to run many of the island's businesses.
It was largely the women who maintained the complex web of
personal and commercial relationships that kept the community functioning.
J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, whose classic Letters from
an American Farmer describes his lengthy stay on the island a few
years prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, suggested that the Nantucket
women's "prudence and good management ... justly entitles
them to a rank superior to that of other wives."
Quakerism contributed to the women's strength. In its emphasis
on the spiritual and intellectual equality of the sexes, the religion fostered
an attitude that was in keeping with what all Nantucketers saw
plainly demonstrated to them every day: that women, who on Nantucket
tended to be better educated than the island's men, were just as
intelligent, just as capable as their male counterparts.
By necessity and choice, the island's women maintained active social
lives, visiting one another with a frequency Crèvecoeur described
as incessant. These visits involved more than the exchange of mere
gossip. They were the setting in which much of the business of the town
was transacted. The ninteenth-century feminist Lucretia Coffin Mott,
who was born and raised on Nantucket, remembered how a husband
back from a voyage commonly followed in the wake of his wife, accompanying
her to get-togethers with other wives. Mott, who eventually
moved to Philadelphia, commented on how odd such a practice would
have struck anyone from the mainland, where the sexes operated in
entirely 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 islander
Eliza Brock recorded in her journal what she called the "Nantucket
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 Nantucket
woman's shoulders on her wedding day. "[N]o sooner have they
undergone this ceremony," said Crèvecoeur, "than they cease to
appear so cheerful and gay; the new rank they hold in the society
impresses them with more serious ideas than were entertained
before.... [T]he new wife ... gradually advises and directs [the
household]; the new husband soon goes to sea; he leaves her to learn
and exercise the new government in which she is entered."
To the undying outrage of subsequent generations of Nantucket
loyalists, Crèvecoeur claimed that many of the island's women had developed
an addiction to opium: "They have adopted these many years
the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and so
deeply rooted is it that they would be at a loss how to live without this
indulgence." Why they took the drug is perhaps impossible to determine
from this distance in time. Still, the portrait that emergesof a
community of achievers attempting to cope with a potentially devastating
lonelinessmakes the women's dependence on opium perhaps
easier to understand. The ready availability of the drug on the island
(opium was included in every whaleship's medical chest) combined
with the inhabitants' wealth may also help to explain why the drug was
so widely used in Nantucket.
There is little doubt that intimacyphysical as well as emotionalbetween
a wife and a husband must have been difficult to establish under
the tremendously compressed circumstances of the few months
available between voyages. An island tradition claims that Nantucket
women dealt with their husbands' long absences by relying on sexual
aids known as "he's-at-homes." Although this claim, like that of drug
use, seems to fly in the face of the island's staid Quaker reputation, in
1979 a six-inch plaster penis (along with a batch of letters from the
nineteenth century and a laudanum bottle) was discovered hidden in
the chimney of a house in the island's historic district. Just because
they were "superior wives" didn't mean that the island's women were
without normal physical desires. Like their husbands, Nantucket's
women were ordinary human beings attempting to adapt to a most extraordinary
way of life.
Excerpted from "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick. Copyright © 2001 by Nathaniel Philbrick. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.