I’ve been reading the book upon which the script by Terry Cafolla for BBC’s The Whale is based on : Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex as well as In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Unless you prefer not to know anything about the story, you may want to stop reading here as this post could contain *SPOILERS*. So be warned!
I know this is essentially a ‘fan-site’ for news about Jonas Armstrong’s projects but thought it’d be a missed opportunity if I didn’t address the current issue about ‘whaling’. Pinning my hopes on the fact Discovery Channel has put money into the film, and that they’ll be making a documentary to accompany the making-off of The Whale and address this debate.
As posted previously this is the synopsis of the story:
As first mate of the Essex, 21 year old Owen Chase left Nantucket on August 12, 1819 on a two-and-a-half-year whaling voyage. On the morning of November 20, 1820, the Essex was twice rammed by a Sperm Whale and sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of South America. After spending two days salvaging what supplies they could, the twenty sailors set out in the three small whaleboats with wholly inadequate supplies of food and fresh water. Instead of heading west to almost certain salvation nearby Tahiti (the crew, led by Owen Chase, feared the islands may be inhabited by cannibals), the confident first mate with the cocksure attitude convinced the less assertive Captain Pollard to head east for South America several thousand miles away. Of the 21 men in three whale boats who began the journey, eight survived; three who chose to remain on a barely habitable island and five in two boats who attempted to reach South America and who were forced to resort to cannibalism to remain alive.
I’d like to start by saying that what the crew of the Essex went through goes beyond anything imaginable. Their 90 – day ordeal was horrific on not only many physical levels but certainly emotionally as well. Navigating their way in the open sea with nothing to shelter from the harsh sun, squalls and many tropical thunderstorms on the very lightweight whaleboats, never knowing if it was going to be strong enough to face the waves or sink must have been terrifying. Furthermore food and water was essential to survive! The books go into detail about what the symptoms must have been like of going without enough food or drinkable water for months on end. It really makes you think how any of them survived at all as naturally their spirits were really low too. At first the plan was to sail to South – America but with food supplies running low, their only real chance in surviving rested on the off-chance that a whaling ship would pick them up. In the end they were forced to cannibalism: on Owen Chase’s boat they saved the body of one of the African Americans who died while in Captain Pollard’s boat another human tragedy took place. Knowing all food was gone and that they could only survive if one of them was killed and eaten, their names were put in a hat and so one got ‘the black spot’. 18 year old Owen Coffin, nephew of Captain Pollard was the poor lad sacrificed (Pollard wanted to take his place but Coffin refused) and was shot by his best friend. Days afterwards both boats got rescued by two different whaling ships – the survivors were described as mere flesh over skeletons… It took months, almost a year before they regained their proper weight and health.
When I first told some friends about the story, their first reaction was ‘Well they got what they deserved surely! They shouldn’t have been hunting the poor creatures.‘ Now I’d like to take part in the debate but context is key here!
In 1820 Nantucket, whaling was everything! Just on the brink of the Industrial Revolution the oil had many purposes – mainly lighting but also in the making of perfume among others! (yes ladies they used a type of amber found in whales to use in perfume and toiletries). What I mean is that it had a great economic purpose. Reading in detail in the books how they hunted, killed and harvested the oil makes you squirm in more ways than one – it was cruel and gruesome to say the least! But you can understand from their point of view why they kept on doing these voyages to support their families.
Fast forward almost 200 years later and have we actually learned anything? Sad to say the answer is no. We’re still pretty much screwing up the environment in search for oil and gas instead of finding ways for realistic alternatives. Many exist already but due to lobbyists etc…we prefer to ruin the planet just that little bit more instead. The latest ingenious scheme is to explore gas reserves on the bottom of the oceans – I mean seriously? Also on the large WTF scale is fracking. Seems like we just excel in finding any which means to get to gas and oil.
Whaling is still happening on a large scale by countries like Japan, Iceland and Norway – even though commercial whaling has been banned – they still hunt under the ‘scientific research’ label. Which of course hides the fact it really is for commercial purposes. For some cultures in the world, hunting a whale is still sacred and part of their centuries old tradition. I studied many Ethnic cultures during my MA in History of Art, so I do understand the importance of it. But what I do oppose is killing thousands of whales like Japan does as that’s not simply ‘tradition’ but basically pure commercial gain in killing intelligent mammals! Japan goes even further as now the hunt is on for dolphins as well. It’s just really sad and makes me quite angry that this is all happening while we really should know better by now!
If you’d like to learn a bit more about whaling today visit the SeaSheperd site as they continue to fight for the protections of whales and other marine species.
I know the BBC film will naturally be focusing on the human tragedy of the real-life story of the Essex and its crew. Though as I said in the beginning of this article, I really hope that due to Discovery Channel’s involvement they’ll try to take the opportunity to tell the history of whaling. How it evolved from the 19th century up to today and really tackle the debate of commercial whaling and why it’s important that it should remain banned.
It would be quite nice to know if the makers of The Whale, and indeed the cast, have their own opinion about these issues. Did they research the subject of whaling beforehand? Did they read the narratives to learn more about the characters they’d be playing and get into that mental mindset? How difficult was it to get into the philosophical / psychological aspect of their performance – especially the characters of Owen Chase and Captain Pollard describe in great lengths how they felt during the course of the ordeal and how hopes were raised and dashed. I’m really looking forward to the interviews for this project. Hopefully getting some great insights!
I know this post was a bit different but hope it was an interesting read none the less. 😀 Feel free to leave comments and get into the debate!