THOMAS NICKERSON was a fourteen-year-old cabin boy when an enormous sperm whale struck the whaleship Essex on November 20, 1819. Moments later, the whale struck another blow, and the ship began to sink, forcing the crew to scurry onto three small boats. Ninety days later, another whaling ship rescued nine nearly dead sailors, including Nickerson. Three others made it to an island, and eight died at sea. Some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive.
A year later, the captain’s mate on the Essex published an account of the catastrophe that intrigued author Herman Melville. His novel Moby-Dick, published in 1851, described a great white whale that attacks Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod. Nickerson wrote his own version of events in a manuscript titled The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats. That book languished in an attic from 1883, when Nickerson died, until its discovery in 1960. In 1984, the Nantucket (Massachusetts) Historical Association published an abridged version of the manuscript. Relying heavily on Nickerson’s account of events, Nathaniel Philbrick in 2000 published In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.