A Shifting Reef

The year 1866 was marked by a strange event, an unexplained and inexplicable occurrence that doubtless no one has yet forgotten.

Without mentioning the rumours which agitated the denizens of the ports and whipped up the public's imagination on every continent, seafaring men felt particularly disturbed. The merchants, shipowners, sea-captains, skippers, and master-mariners of Europe and America, the naval officers of every country, and eventually the various nationals governments on both continents—all became extremely worried about this matter.

For some time already, sea-going ships had been encountering an ‘enormous thing’: a long spindle-shaped object, which sometimes appeared phosphorescent and was infinitely larger and quicker than a whale.

The facts concerning this apparition, as noted in the various logbooks, agreed quite closely as to the structure of the said object or creature, its extraordinary speed of movement, its surprising ability to get from place to place, and the particular vitality with which it seemed endowed. If it was a cetacean, the size of this whale surpassed all those classified by science until that date. Neither Cuvier, Lacépède, M. Duméril, nor M. de Quatrefages1 would have accepted that such a monster existed—unless they had seen it really seen it, that is, with their own scientific eyes.

Taking the average of the observations made at the various junctures—rejecting both the timid evaluations assigning the object a length of 200 feet and the exaggerated opinions making it three miles long by a mile wide—it could be affirmed that this phenomenal being greatly exceeded all the dimensions the ichthyologists had admitted until then—if indeed it existed at all.

But it did exist, there was now no denying the fact; and given the inclination of the human mind to seek the fantastic, it is easy to understand the sensation that this supernatural apparition caused worldwide. As for dismissing it as a myth, this was no longer possible.

The reason was that on 20 July 1866, the steamship Governor Higginson, of the Calcutta and Burma Steam Navigation Company, had encountered this object moving five miles east of the Australian coastline.2 At first Captain Baker had thought that he was facing an unknown reef; and he was even getting ready to calculate its exact position, when two columns of water3 projected by the baffling object shot 150 feet into the air, whistling. Hence, unless the reef was subject to the intermittent gush of a geyser, the Governor Higginson was well and truly dealing with some aquatic mammal unknown to that date, whose blowholes were spurting columns of water mixed with air and vapour.

A similar phenomenon was observed in the Pacific Ocean on 23 July of the same year by the Cristóbal Colón of the West India and Pacific Steamship Co. This extraordinary cetacean was thus able to move from one place to another with surprising speed, for the Governor Higginson and the Cristóbal Colón had observed it within three days at two points on the chart separated by more than 700 nautical leagues.

A fortnight later, two thousand leagues from there, the Helvetia of the French Line and the Shannon of the Royal Mail,4 sailing on opposite tacks the Atlantic between the United States and Europe, signalled a sighting of the monster to each other at 42° 15' N and 60° 35' W of the Greenwich meridian. From these simultaneous observations, it was claimed that the mammal could reliably be estimated to be least 350 British feet5 long, since the Shannon and the Helvetia were both smaller than it, although measuring 100 m from stem to stern. Now the biggest whales, the kulammak and the umgullick6 frequenting the waters around the Aleutian Islands, have never exceeded 56 metres—or indeed possibly ever reached that length.

These reports arriving hot on the heels of one other, fresh observations made on board the transatlantic liner Pereire, a collision between the monster and the Etna of the Inman line,7 an official memorandum drawn up by the officers of the French frigate Normandie, a very serious declaration obtained from Commodore Fitzjames's senior staff on board the Lord Clyde—all this greatly thrilled public opinion. In the countries of a lighthearted mentality the phenomenon was joked about; in the serious, practical countries of Britain, America, and Germany, it was a matter for serious concern.

The monster came into fashion in all the big cities: it was sung about in the cafés, jeered at in the newspapers, acted out in the theatres. The canards had the perfect chance to lay whoppers of every hue. Every imaginary gigantic creature resurfaced in the papers, admittedly short of good copy: from the white whale, that terrible ‘Moby Dick’8 of the polar regions, to the enormous Kraken,9 whose tentacles can enlace a 500 ton ship and drag it down into the depths of the sea. People even reproduced the formally attested reports of olden times, the opinions of Aristotle and Pliny conceding the existence of such monsters, the Norwegian tales of Bishop Pontoppidan, and the account of Paul Egede.10 So, lastly, were the reports by Captain Harrington,11 whose good faith could not be put in doubt when he declared in 1857 that, while on board the Castilian, he had seen that enormous serpent which until then had only frequented the seas in the old Constitutionnel.12

There then broke out an interminable argument in the learned societies and scientific journals between the credulous and the incredulous. The ‘monster subject’ inflamed people's minds. Those journalists who professed science, at war with those who professed wit, spilled oceans of ink in this memorable campaign; and some of them even two or three drops of blood, for from the sea serpent they moved on to the most offensive personal remarks.

For six months, the war raged back and forth. The weighty articles of the Geographical Institute of Brazil, the Berlin Royal Academy of Sciences, the British Association, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the discussions in the Indian Archipelago, in Abbé Moigno's Cosmos, in Petermanns Mitteilungen, and the science sections of the quality press of France and elsewhere—all were driven back by the rest of the press with unfaltering repartee.13 These amusing writers, punning on a saying of Linnaeus's14 quoted by the monster's opponents, argued that ‘Nature does not produce idiots’,15 and so adjured their contemporaries not to give the lie to nature by admitting the existence of Krakens, sea serpents, Moby Dicks, or the other lucubrations of crazed sailors. The last straw was an article written for a much feared satirical newspaper16 by its most popular writer, who pushed his spurs in like Hippolytus,17 and delivered a deadly blow to the monster, putting it out of its misery amidst universal laughter. Wit had proved mightier than science.

During the first few months of 1867 the question did seem indeed to be dead and buried, without any hope of rising from its ashes, when some fresh information became known to the general public. There was now in fact a genuine and serious danger to be avoided, rather than simply a scientific question to be decided. The problem took on a different complexion. The monster became an islet, a rock, a reef; but a reef that was shifting, vague, and slippery.

During the night of 5 March 1867 the Moravian of the Montreal Ocean Company was sailing at 27° 30' N, 72° 15' W18 when its starboard quarter struck a rock that was not marked on any chart. She was making 13 knots under the combined effect of the wind and her 400 H.P. Without any doubt, had it not been for the superior quality of her hull, the Moravian would have sunk from the hole produced by the collision, together with the 237 passengers she was bringing back from Canada.

The accident happened at about 5 a.m., just as day was breaking. The officers of the watch rushed to the stern of the vessel. They examined the sea with the most scrupulous attention. They saw nothing but a powerful swirl breaking at about three cables' distance, as if the surface strata of the water were being violently threshed. The position was carefully noted, and the Moravian continued on its way without visible damage. Had it hit a submerged rock, or else the enormous wreck of some half-sunken ship? There was no way of finding out; but when the hull was inspected in dry dock,19 it was realized that part of the keel had been broken.

This occurrence, extremely serious on its own, would perhaps have been forgotten like so many others, had it not happened again in identical circumstances three weeks later. This time the event had a tremendous impact because of the nationality of the ship involved in the new collision and the reputation of the company operating the ship.

The name of the celebrated British shipowner Cunard20 is known to everyone. In 1840 this far-sighted industrialist set up a postal service from Liverpool to Halifax using three wooden paddle-steamers of 400 H.P. and a burden of 1162 tons. Eight years later the company added four ships of 650 H.P. and 1820 tons to its fleet, and two years after that, two further vessels of still greater power and tonnage. In 1853 the Cunard Line, which had just had its mail-carrying monopoly renewed, successively added to its fleet the Arabia, the Persia, the China, the Scotia, the Java, and the Russia, all amongst the fastest and the largest ships, after the Great Eastern, ever to have sailed the high seas.21 In 1867 the Company owned twelve ships, eight being paddle- and four propeller-driven.

If I give these brief details, it is so that everyone realizes the importance of this shipping line, known worldwide for its intelligent management. No ocean-going company has been run with greater skill; no business crowned with greater success. During the past 26 years, Cunard ships have crossed the Atlantic 2,000 times, and never cancelled a journey, arrived behind schedule, or lost a letter, man, or vessel. This is why, in spite of the strong competition provided by France, passengers still choose the Cunard Line more than any other, as is apparent from reading the official registers of recent years. Consequently noone will be surprised at the stir produced by the accident to one of its finest steamships.

On 13 April 1867, in a fine sea and moderate wind, the Scotia was at 45° 37' N, 15° 12' W. Under the force of its 1,000 H.P. it was moving at 13.43 knots. Its paddlewheels were beating the sea with perfect regularity. Its draught was 6.70 m and its displacement 6,624 m³.

At seventeen minutes past four in the afternoon, while the passengers were in the main saloon taking their lunch, a blow, hardly perceptible in fact, was felt on the hull of the Scotia, on the quarter a little behind the port wheel.

The Scotia had not run into something: something had run into it and a cutting or a perforating one implement rather than a blunt. The blow seemed so slight that nobody on board would have worried but for the shout of the hold-workers who rushed up on to deck shouting:

‘We're sinking! We’re sinking!'

At first the passengers were quite frightened—but Captain Anderson22 quickly reassured them. Actually the danger could not be imminent. The Scotia, divided into seven compartments by its watertight bulkheads, was guaranteed to resist any leak with impunity.

Captain Anderson headed immediately for the hold. He observed that the fifth compartment had flooded; and the speed of the flooding proved that the hole was a considerable one. Very fortunately, the boilers were not in this compartment, for the fires would have gone out immediately.

Captain Anderson had the engines stopped at once, and one of the sailors dived to assess the damage. Shortly after, the existence was confirmed of a two-metre hole in the hull. Such damage could not be repaired and the Scotia, its wheels half underwater, had to continue its journey in the same state. It lay 300 miles from Cape Clear, and was three days late when it sailed into the company docks, having greatly worried Liverpool.

The engineers then carried out an inspection of the Scotia, which was in dry dock. They couldn't believe their eyes. Two and a half metres below the water-line appeared a neat hole in the form of an isosceles triangle. The break in the plate was perfectly clean, and could not have been cut with greater precision by a punch. The perforating implement that had made it had therefore to be of an uncommon temper—and having been propelled with prodigious strength to pierce the four-centimetre sheet metal in this way, it must then have withdrawn by itself in a reverse movement that was truly inexplicable.

Such was this most recent event, which resulted in public opinion being stirred up once more. Starting from that moment, maritime losses from unknown causes were simply attributed to the monster. This fantastic animal shouldered the blame for all such shipwrecks, which unfortunately occur in considerable numbers; for out of the 3,000 ships whose losses are recorded each year by the Bureau Veritas,23 the number of steam or sailing ships presumed lost with all hands through lack of news is as high as 200!

It was now ‘the monster’ which was being blamed for their disappearance, rightly or wrongly. Because of this, because travel between the various continents was becoming increasingly dangerous, the public spoke its mind and categorically demanded that the oceans be finally rid of this formidable cetacean, whatever the cost.

  1. Cuvier . . . Quatrefages: French naturalists. Cuvier: Georges (Baron de) (1769-1832), geologist and zoologist; a founder of comparative anatomy and palaeontology, and the creationist, catastrophist, and anti-evolutionist author of De l'histoire naturelle des Cétacés (1804) and Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe (1825). Many of the marine lists of 20TL seem to be drawn directly from Cuvier, but with the adjectives added by Verne. M. Lacépède: Bernard-Germain-Étienne de la Ville (Comte de) (1756-1825). A disciple of Cuvier and Buffon, he wrote Histoire naturelle des poissons (1803) and Histoire naturelle des cétacés (1804). M. Duméril: (Verne: ‘M. Dumeril’) Henri-André (1812-70), or possibly his father André-Marie-Constant (1774-1860), specialists in reptiles and fish. M. de Quatrefages: Jean-Louis-Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau (1810-92), naturalist and anthropologist, anti-Darwinist, and author of Histoire de l'homme (1867). He appears prominently in the prehistoric section added to the seventh edition of Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1867).

  2. the Calcutta and Burma Steam Navigation Company, had encountered this moving object five miles east of the Australian coastline: (Verne: ‘the Calcutta and Burnach [. . .]’) became the British India Steam Navigation Company in 1869. MS2 has ‘500 miles’.
  3. two columns of water: this sighting of the sea monster is presaged in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where Axel and Lidenbrock see a ‘cetaceous monster which Cuvier and Blumenbach never dreamed of [. . .] motionless as if asleep [and a] water-column, rising to a height of 500 feet’. The creature turns out to be an island, and the column a geyser. MS2 has the water rising only ‘50 feet into the air’.
  4. the ‘Helvetia’ of the French Line and the ‘Shannon’ of the Royal Mail: the French Line was also known as the French Transatlantic Company; Around the World says that the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was another name for the Cunard Line (cf. note on Cunard below).
  5. 350 British feet: About 106 m. The British foot is only 30.40 cm. long. [JV]
  6. Historic NMFS Image - figb0263the ‘kulammak’ and the ‘umgullick’: these two words are later spelled ‘Hulammock [. . .] Umgallick’ (I 12) (MS2: ‘Hullamack’ and ‘Umgullick’).
  7. the Inman Line: (Verne: ‘Iseman’; MÉR: ‘Inman’) the informal name of the Inman and International Steamship Company. Verne writes ‘Inmann’ in II 20.
  8. the white whale, that terrible ‘Moby Dick’: (MÉR: ‘Maby Dick’; MS2: ‘Moby(?) Dick’) Moby-Dick; or, the White Whale (1850) by Herman Melville (1819-91) presents Captain Ahab's obsession for vengeance on the whale that took his leg off, culminating with his death and the sinking of his ship. Ray Bradbury seem to argue that Moby-Dick is an important influence on 20TL. Certainly the theme of revenge is common, and a remarkable number of elements are shared. Thus we find in Melville: Ecclesiastes, Leviathan, Seneca, Cleopatra, Dampier, Darwin, Maury, Agassiz, Albermarle, the Maelstrom, the Battle of Actium, the sea of milk, cannibalism, the Argo, the sinking of the Essex by a whale, the narwhal as a ‘sea-unicorn’ or variety of whale, shells, the rewarding of first seaman to sight the monster, the deliberate drawing down of an electrical storm on to the ship, ‘the great Kraken of Bishop Pontoppodan [sic]’, and ‘Aristotle; Pliny [. . .] Linnaeus [. . .] Lacépède [. . .] Cuvier [and] John Hunter’ (ch. 32)—all ideas which appear in Verne's volume, together with many of Melville's localities. Melville's vessel goes down in the deep trench off eastern Japan—where Verne's first emerges. Both endings feature a whirlpool which swallows up the vessel followed by a short posterior epilogue quoting the Book of Job; and each closes with a reference to the sea respectively ‘five’ and ‘six thousand years ago’. The first edition of Moby-Dick had on its title page ‘There Leviathan, / Hugest of living creatures, in the deep / Stretch’d like a promontory sleeps or swims, / And seems a moving land; and at his gills / Draws in, and at his breath spouts out a sea. / Paradise Lost': all elements visible in 20TL. However, Moby-Dick was translated into French only in 1941, and Verne could not read English (although he may have had access to reviews or summaries). Accordingly, although Melville and Verne undoubtedly share a common vision, direct influence must still remain an open question.
  9. Kraken: sea monsters that lived off the coast of Norway and crushed ships with their tentacles, undoubtedly derived from giant squid (which grow up to 60 feet and weigh 4,400 lbs). Verne's Les Histoires de Jean-Marie Cabidoulin (1901) features kraken prominently (with some of its monsters curiously resembling . . . the Nautilus).
  10. Aristotle . . . Egede: published works on sea monsters. Aristotle: (384-322 BC) philosopher and author of ‘Auscultationes mirabiles’ about Atlantis and a History of Animals containing the first major biological classification. Pliny: the Elder, Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79); author of a 37-volume Natural History, including: ‘The Indian Sea breedeth the most and the biggest fishes that are: among which the Whales and Whirlpooles called Balæne, take up as much in length as four acres or arpens of land’ (IX, ii, 4, quoted in Moby-Dick). Pliny also describes a 700-pound ‘polyp’, apparently a squid, with a head as big as a cask, arms 30 feet long, and evil-smelling breath, which came ashore in Carteia, Spain, tormented dogs, and climbed over a fence before being overpowered. He also writes of ‘more than 300 monsters, astonishingly varied in shape and size’ thrown up on the coast and of ‘elephants and rams, with horns as white as snow, and many Nereids [sea-nymphs]’ thrown up at Santoña (Book 9, ch. 5). Bishop Pontoppidan: Erik Pontoppidan (1698-1764), Bishop of Bergen, theologian, and author of Natural History of Norway (1752). He Pontoppidan E.L. sendescribes a monster ‘whose back, or upper part, which seems an English mile and a half in circumference [and] looks at first like a number of small islands’ with arms or tentacles reaching out of the sea, a strong scent, and able to discharge a muddy fluid. One was caught in the cleft of a rock in 1680: the Bishop concludes that it resembles a ‘polyp’ (probably a squid). Paul Egede: (Verne: ‘Heggede’) (1708-89), Norwegian missionary and specialist in Greenlandic, author of the journal Eftererretninger om Grønland (1789), which describes a monster: ‘its head reached as high as a mainmast [. . .]. It had a long pointed snout, and spouted like a whale-fish [. . .] great broad paws; the body seemed covered with shell-work [. . .]. The under part of its body was shaped like an enormous huge serpent’.
  11. Captain Harrington: although the reports of 1866-7 are fictional, what Captain Harrington and 20 others saw in 1857 was recorded in a formal report to the Admiralty. About 10 miles from St Helena he had seen a creature swimming towards the land: it was about 200 feet long, with a head shaped like a barrel and crowned with a wrinkled crest. It resembled a serpent ‘of a dark colour about the head, and was covered with several white spots.’ PC (p. 281) notes that George Henry Harrington's observation on 12 December 1857 was reported in The Times of 16 February 1858 and the Zoologist of 1858 (p. 5989).
  12. the old ‘Constitutionnel’: a liberal periodical (1815-1914) which published Sainte-Beuve, and was suppressed and resurrected five times. PC (p. 282) reports that it was accused by a rival of inventing the story of a sea serpent, but was cleared by an enquiry in 1891. Such was the frequency of stories of sea serpents that by the 1880s the word had come to mean any controversy (OED).
  13. the ‘Indian Archipelago’ . . . ‘Petermanns Mitteilungen’: contemporary periodicals. ‘The Indian Archipelago’: probably the East India Association (London, 1867-71). Abbé Moigno's ‘Cosmos’: François-Napoléon Moigno (1804-84), mathematician and ex-Jesuit; he founded Le Cosmos in 1852. ‘Petermanns Mitteilungen’: (Verne: ‘Petermann’s Mittheilungen') or Petermanns geographische Mitteilungen (Gotha, 1860-1915), founded by August Petermann (1822-78), cartographer and geographer, described by Professor Lidenbrock as his ‘friend’.
  14. Linnaeus's: Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78), Swedish botanist who devised the binomial method of animal and plant classification based on evolutionary relationships.
  15. ‘Nature does not produce idiots’: ‘la nature ne fait pas de sots’, a pun on ‘la nature ne fait pas de sauts’ (‘Nature does not make leaps’) (Linnaeus's Philosophia Botanica [1750], sec. 77).
  16. in an article in a much feared satirical newspaper: MS2: ‘in an article in the Figaro’, and interesting variant showing that Verne's acerbic comments on the press are in reality directed at the French newspapers.
  17. pushed his spurs in like Hippolytus: the son of Theseus in Greek mythology. Theseus calls on Poseidon, the god of the sea, to take Hippolytus's life and Poseidon sends a sea monster to frighten Hippolytus's horses, causing him to be dragged to his death. Verne seems to be deliberately producing a mixed metaphor that reverses the roles of the monster and Hippolytus; his essential message is that the journalist is being too bold.
  18. the ‘Moravian’ of the Montreal Ocean Company was sailing at 27° 30' N, 72° 15' W: MS2 has ‘the Lafayette of the French Line, responsible for the postal service between Saint-Nazaire and Veracruz’ and adds ‘Its laden displacement was 5,800 tons’. It was forgotten to change the coordinates: a ship coming from Canada would not sail at 27 30' N.
  19. dry dock: MS2 adds ‘of Saint-Nazaire’. The deletion of the French reference is presumably due to Hetzel's sensitivity about anything that might be remotely controversial.
  20. British shipowner Cunard: Sir Samuel (1787-1865), Canadian founder of the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (1840), officially renamed the Cunard Line in 1878.
  21. In 1853 . . . the ‘Great Eastern’: the date in fact only applies to the first named Cunard ship. the ‘Arabia’: Cunard's last wooden paddleship. the ‘Persia’: one of his first iron ships (1856). the ‘China’: (which Phileas Fogg narrowly misses in New York) launched in 1862. the ‘Scotia’: Cunard's last paddle-driven ship. It held the transatlantic record until 1869, at 8 days 22 hours (WJM and FPW). the ‘Java’: built 1865. the ‘Russia’: (MS2: ‘the Prussia’!) built 1867. the ‘Great Eastern’: Verne saw Brunel's ship (then called the Leviathan) being constructed in Greenwich in 1859. By far the largest ship in the world, it was equipped with a single screw propeller, paddlewheels, and a full set of sails. In 1867, Napoleon III chartered it to carry Americans to the Universal Exposition. Verne himself travelled on the Great Eastern to New York and back in March and April 1867, describing it in a letter to Hetzel as ‘an eighth wonder of the world’ and writing the semi-fictional A Floating City (1871) about his trip.
  22. Captain Anderson: this dynamic fictional figure is presumably based on the forceful real-life Captain Anderson of the Great Eastern described in Part Two.