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
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
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
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
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.