Pros and Cons
At the time these events were occurring, I was returning from a scientific exploration of the Badlands of Nebraska, in the United States. The French government had attached me to this expedition in my capacity as lecturer1 at the Muséum of Natural History in Paris. After six months spent in Nebraska, I had arrived in New York towards the end of March, laden down with my precious collections. My departure for France was scheduled for the beginning of May. In the meantime, I was attending to the classification of my mineralogical, botanical, and zoological treasures—when the Scotia incident happened.
I was perfectly aware of the topic in the news, for how could it have been otherwise? I had read and reread the European and American newspapers without being any closer to a solution. This mystery fascinated me. Unable to form any opinion about it, I had drifted from one extreme to the other. That there was something, there could be no question, for doubting Thomases could be invited to touch the wound in the Scotia's side.
When I arrived in New York the question was a hot one. The theory of a floating island or elusive reef, put forward by a few unqualified individuals, had been totally discredited. And in truth, unless the reef had an engine in its belly, how could it move around with such awesome speed?
In the same way, the idea of a floating hulk, an enormous wreck, was rejected, and again because of the speed it moved at. This left two possible answers to the problem, which in turn produced two highly distinct groups of supporters: on the one hand, those who swore by a monster of colossal strength; and on the other, those who argued for a ‘submarine’ vessel2 of immense locomotive power. Now the latter theory, admissible after all, was unable to survive the researches carried out in the Old and New Worlds. That a private individual had at his disposition a mechanical contrivance of this sort was improbable. When and where could he have had it built, and how could he have kept its construction secret?
Only a government could possess such a weapon of destruction, and in these disastrous times when humanity endeavours to increase the power of its weapons of war, it could not be thought impossible that a country had tested this formidable device unbeknownst to the others. After the chassepot rifles came floating mines; after floating mines, underwater rams; then . . . a reaction.3 At least, I hope there will be one.
But the idea of a war machine had to be abandoned all the same, given what the governments declared. As it was a matter of public interest, since intercontinental communications were suffering, the governments' truthfulness could not be doubted for one moment. In any case, how could it be imagined that this submarine vessel's construction had escaped public notice? Keeping a secret under such circumstances is very difficult for a private individual, and certainly impossible for states whose every act is continuously observed by rival powers.
Consequently, after research had been carried out in Great Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, Spain, Italy, America, and even in Turkey, the hypothesis of a submarine Monitor4 was rejected once and for all.
The monster therefore surfaced again, despite the constant witticisms that the popular press showered on it; and people's imaginations followed this path and soon allowed themselves to culminate in the most absurd dreams of fantastic ichthyology.
When I arrived in New York, several people had done me the honour of consulting me on the phenomenon in question. In France I had published a two-volume in-quarto work entitled The Mysteries of the Ocean Deeps. This book, particularly relished in scientific circles, had made of me a specialist in that relatively obscure area of natural history. My views were sought. So long as I was able to deny the reality of the fact, I enveloped myself in complete negativity. But soon, with my back against the wall, I was forced to explain myself unequivocally. The New York Herald even challenged ‘the honourable Pierre Aronnax,5 lecturer at the Paris Museum’ to formulate an opinion of some sort.
I complied. I spoke since unable to remain silent. I analysed the question from every angle, whether political or scientific; and provide here an extract from a very full study that I published in the newspaper of 30 April:
These last words were a piece of cowardice on my part; but I wished to a certain extent to protect my dignity as a scholar, and to avoid the danger of becoming a laughing stock for the Americans, for they laugh wholeheartedly when they do laugh. I left myself a way out, but at bottom, I admitted that ‘the monster’ did exist.
My article was hotly debated, and produced quite a stir. It won over a number of supporters. But in any case, my proposed solution left full scope to the imagination. The human mind enjoys grandiose conceptions of supernatural beings. Now the sea is their best vehicle, for it is the only environment which can produce and develop such giants: beside them the land animals, the elephants or rhinoceroses, are mere dwarfs. The liquid masses carry the biggest known species of mammals, and perhaps harbour molluscs of extraordinary size, crustaceans terrifying to contemplate, lobsters a hundred metres long or crabs weighing two hundred tons! Why ever not? The land animals of long-gone geological eras, the quadrupeds, quadrumanes, reptiles, and birds, were formerly built to a gigantic template. The Creator cast them in a colossal mould which slowly reduced with time. Why could the unknown depths of the sea not have maintained these vast specimens from another age, that sea which never changes, unlike the terrestrial core which is almost continually being modified?7 Why should she not conceal in her bosom the last varieties of those titanic species, whose years are centuries and centuries millennia?
But I am allowing myself to be carried away by these musings which I no longer have the right to allude to! Enough of these chimera which time has changed for me into terrible realities! I repeat: at that time people made up their minds on the nature of the phenomenon, and the public accepted without question the existence of a prodigious being that had nothing in common with the sea serpents of legend.
But if some people saw merely a purely scientific problem to be solved, others of a more positive nature, especially in America and Britain, agreed to purge the seas of this redoubtable monster, in order to safeguard cross-ocean communications once more. The industrial and commercial journals treated the question chiefly from this point of view. The Shipping & Mercantile Gazette and Lloyd's List, the Paquebot, and the Revue maritime et coloniale,8 together with every newsletter devoted to the insurance companies, which were threatening to raise their premium rates—all were in agreement on this point.
Since public opinion had come to a decision, the States of the Union spoke out first. Preparations were made in New York for an expedition to pursue the narwhal. A fast frigate, the Abraham Lincoln, made ready to sail at almost no notice. The arsenals were opened for Captain Farragut,9 who actively pushed on with arming his frigate.
But as it happened, as it always happens, once it had been decided to hunt it, the monster put in no further appearances. For two months it was not heard of at all. No ship came upon it. It seemed that the unicorn knew about the plots being hatched against it. It had been discussed so often, and even over the transatlantic cable! The wags claimed that this sharp customer had stopped some telegram on its way across10 and was now turning it to its own advantage.
As a result, although the frigate was armed for a distant campaign and equipped with formidable hunting tackle, nobody knew where to send it to. Impatience was building up more and more, when, on 3 July, it was learned that a steamer of the San Francisco-Shanghai line11 had again seen the animal three weeks previously, in the seas of the northern Pacific.
The excitement caused by this piece of news was tremendous. Captain Farragut was given less than 24 hours' respite. His provisions were on board. His bunkers overflowed with coal. Not a man was missing from his crew's roll-call. He only had to light his furnaces, stoke up, and cast off! He wouldn't have been forgiven half a day's delay! To get going was all Captain Farragut wanted to do in any case.
Three hours before the Abraham Lincoln left its Brooklyn pier,12 I received a letter couched in these terms: