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:

As a result of the above, and having successively examined the various hypotheses, and since every other supposition is rejected, we are necessarily obliged to accept the existence of a marine animal of very great power.

The great depths of the ocean are totally unknown to us. Sounding lines have been unable to reach them. What transpires in those remote abysses? What beings live or can live twelve or fifteen miles below the surface of the sea? What is the make-up of these animals? We can scarcely even guess.

Nevertheless, the solution to the problem which has been submitted to me can be formulated as a two-pronged alternative.

Either we know all the varieties of beings which inhabit our planet, or we do not.

If we do not know them all, if Nature still holds secrets for us in ichthyology, it is quite acceptable to recognize the existence of fish or cetaceans of unknown species or even genera, of an essentially ‘deep-based’ composition, which inhabit the deeps inaccessible to the sounding line and which some event, a whim, a caprice as it were, brings up to the upper part of the sea at infrequent intervals.

If, on the contrary, we know all living species, we are necessarily compelled to seek the animal in question amongst marine beings that are already catalogued, and, in this case, I should be disposed to accept the existence of a Giant Narwhal.6

The common narwhal or sea-unicorn often attains a length of 60 feet. Multiply this dimension by five, by ten even, endow this cetacean with a strength proportional to its size, enlarge its offensive weapon, and you will obtain the required animal. It will have the dimensions ascertained by the officers of the Shannon, the instrument required to pierce the Scotia, and the force necessary to breach the hull of a steamship.

The narwhal is armed with a kind of ivory sword, a halberd in the terminology of certain naturalists. This is a principal tooth with the hardness of steel. Some of these teeth have been found embedded in the bodies of whales, which the narwhal always attacks with success. Others have been removed, not without difficulty, from the hulls of vessels that have been pierced through and through, like a drill through a barrel. The museum of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris possesses one of these tusks that is 2.25 m long and 48 cm wide at the base!

Now imagine a weapon ten times as big and an animal ten times as strong, launch it at a speed of 20 knots, multiply its mass by its velocity, and you obtain a shock capable of producing the required catastrophe.

Accordingly, until further information becomes available, I shall vote for a sea-unicorn of colossal dimensions, armed not with a halberd, but with a genuine spur like the ironclad frigates called war ‘rams’, whose weight and motive power it would also have.

Thus the inexplicable phenomenon would be explained—unless there is nothing there at all, which is always possible, in spite of what has been glimpsed, seen, felt, and experienced!

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:

Dr Aronnax

Lecturer at the Natural History Museum of Paris

Fifth Avenue Hotel13


Dear Sir,

If you would like to join the expedition on the Abraham Lincoln, the government of the Union would greatly appreciate having you represent France in this enterprise. Captain Farragut has a cabin at your disposal.

Very cordially yours

J. B. Hobson14

Secretary to the Navy


  1. lecturer: Aronnax is twice stated to be a modest ‘lecturer’ (‘professeur suppléant’), and not a professor, as has been the usual translation to date.

  2. ‘submarine’ vessel: (‘bateau “sous-marin” ’) the first use of ‘submarine’ as a noun meaning ‘vessel’ was in 1896 in French and about 1898 in English.

  3. chassepot rifles . . . underwater rams: contemporary armaments. chassepot rifles: breech-loading rifles used in the French army from 1866 to 1874, invented by Antoine Chassepot (1833-1905). floating mines: Verne's ‘torpilles’ seems to mean stationary mines, not ‘torpedoes’ in the modern sense. Fulton (cf. note below) demonstrated floating mines off Brest in 1801, and Robert Whitehead invented a submerged self-propelling version between 1864 and 1869. underwater rams: the phrase was first used about the Merrimac (cf. following note).

  4. ‘Monitor’: the Monitor and the Virginia (ex-Merrimac) fought the first battle between ironclads, in 1862 in the American Civil War. A major innovation of the Monitor was the turret, allowing its cannon to fire in different directions. More generally, a ‘monitor’ was a heavily ironclad warship with a low flat deck, invented by Swedish-American John Ericsson (1803-89).

  5. Pierre Aronnax: the illustration of Aronnax, with arms folded, is that of Verne himself. In MS1A, he is ‘Oyonnax’. In MS2, the name is written ‘Arronax’ or ‘Arronnax’—except the first occurrence, ‘Aronnax’, which apparently caused this form to be retained. Oyonnax is a village in the Ain, near Lyon, the confluence of the remarkably-named Sarsouille and Ange. Aron and Oyon are attested names, both more or less Jewish, and may point, respectively, to A. Oyon, author of Une Véritable cité ouvrière (1865) and Émile Aron (born 1829), a revolutionary poet.

  6. a Giant Narwhal: Verne constructs his mystery by mixing legend (the unicorn's curved horn, often brought back to Europe, was the narwhal's) and exaggeration (the maximum size of the narwhal, which lives only near the Arctic, is about 16 feet). Aronnax is here distinctly creationist.

  7. the sea which never changes, unlike the terrestrial core which is almost continually being modified: Verne delights in inverting opposites, especially in describing the sea in terrestrial terms and vice versa, a persistent metaphor in 20TL.

  8. The ‘Shipping & Mercantile Gazette and Lloyd’s List', the ‘Paquebot’, and the ‘Revue maritime et coloniale’: (Verne: ‘Shipping and Mercantile Gazette and Lloyd’s') respectively: London, 1836-1916; ‘Journal of Navigation and Sea-Voyages’, Paris, 1866—July 1869; and Paris, 1861- .

  9. Captain Farragut: the name comes from David G. Farragut (1801-70), the Unionist admiral who produced the famous ‘Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!’ (1864). WJM and FPW report that he visited France in 1867.

  10. this sharp customer had stopped some telegram on its way across: Verne is constantly laying traps for the unwary (on occasion false traps!). In the light of what we later know, and given that the transatlantic cable is in fact subsequently visited by Aronnax, the wag's suggestion is not as implausible as all that.

  11. a steamer of the San Francisco-Shanghai line: the MÉR edition (but not MS2) has ‘the Tampico, a steamer of the [. . .]’. MS2 has the date as ‘2 July’.

  12. pier: A sort of individual quay for each vessel. [JV]

  13. Fifth Avenue Hotel: Verne stayed there twice in 1867 (A Floating City, chs 34 and 39). Other elements of America shared between the two 1871 accounts include the Great Eastern, the hotel lift, the 20-franc cab ride to the ‘pier’‘ (in English), the Hudson, the East River, Broadway, Brooklyn, Sandy Hook, Napoleon, Agassiz, and George Sand.

  14. J. B. Hobson: possibly the J. B. Hobson who spoke before the House Committee on Mines and Mining in 1892. In 1867 the Navy Secretary was Gideon Welles.