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The year 1866 was marked by a bizarre development, an unexplained
and downright inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten.
Without getting into those rumors that upset civilians
in the seaports and deranged the public mind even far inland,
it must be said that professional seamen were especially alarmed.
Traders, shipowners, captains of vessels, skippers, and master mariner
from Europe and America, naval officers from every country, and at
their heels the various national governments on these two continents,
were all extremely disturbed by the business.
In essence, over a period of time several ships had encountered
"an enormous thing" at sea, a long spindle-shaped object,
sometimes giving off a phosphorescent glow, infinitely bigger
and faster than any whale.
The relevant data on this apparition, as recorded in various logbooks,
agreed pretty closely as to the structure of the object or creature
in question, its unprecedented speed of movement, its startling
locomotive power, and the unique vitality with which it seemed
to be gifted. If it was a cetacean, it exceeded in bulk any whale
previously classified by science. No naturalist, neither Cuvier nor
Lacépède, neither Professor Dumeril nor Professor de Quatrefages
would have accepted the existence of such a monster sight unseen--
specifically, unseen by their own scientific eyes.
Striking an average of observations taken at different times--
rejecting those timid estimates that gave the object a length
of 200 feet, and ignoring those exaggerated views that saw it
as a mile wide and three long--you could still assert that this
phenomenal creature greatly exceeded the dimensions of anything
then known to ichthyologists, if it existed at all.
Now then, it did exist, this was an undeniable fact; and since
the human mind dotes on objects of wonder, you can understand
the worldwide excitement caused by this unearthly apparition.
As for relegating it to the realm of fiction, that charge had
to be dropped.
In essence, on July 20, 1866, the steamer Governor Higginson,
from the Calcutta & Burnach Steam Navigation Co., encountered this
moving mass five miles off the eastern shores of Australia.
Captain Baker at first thought he was in the presence of an unknown reef;
he was even about to fix its exact position when two waterspouts
shot out of this inexplicable object and sprang hissing into the air
some 150 feet. So, unless this reef was subject to the intermittent
eruptions of a geyser, the Governor Higginson had fair and honest
dealings with some aquatic mammal, until then unknown, that could
spurt from its blowholes waterspouts mixed with air and steam.
Similar events were likewise observed in Pacific seas, on July 23
of the same year, by the Christopher Columbus from the West India
& Pacific Steam Navigation Co. Consequently, this extraordinary
cetacean could transfer itself from one locality to another with
startling swiftness, since within an interval of just three days,
the Governor Higginson and the Christopher Columbus had observed
it at two positions on the charts separated by a distance of more
than 700 nautical leagues.
Fifteen days later and 2,000 leagues farther, the Helvetia from
the Compagnie Nationale and the Shannon from the Royal Mail line,
running on opposite tacks in that part of the Atlantic lying
between the United States and Europe, respectively signaled each
other that the monster had been sighted in latitude 42° 15'
north and longitude 60° 35' west of the meridian
of Greenwich. From their simultaneous observations, they were able
to estimate the mammal's minimum length at more than 350 English
feet;* this was because both the Shannon and the Helvetia were of
smaller dimensions, although each measured 100 meters stem to stern.
Now then, the biggest whales, those rorqual whales that frequent
the waterways of the Aleutian Islands, have never exceeded a length
of 56 meters--if they reach even that.
*Author's Note: About 106 meters. An English foot is
only 30.4 centimeters.
One after another, reports arrived that would profoundly affect
public opinion: new observations taken by the transatlantic
liner Pereire, the Inman line's Etna running afoul of the monster,
an official report drawn up by officers on the French frigate Normandy,
dead-earnest reckonings obtained by the general staff of
Commodore Fitz-James aboard the Lord Clyde. In lighthearted countries,
people joked about this phenomenon, but such serious, practical countries
as England, America, and Germany were deeply concerned.
In every big city the monster was the latest rage; they sang
about it in the coffee houses, they ridiculed it in the newspapers,
they dramatized it in the theaters. The tabloids found it a fine
opportunity for hatching all sorts of hoaxes. In those newspapers
short of copy, you saw the reappearance of every gigantic
imaginary creature, from "Moby Dick," that dreadful white whale from
the High Arctic regions, to the stupendous kraken whose tentacles
could entwine a 500-ton craft and drag it into the ocean depths.
They even reprinted reports from ancient times: the views
of Aristotle and Pliny accepting the existence of such monsters,
then the Norwegian stories of Bishop Pontoppidan, the narratives
of Paul Egede, and finally the reports of Captain Harrington--
whose good faith is above suspicion--in which he claims he saw,
while aboard the Castilian in 1857, one of those enormous
serpents that, until then, had frequented only the seas of France's
old extremist newspaper, The Constitutionalist.
An interminable debate then broke out between believers and
skeptics in the scholarly societies and scientific journals.
The "monster question" inflamed all minds. During this
memorable campaign, journalists making a profession of science
battled with those making a profession of wit, spilling waves of ink
and some of them even two or three drops of blood, since they went
from sea serpents to the most offensive personal remarks.
For six months the war seesawed. With inexhaustible zest,
the popular press took potshots at feature articles from
the Geographic Institute of Brazil, the Royal Academy of Science
in Berlin, the British Association, the Smithsonian Institution
in Washington, D.C., at discussions in The Indian Archipelago,
in Cosmos published by Father Moigno, in Petermann's Mittheilungen,*
and at scientific chronicles in the great French and foreign newspapers.
When the monster's detractors cited a saying by the botanist Linnaeus
that "nature doesn't make leaps," witty writers in the popular
periodicals parodied it, maintaining in essence that "nature doesn't
make lunatics," and ordering their contemporaries never to give
the lie to nature by believing in krakens, sea serpents, "Moby Dicks,"
and other all-out efforts from drunken seamen. Finally, in a much-feared
satirical journal, an article by its most popular columnist finished
off the monster for good, spurning it in the style of Hippolytus
repulsing the amorous advances of his stepmother Phaedra, and giving
the creature its quietus amid a universal burst of laughter.
Wit had defeated science.
*German: "Bulletin." Ed.
During the first months of the year 1867, the question seemed to
be buried, and it didn't seem due for resurrection, when new facts
were brought to the public's attention. But now it was no longer
an issue of a scientific problem to be solved, but a quite real and
serious danger to be avoided. The question took an entirely new turn.
The monster again became an islet, rock, or reef, but a runaway reef,
unfixed and elusive.
On March 5, 1867, the Moravian from the Montreal Ocean Co., lying
during the night in latitude 27° 30' and longitude 72° 15', ran its starboard
quarter afoul of a rock marked on no
charts of these waterways. Under the combined efforts of wind and
400-horsepower steam, it was traveling at a speed of thirteen knots.
Without the high quality of its hull, the Moravian would surely have
split open from this collision and gone down together with those 237
passengers it was bringing back from Canada.
This accident happened around five o'clock in the morning, just as day was
beginning to break. The officers on watch rushed to the craft's stern.
They examined the ocean with the most scrupulous care.
They saw nothing except a strong eddy breaking three cable
lengths out, as if those sheets of water had been violently churned.
The site's exact bearings were taken, and the Moravian continued on
course apparently undamaged. Had it run afoul of an underwater rock
or the wreckage of some enormous derelict ship? They were unable to say.
But when they examined its undersides in the service yard,
they discovered that part of its keel had been smashed.
This occurrence, extremely serious in itself, might perhaps have
been forgotten like so many others, if three weeks later it hadn't
been reenacted under identical conditions. Only, thanks to the
nationality of the ship victimized by this new ramming, and thanks
to the reputation of the company to which this ship belonged,
the event caused an immense uproar.
No one is unaware of the name of that famous English shipowner,
Cunard. In 1840 this shrewd industrialist founded a postal service
between Liverpool and Halifax, featuring three wooden ships with
400-horsepower paddle wheels and a burden of 1,162 metric tons.
Eight years later, the company's assets were increased by four
650-horsepower ships at 1,820 metric tons, and in two more years,
by two other vessels of still greater power and tonnage.
In 1853 the Cunard Co., whose mail-carrying charter had just been renewed,
successively added to its assets the Arabia, the Persia, the China,
the Scotia, the Java, and the Russia, all ships of top speed and,
after the Great Eastern, the biggest ever to plow the seas.
So in 1867 this company owned twelve ships, eight with paddle wheels
and four with propellers.
If I give these highly condensed details, it is so everyone can fully
understand the importance of this maritime transportation company,
known the world over for its shrewd management. No transoceanic
navigational undertaking has been conducted with more ability,
no business dealings have been crowned with greater success.
In twenty-six years Cunard ships have made 2,000 Atlantic crossings
without so much as a voyage canceled, a delay recorded, a man, a craft,
or even a letter lost. Accordingly, despite strong competition
from France, passengers still choose the Cunard line in preference
to all others, as can be seen in a recent survey of official documents.
Given this, no one will be astonished at the uproar provoked by this
accident involving one of its finest steamers.
On April 13, 1867, with a smooth sea and a moderate breeze,
the Scotia lay in longitude 15° 12' and latitude 45°
37'. It was traveling at a speed of 13.43 knots under the thrust
of its 1,000-horsepower engines. Its paddle wheels were churning
the sea with perfect steadiness. It was then drawing 6.7 meters
of water and displacing 6,624 cubic meters.
At 4:17 in the afternoon, during a high tea for passengers gathered
in the main lounge, a collision occurred, scarcely noticeable
on the whole, affecting the Scotia's hull in that quarter a little
astern of its port paddle wheel.
The Scotia hadn't run afoul of something, it had been fouled,
and by a cutting or perforating instrument rather than a blunt one.
This encounter seemed so minor that nobody on board would have been
disturbed by it, had it not been for the shouts of crewmen in the hold,
who climbed on deck yelling:
"We're sinking! We're sinking!"
At first the passengers were quite frightened, but Captain Anderson
hastened to reassure them. In fact, there could be no immediate danger.
Divided into seven compartments by watertight bulkheads, the Scotia
could brave any leak with impunity.
Captain Anderson immediately made his way into the hold.
He discovered that the fifth compartment had been invaded by the sea,
and the speed of this invasion proved that the leak was considerable.
Fortunately this compartment didn't contain the boilers,
because their furnaces would have been abruptly extinguished.
Captain Anderson called an immediate halt, and one of his sailors
dived down to assess the damage. Within moments they had
located a hole two meters in width on the steamer's underside.
Such a leak could not be patched, and with its paddle wheels
half swamped, the Scotia had no choice but to continue its voyage.
By then it lay 300 miles from Cape Clear, and after three days
of delay that filled Liverpool with acute anxiety, it entered
the company docks.
The engineers then proceeded to inspect the Scotia, which had
been put in dry dock. They couldn't believe their eyes.
Two and a half meters below its waterline, there gaped
a symmetrical gash in the shape of an isosceles triangle.
This breach in the sheet iron was so perfectly formed, no punch
could have done a cleaner job of it. Consequently, it must
have been produced by a perforating tool of uncommon toughness--
plus, after being launched with prodigious power and then piercing
four centimeters of sheet iron, this tool had needed to withdraw
itself by a backward motion truly inexplicable.
This was the last straw, and it resulted in arousing public passions
all over again. Indeed, from this moment on, any maritime casualty
without an established cause was charged to the monster's account.
This outrageous animal had to shoulder responsibility for all
derelict vessels, whose numbers are unfortunately considerable,
since out of those 3,000 ships whose losses are recorded annually
at the marine insurance bureau, the figure for steam or sailing
ships supposedly lost with all hands, in the absence of any news,
amounts to at least 200!
Now then, justly or unjustly, it was the "monster" who stood accused
of their disappearance; and since, thanks to it, travel between
the various continents had become more and more dangerous,
the public spoke up and demanded straight out that, at all cost,
the seas be purged of this fearsome cetacean.
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