Monday, 1 January 2018

Sea Serpents Galore! (1834 to 1849)

      In the last two months I copied forgotten 19th century sea serpent reports for Australia and New Zealand, so in the new year I shall start on the rest of the world. Two avenues existed by which the reports turned up in Australian newspapers. The first was that a ship's voyage actually terminated in the country, most commonly Melbourne, at which point the captain came out and told the local journalists what had been seen in another part of the world. The second was when an Australian newspaper - often a small regional one - picked up a story doing the rounds in the outer world. Often this was in turn picked up and did the rounds of other regional newspapers. In such cases, it has not always been possible to determine when the original event occurred.
    In any case, my modus operandi has been the same as before: first I would do a word search for "sea serpent" on Trove. If an account was discovered which did not appear in Heuvelmans' book, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, it was assumed to have been overlooked by earlier investigators, and therefore worthy of being put on the net. Just the same, I have rejected ones so silly they were obviously hoaxes, and some which appear to have been intended as fictional short stories. Nevertheless, a few rather questionable ones have been retained. With all this in mind, let us start.

     Massachussetts, ?1834.
     Sea serpent sightings were very common off the coast of New England in this period. This particular article was taken from the Launceston Advertiser (Tasmania) of Monday 5 May 1834, on page 2, citing the Boston Centinel in the first instance. However, there is something not quite right, because it states that the event took place on Friday July 10th. It could not have referred to the previous year, because that date was a Wednesday in 1833. I suspect that the correct date was Monday, March 10th., 1834. Perhaps my Boston readers can look up an old copy of their newspaper and discover the truth. In any case, the Tasmanian article reads as follows:
SEA SERPENT
From the Mercantile Advertiser and New York Advocate.
     A party of 80 or 100 ladies and gentlemen embarked on Friday morning, July 10th, in the steamer Connecticut, for the purpose of taking an excursion in the lower harbour, with the expectation of getting a view of His Serpentine Majesty. About 12 o'clock, when the steam boat was half way between Nahant and the Graves, the monster was seen approaching. A number of gentlemen took the small boat and made directly for it, but unfortunately did not run upon the animal as was intended, owing to a little mismanagement in rowing. The Serpent came within an oar's length of the boat, and without appearing at all alarmed or uneasy took a slight curve towards the steam boat, passed under her stern within fifty or sixty feet [15 or 18 metres], and then disappeared. We understand it was the opinion of those in the small boat that he might easily have been struck, but unfortunately there was no harpoon on board. At this time his motion was not undulating, as has sometimes been stated, but rather like the movement of an eel or common water snake. It has been reported that there have been three or more of these strange creatures seen lately, one of which is supposed to be 150 feet long [45.7 m]. The one seen yesterday was from 60 to 70 feet [18 to 21 m] in length. We would recommend some of our sporting friends, who are skilled in the management of a whale boat, and use of the harpoon, to make an attempt upon the liberty of this marine monster, and there is but little doubt he may be taken. The foregoing account is furnished by a gentleman who was one of the passengers, and had a good opportunity to see the serpent from the small boat, and whose certificate is annexed. This statement in its material bearings is also corroborated by several other gentlemen with whom we have conversed, who were on board the steamer. The excursion of yesterday has afforded a much better opportunity of seeing this strange animal than has occurred for years, and it is not inconsistent with the whole tenor of the statements that have been made at different times by a great number of persons for the last 15 years, since a monster of this description was first announced in our waters. It is admitted on all hands that the appearance of a marine animal of this description would be a most extraordinary occurrence. 
     But it may be said as an offset, that it would be still more extraordinary, if so many witnesses should be so grossly deceived, as would be the case if no such animal had appeared. One or the other of these extraordinary difficulties is presented for the belief of the public, and we are of opinion that it would not require so great a stretch of credulity to believe in the existence of such an enormous Sea Serpent, as to believe that so many persons could be so greatly deceived. We learn that a gentleman fired at him with a musket from the steamer, but without effect. The shot was given before he had approached so near the steamer as he did a few minutes afterwards. The first thing that attracted the attention of those who were in the steamer, was a peculiar appearance in the water at a distance, supposed to be occasioned by a shoal of small fish that he was apparently pursuing. Three distinct appearances of this kind were observed at the same time afar off, and the steamer made for one of them in pursuit of which the serpent appeared to be. It is therefore inferred by some of the passengers that there are three of the strange animals, as we have before stated. — Boston Centinel.
     You might notice a distinct lack of detail as to the physical appearance of the animal, other than its size.

     Barque Inconstant, south east of Africa, 1849
     This report was originally published in the South Australian Register of Saturday 9 June 1849, on page 4, and was taken up by a large number of other newspapers the following month (!)  For your information, the same edition reported that the Inconstant had arrived at Adelaide on 8 June, carrying 209 Irish female orphans.
     Our readers will remember that some months ago the officers and crew of her Majesty's ship Daedalus reported having seen what they called a sea serpent in the latitude of the Cape. But from the description given, Professor Owen has declared his belief the animal seen was a large seal lion, which had probably been carried away by an iceberg. It is a somewhat singular coincidence that a marine animal was seen by the officers and some of the men of the Inconstant on the passage to this colony, and not any considerable distance from the spot rendered remarkable by the Daedalus's discovery. We subjoin [sic] a description kindly furnished by Charles Watkins, Esq., Surgeon Superintendent. We hope the writer will lose no time in sending a copy of his drawing and description to some scientific friend in England:-
     "On May 1st, 1849, in latitude 38°8 south, longitude 36°20 east, at half-past nine a.m., my attention was called by the second mate to a strange looking object in the water on the lee bow. Its first appearance was that of a log of wood or large tree; but as the ship neared the object, when at a distance of fifty yards, more or less, we perceived it to be a species of serpent, or something closely resembling one. Its color was of a brownish black. It was going slowly through the water, carrying its head at an angle to the waves. The head resembled that of an alligator. It was covered with scales from the tip of the snout to the end of the neck: the rest of the creature was under water, and apparently about thirty or forty feet long [9-12 m] (no end was seen.) The size round the neck was about the dimensions of a puncheon. While looking at it it sank gradually, and appeared again on the larboard quarter. We soon lost sight of it, as we were going six knots [11 kph]. It was proceeding in the direction E.N.E. It was seen by the master, second mate, and William Vernon, an able seaman, who was at the wheel. These parties have been many years at sea, and have never seen anything like it before. They agree in saying that the drawing is an exact resemblance of the thing seen.
CHARLES WATKINS.
 "Barque Inconstant."
      It would have been nice if the drawing had been included.

      Alpha, 1849.
      As far as I can establish, the original report appeared in the Melbourne Daily News of Tuesday 3 July 1849, on page 2.
THE GREAT SEA SERPENT. — The following is an extract from the private log of  Captain Edwards, of the "Alpha," furnishing additional particulars, in reference to this monster.  "Wednesday, May 30th, p.m. strong breezes at N N.W., and a sharp sea on; about 1.15, I felt a strange shaking of the ship, as if it proceeded from some submarine volcanic eruption, or as if the ship were drawn over a shingle bottom in smooth water. Mr. Thompson, my chief-officer, Mr. George Park, civil engineer, cabin passenger, on board, run on deck as well as myself, when to our infinite surprise, we beheld immediately under our lee quarter, a monster of huge dimensions, three times larger than any whale I had ever seen; it did not partake of the shape of a whale, as it had no fins or broad tail as whales have, neither did it jet up a column of water as whales do when blowing. I was afraid it would have made another rush at the ship, and of course the consequences might have been serious. As to what the animal might have been, I cannot pretend to say - but I never before saw a similar one. It was of a light fawn colour, spotted over behind the shoulders with large brown spots, the head was pointed like that of a porpoise, it had large glassy eyes, the appearance of the shoulder was much darker than the rest of the body, which was the thickest part of it (say 20 feet [6 m] in diameter,) from thence diminishing to the tail, to about the size of our mainyard in the slings (say 24 [60 cm] inches diameter) and rounded off like that of a worm or caterpillar. His speed seemed to be very great, as after having grated our bottom, he took a turn round, it would seem, as we afterwards saw him astern, and he went away then in a S.E. by S. direction, at about 30 miles an hour [50 kph]."
     This report did turn up in Heuvelmans' book, and I agree with him that it was probably some huge ray. My dispute is his assumption that it took place in the "waters of the Indian Ocean south of Australia". He was citing a secondary source. However, the newspaper shipping reports indicate that the Alpha arrived in Melbourne on 30 June, so the sighting occurred one month prior to arrival. This was the age of sail, and you will remember that the Inconstant's encounter took place 39 days before its arrival in Adelaide. I would suggest, therefore that the Alpha  met its "monster" half way across the Indian Ocean, but south of the latitude of southern Australia.

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.

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