Friday, 2 February 2018

Sea Serpents Galore ! (1850 - 1869)

     Once more I enter the lists to rescue reports of sea serpents which earlier researchers had missed. Again, my method has been to trawl through Trove for reports picked up by Australian newspapers of overseas encounters. Needless to say, this "churnalism" had its problems, notably the fact that the story may have been old by the time it was received, or published, in this country.

British Isles, 1850
     For example, in the first case, we know exactly where the sighting took place, but not when. In fact, the Australian newspaper appears to have picked up two separate accounts. In any case, the reference is:
South Australian Register (Adelaide), Wednesday 4 December 1859, on page 4.
THE SEA-SERPENT AGAIN
     This mysterious monster of the deep has been seen twice recently - once near the entrance of the British Channel, and subsequently in Dublin Bay; in the first instance by a vessel bound to London from the Isle of France. The following extract from the log of the vessel, the Lucille, Captain Benson, furnishes some interesting and authenticated particulars relating to this strange visitant; and it is worthy of remark that all accounts of it, from that of the Daedalus down to those supplied by the Freeman's Journal of is appearances on the Irish coast, accord closely in their descriptions of this "monstrum horrendum informe ingens." [huge, horrendus, misshapen monster]
     Abstract from the log of the brig Lucille, on her passage from Mauritius for London:-
     "In lat. 48.51 N., and long. 12.14, W., observed something extraordinary on the starboard quarter, about a mile [1.6 km] distant, coming towards the ship at a brisk rate, and on nearing us found it to be an enormous serpent; which, when abreast of the brig, we judged to be (from our own length, 81 feet [24.7 m]) upwards of 100 feet [30 m], that length being plainly visible from the deck with our glasses. It had a tremendous flat head, and apparently a horn or fin behind, with large bunches of hair about it; it propelled itself by an undulating snake like motion, and held on a steady course to E.SE. at a rate of 6 or 7 miles per hour [10 -11 kph], causing great motion in the water, and leaving a large wake behind it. This strange monster passed within a quarter of a mile [400 metres] of the ship, and we watched it, as long as it was visible, from the mainyard with our glasses.
     "H. B. Benson, Commander.
     "S. E. Suncombe, Second Mate.
     "A. W. Owen, late Commander )
        barque Despatch, of London  )  Passengers
     "S. G. Reay.                                    )
     The reference to Mr. Owen as the "late" Commander does not, of course, mean that he had passed away before the log was published, but merely that he had been lately a Commander. Now, falsifying a log is a serious offence, and it is unlikely that four people would be guilty of such a thing for the trivial purpose of a harmless joke on the public. It is noted, too, that they were using telescopes, so the distance involved is not so problematical. I am always wary of reports of flat heads, because that it a feature of real snakes, and the sort of thing hoaxers catch onto. However, the horn or fin behind and the large bunches of hair sound less like a hoaxer's invention. I wonder if the "snake-like" motion meant lateral, rather than vertical, undulations. I suspect not.
     The article continues with an account apparently taken from the Freeman's Journal.
     We subjoin to this the account of its subsequent appearance in Dublin, taken from the source already adverted to:-
     "On the 15th of August, Mr Walsh, of Sackville-street, Mr Hogan of Sutton, and several other gentlemen, while enjoying a sail in the yacht of Mr Hogan, had the additional and exciting pleasure of witnessing the evolution of an enormous sea-monster, which more resembled in shape and size the great sea-serpent than any other living being which any of the gentlemen had ever before seen or heard described. Mr Hogan's yacht was, at the time the monster appeared in view (half past 6 p.m.), sailing between Dalkey and Sutton. One of the gentlemen on board the yacht saw the monster at a distance of about half a mile [800 metres] rushing with great impetuosity in a direction towards Howth Point. He immediately directed the attention of his companions to the strange visitor, and the whole party continued for several minutes to watch his movements and scrutinise his shape and dimensions. Several portions of the back were in view over the water, and seemed to resemble 'the coils of a serpent,' to adopt the phraseology of one of the gentlemen who waited on us to describe the circumstances. The head was shaped not unlike that of an eel, and was borne aloft several feet out of the water. The speed at which he moved through the water was estimated at twenty miles an hour [32 kph], and he left a wake such as might be expected from a ship of several hundred tons. The gentlemen who saw this monster computed his length at 100 feet [30 m]; and Mr Walsh informs us that Mr Hogan, who had been many years at sea, was quite satisfied that the monster was not of the whale tribe, or was not of a species heretofore known to mariners, and described by naturalists."
     All the places involved are parts of Dublin. In assessing this account, of course, we must remember the distance involved. Just the same, the description was similar to that of many other sea serpents throughout the world: a head held vertically, and a series of humps behind. The latter suggests that the witnesses were prepared to describe vertical humps or undulations as serpentine. Whether, of course, it was the same animal seen by the Lucille at any unreported date prior to that, is anyone's guess.

Indian Ocean, 1854
     This would have taken place several hundred kilometres west of Australia, close to the latitude of Shark Bay. The Danish ship was heading for Batavia, which is now known as Jakarta, and the report first appeared in the Bode, which I presume was a Dutch East Indies newspaper. It was then picked up by a Singaporean paper, and finally The Banner, which was a short-lived biweekly periodical in Melbourne, Victoria. I don't suppose it went much further into the Big Wide World. The report is from page 10 of the issue of Friday 17 March 1854.
     THE GREAT SEA SERPENT ONCE MORE. -
A correspondent directs attention to a paragraph in the Straits Times Express, and adds that he can testify to the truth of it. The paragraph is as follows:-
     'We are,' says the Bode, indebted to the kindness of Captain R. Aschlund, of the Danish brig Jobn [unclear], for the following extract of his log-book, during his voyage from Melbourne to Batavia: -
     'On Sunday, the 8th of January being in S. lat. 24° 30', and E. long. 105° 50', with fine weather and a S. and S.S.W. breeze, we saw in the afternoon, at about half past 5 o'clock, going at about 3½ knots an hour [6½ kph], a large sea-snake, the length of which, according to our calculation, was about 50 feet [15 m], the head about 4 feet [1.2 m], and the body, in the thickest part; in circumference, 4 feet. It swam at a distance of 2 feet [60 cm] from the brig, at a depth of 6 feet [1.8 m] beneath the surface of the water.'
    I can't help thinking, however, that "diameter" was meant instead of "circumference".

New Jersey, 1869
     New England had a long tradition of sea serpents. Who knows exactly when the following occurred, but it was published in the Northern Argus (Rockhampton, Qld) on Monday 8 November 1869, on page 3. It was apparently taken from the English press.
THE SEA SERPENT AGAIN. — The Newark (New Jersey) Courier has a sea serpent story. — "When to his great surprise and terror, the head of a monster as large as a flour barrel, and having something of the appearance of a dog's head, appeared above the water. It stretched away along the surface, and a black scaly back lifted itself gradually from the water until it appeared, according to Mr. Andrews, twice the length of an ordinary schooner. It swam easily, and with but little motion, occasionally rising its head three or four feet [say a metre] above the surface with that peculiar sinuosity common to the snake tribe. Suddenly, with a tremendous splashing, it disappeared from sight, leaving behind a large sea of seething foam. Mr. Andrews acknowledges himself to have been 'scared almost to death' at the sight, and about came to the conclusion, so he says, that he was to be eaten alive, indeed his presence of mind so far forsook him that he dropped both oars, and had some difficulty in recovering them. Having secured them, however, by means of a small paddle which fortunately remained in the bottom of the boat, he undertook to row across the bay; but he had proceeded but a short distance when a terrible splashing from behind caused him to turn round, and there, as he solemnly asserts, within a dozen yards of him, was the head of the monster high up above the surface; and, to add all the more to his terror, it opened its hideous jaws and darted a forked tongue directly at him. To employ the language used by Andrews himself, 'the next thing he knew, he didn't know anything,!' meaning thereby that his terror was so great he apparently lost consciousness. That was the last he saw of the sea serpent."
     The problem I have with this, apart from the dramatic nature of the tale, is the reference to a scaly skin and a forked tongue. Hoaxers normally think of the sea serpent as a genuine snake, but all the evidence suggests that it is not so. Although scales have occasionally been reported in otherwise plausible accounts, to my knowledge, a forked tongue, which is the mark of a snake, never has. Indeed, I am not certain the tongue has ever been reported elsewhere. However, I shall leave the plausibility of the story up to you.
     Next month I shall head into the 1870s, and reveal stories which everyone else has forgotten, so stay tuned.

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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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