Monday, January 29, 2024

The Drifter

When I was growing up there was a commercial artist in our neighborhood named Gordon Johnson, whose specialty was paintings for advertising work and book illustration. He often worked from photographs that he had local people pose for, and this scene of the sighting of the Mary Celeste probably depicts people I knew, though at this point I'm no longer sure who they were. It was done, if I remember right, as part of a series for an insurance company. I have a print copy somewhere, but the image above was found online.

The Mary Celeste incident is one of the great nautical enigmas. An American merchant sailing ship is found in the Atlantic Ocean, a bit west of Portugal, with no ship's boat, a full cargo, a logbook a few weeks out of date, and no obvious evidence of fire, shipwreck, mutiny, or piracy. No trace of the crew or the passengers (which included the captain's wife and young daughter) is ever found. The ship is boarded by sailors from the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia and brought to port in Gibraltar. After lengthy legal proceedings it is eventually reclaimed by its owners and put back into service. (Later proprietors sank it as part of an insurance scam, but that's another whole story.)

Various explanations and impostures have been put forth over the years, some of them fairly bizarre. An early one was offered, anonymously and fictionally, by a young Arthur Conan Doyle, who mistakenly called the ship the Marie Celeste (as many have done since) and imagined a tale of conspiracy involving a psychopathic ex-slave with a grudge against the white race and the missing ear of an African stone idol. Perhaps the most amusing solution was put forward by one J. L. Hornibrook:
There is a man stationed at the wheel. He is alone on deck, all the others having gone below to their mid-day meal. Suddenly a huge octopus rises from the deep, and rearing one of its terrible arms aloft encircles the helmsman. His yells bring every soul on board rushing on deck. One by one they are caught by the waving, wriggling arms and swept overboard. Then, freighted with its living load, the monster slowly sinks into the deep again, leaving no traces of its attack.
I thought about the incident during a trip to a library, when, while looking for something else, I spotted the title Mystery Ship stamped in gold on a green binding and opened it on a hunch. The book, written by a historian named George S. Bryan and published by Lippincott in 1942, was indeed about the Mary Celeste. I brought it home on a lark and found that it was actually quite good, though it's apparently long out-of-print and mostly forgotten except by nautical historians. Bryan looked carefully at the original documentary evidence (much of which he reproduces), went over the various explanatory theories point by point, reprinted a good portion of the Conan Doyle, and dispelled much of the nonsense that had accreted over the years. (The ship's cat was not dozing contentedly when the Mary Celeste was found, there were no live chickens on board, nor were there half-eaten meals still warm in the mess.) His own tentative conclusion was that the ship was deliberately abandoned because the captain had reason to believe that it was in grave danger, either from shipwreck or from an imminent explosion of its cargo (which consisted almost entirely of barrels of alcohol). The line that may have tethered the single ship's boat failed to hold, and the passengers and crew drifted into oblivion.

I was aware of the story of the Mary Celeste from a fairly early age, though I never knew it in detail. This painting no doubt shaped how I imagined it. I've had a weakness for eerie nautical stories ever since.

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