No.31 The Travelling Menagerie

Noah’s Ark

After last week’s edition recounting my challenge to go quackers retrieving soggy bread out of the water, I received another challenge: the most unusual livestock or ‘animal passengers’ on board a wreck. Never one to shirk a challenge . . .

We don’t have anything quite as extensive as the wreck of the Royal Tar which went down with circus animals off New England in 1836.

Elephant tusks are regularly reported as cargo, but in 1730 a live elephant died in the wreck of an East Indiaman. It wasn’t just any old elephant, but a ‘fine white elephant, for whom 500l. (£500) had been offered the same day’ and ‘perished in the flames’ when the Marlborough Indiaman docked in London. There is something ironic about surviving the travails of an arduous journey from the East Indies only to perish on arrival. Poor thing.

Shipwreck seems to have been a recurrent theme in the export of exotic animals, which is hardly surprising, given the distances involved from their places of origin, and their subsequent fate of being exhibited around Europe to paying audiences, which might have happened to our elephant had it lived. When you come to think about it, this theme of the wreck of a travelling menagerie is literally as old as the Ark (!) and has inspired countless works of literature, right up to the Life of Pi.

Clara the rhino was pretty much contemporary with our white elephant and was likewise brought over to Europe on a Dutch East Indiaman from her original home in Indonesia. She was an absolute sensation, and is immortalised in paintings for the rich and handbills for the poor. A very well-known image of her exhibited at Venice in 1751 is in the National Gallery, London.

Shipwrecks featured heavily in the real-life tale of Clara’s adventures, very ably told by Glynis Ridley in a recent book although she luckily survived every time. It was a PR gift and simply made her seem more interesting. Ms Ridley also draws attention to the sad tale of Dürer’s rhino, drawn, but clearly not from life, in 1515, which also perished in a shipwreck bound for Italy as a gift for the Pope.

Closer to our own time, the Terukuni Maru struck a mine in the Thames Estuary in 1939. She was an unusual wreck for two reasons, firstly in being a rare Japanese casualty of the Second World War prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Secondly, all hands were saved including a doggy passenger and an unusual stowaway, a disorientated falcon which had flown on board at Beirut. One of the crew cared for it all the way to London, although the more superstitious members of the crew felt it was a bird of ill-omen. Having had its feathers ruffled, it was placed in the care of London Zoo and featured in the Illustrated London News.

Animals have been a regular theme of Wreck of the Week and there will be more essays on other animals in future editions. See No.5 for dogs aboard wrecks and No.22, for those common stowaways, Rattus norvegicus.

23. Dunking the Witches

I promised you more on ‘unbooked passengers’ last week, and if you were anticipating stowaways, that’s a story for another day. Today’s wreck in 1667  is included more for the completeness of the record (because it appears in shipwreck lists elsewhere) rather than bearing any very close relationship to reality. It is certainly a very good candidate for the strangest wreck record I have ever come across: the letter in which it appears, although one of the State Papers (1) appears to be relaying little more than local gossip and is somewhat garbled.

The sequence of events appears to be as follows: the correspondent wrote from Harwich, ‘They tell a strange story at Ipswich of one of their ships that was lost in the late storms’. Two Ipswich ships met one another at sea, suggesting that they were crossing one another,  perhaps northbound and southbound respectively in the North Sea (possibly colliers). Instead of exchanging news, ‘speaking’ as it was called at the time, the crew of the first ship gave their love to all their friends and relations at home, as they had given themselves up for lost.

On being asked why this was so, ‘the first ship replied that they had long laboured to free their maintop, where sat a couple of witches, but by all that they could do, could not remove nor get them down, and so they were lost people.’

At least one passenger had taken ship on this vessel, having previously been on board a ship lost at Scarborough Roads (so he might have been a nervous passenger anyway) but interpreting the place of loss as between Scarborough and Ipswich begs more questions than it answers.

The request to ‘send their love’ suggests the doomed vessel was outbound from Ipswich: for this to be a plausible request the second vessel taking the message home must have been inbound to Ipswich. Yet the passenger had lost his ship in Scarborough Roads, so it seems strange that he was apparently outward-bound from Ipswich.

Possibly, instead, the two ships had crossed north of Scarborough, and the second vessel was homeward-bound from somewhere like Newcastle: the place of loss would then have been further north, between Scarborough and Newcastle. This conjecture, however, is simply based on the prevalence of the collier trade on the east coast in the 1600s, and recorded, for example, by Defoe.

This isn’t the strangest thing about the supposed wreck, though. This is a unique – in English waters anyway – example of a ship being said to be lost to witchcraft. Some of those on board survived, since the supposed witches were then clapped into jail. Possibly they were arrested simply because they survived their dunking in the sea – after all, witches were supposed to be guilty if they floated, and innocent if they sank! This was rather hard on all the innocent people who suffered under the notorious 17th century Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who, of course, was active in northern Essex in the 1640s. One wonders whether this ‘wreck’ is a legacy of Hopkins’ reign of terror.

Update 14.02.2014: While running a query today I came across another wreck with a tinge of the supernatural which I just had to add to the blog. The events a hundred years later seem to be real enough, and there is nothing unusual in a ship being cast ashore ‘in the late storm’ in 1766 on an area of the coastline that was fairly well-known for wrecks. Something was clearly preying on the master’s mind, and he (or, as the original source implies, if you read it carefully, his ship, which gives the story an even greater supernatural tinge!) decided to lay the blame for the wreck at the feet of a supernatural ‘woman’ who ‘belonged to the merchants of Hull’, to which port he was bound.

‘Newcastle, Sept. 27 . . . We are informed that the sloop William and Ann, of Port Seaton, James Scott, master, from Hull for Leith, with bale goods, which has been drove ashore at Blyth, in the late storm, went [sic] on the 11th inst. to one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the county of Northumberland, and made the following deposition, that on Monday the 8th, being about 10 leagues from the land, he went into the cabbin, where he found a woman standing; and on enquiry how she came there, she said she came out of the hold, and belonged to the merchants of Hull: on which he offered to lay hold of her, when she vanished. He then came on deck, where he saw a man come out of a block, and another on the mast, with feet as big as hogsheads, blowing the sails, and legions of the devils floating about the ship, who carried her over an exceeding high rock, where she was wrecked, and the crew with difficulty saved. Quere, if the ship was insured?’ (2)

Rather than a supernatural apparition, it seems likely to be a psychological manifestation of some concerns about his reception on arrival at Hull.  The newspapers may have had something of this nature on their minds: by ostensibly asking if the ship was insured against supernatural peril, might they have been poking a bit of fun at the owners and gently hinting at insurance fraud and a guilty conscience?

(1) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, 1667-8, 2 November 1667, No.27

(2) Newcastle Courant, 27th September 1766, No.4,697, p2

22. Rats leaving a Sinking Ship

This week’s edition is less a wreck of the week than a bit of a linguistic diversion. Spotting the skeleton of a rat, at the preview of the Mary Rose museum on Tuesday, led me to consider the phrases associated with ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’ and the expressions associated with total loss in various languages, the principal English expression being, of course, ‘lost with all hands’.

Rats are excellent swimmers, hence another expression, ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’: the rat in the Mary Rose museum is one of only three which were actually found in the wreck, suggesting either that the ship’s dog who was also found was a good ratter, or that most of the rats had managed to swim ashore (you can imagine them swarming up the netting placed to prevent boarding by the French, which unfortunately trapped a lot of the crew) and doing a ratty paddle to shore. Of course the Mary Rose is relatively close inshore, so it’s quite plausible that there was a sudden incursion of rats shaking themselves off in Portsmouth – we will never know.

You might remember that in the Christmas issue we looked at the Dutch ship Jeffrow Edia Maria (or variants thereof)  which was lost off Rame Head in 1753 met Man en Muys,’with man and mouse’, implying total loss. It’s a phrase I have come across quite regularly in terms of Dutch wrecks. The same phrase is used in German, mit Mann und Maus untergehen, to ‘sink with both men and mice’.

It struck me that I have never, ever, seen in an account of a wreck any detail on rodent survival or otherwise, presumably because they were vermin . . . As we all know from historical research, contemporary sources rarely make common knowledge explicit, because the reader would have understood the situation immediately – but we, of course, don’t, because it is no longer common knowledge to us!

I did start to wonder if anyone historically ever noticed flotsam and jetsam washing up with rats clinging to them, or is that too fanciful a notion? Has anyone ever come across such a reference?

Interestingly, the French expression is perdu corps et biens, literally ‘lost with bodies and goods’, i.e. everything, both men and cargo, perished. I am told that when the Vasa was lost a contemporary report to the king said that she went down med man och allt (men and all).

I leave you with this image.