The Mary Celeste Leaves New York Harbour
- 7th November 1872 -
So much has been written about this boat that was found abandoned between the Azores and the Portuguese coast. So much speculation. It is probably what Donald Trump would now call ‘Fake News’. Why? All because a hard up author, under the name of Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote a story about it. Conan Doyle, writing before his Sherlock Holmes novels, was given £30 for the story – a considerable sum at the time. He changed the name of the boat to the ‘Marie Celeste’ and the legend was born.
Sadly, or not, as your fancy takes you, the real events were far less spectacular and shrouded in mystery than has now become popular news. The Mary Celeste was a Brigantine, a two mast ship, registered in New York to James H Winchester, Sylvester Gordon and Benjamin Briggs. It was 100-foot-long, weighed 282 tons and was insured in the USA. The freight was insured by Atlantic Mutual – still in existence. They have since set up a small museum at their headquarters which included a model of the ship and the captain’s lap desk. Ironically they also were involved with the insurance of the RMS Titanic.
The crew of seven was led by Captain Briggs, an experienced captain, and he had as his mate and second-in-command, Albert Richardson, another experienced sailor. They left New York harbour on 7th November with 1701 barrels of American alcohol destined for Genoa to fortify the wine there. The value of the cargo was $35,000. It was a relatively short journey across the Atlantic, past the Azores, through the Straits of Gibraltar to Genoa.
On 15th November the Dei Gratia, skippered by Captain Morehouse, also left New York and took a parallel route to the Mary Celeste. On December 5th, half way between the Azores and the Portuguese coast, they spotted a Brigantine. They recognised it as the Mary Celeste and watched it for two hours as she drifted on the wind, seemingly out of control. The attempted communications got no response. There were no distress signals. Morehouse knew Captain Briggs and he also knew him as a good sailor. He had dined with him just before the Mary Celeste had set sail. Thus he ordered that a small boat be dispatched to see what was happening and Oliver Deveau, the Mate on the Dei Gratia, led this expedition.
When this boarding party arrived on the drifting boat they found it in a reasonable but not great condition. It seemed that the crew had left in a hurry. They had left behind their pipes and oil skin boots. The last entry on the ship’s slate was made on November 25th by the Island of St. Mary in the Azores. The ship’s chronometer and sextant were missing as were the ship’s register and papers. The cargo was untouched and in place but the compass and clock were smashed. Contrary to popular belief there were no steaming mugs of tea left on the table, ship’s cat or half eaten breakfasts. The ship had experienced heavy storms and seas in the days leading up to its discovery and had been watched for two hours prior to its boarding.
The court record states "The Galley was in a bad state, the stove was knocked out of its place, and the cooking utensils were strewn around. The whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess. The Captains bed was not fit to sleep in and had to be dried." One of the crew members, Charles Lurd, said that no boats were found on board, yet we know from records that a lifeboat was fitted. Judging from fixings at the main hatch Lurd felt sure that there should have been one there. This is critical evidence. There is also the fictional account of a bloody sword that was supposed to have been found. There was a sword but it was sheathed. It was rusty and was later found to have been cleaned with lemon juice causing a buildup of iron citrate.
The crew of the Dei Gratia managed to get the vessel back to the safety of Gibraltar, despite one of the pumps being broken. On inspection nine of the barrels of alcohol were found to be empty and the main halyard, a three-inch rope, coming from the expression to ‘haul yards’, was found dangling over the side, along with other ropes.
It is probable that, for whatever reason, the Captain thought the boat was sinking or in trouble; possibly due to the leaking of the cargo, or the noise of the broken pump made them think the boat was at risk. With these ideas he made the fateful decision and ordered the crew into the lifeboat where they could watch the boat from there, in safety, probably attached by the rope. The weather at that time was very bad with heaving waves and high winds. It’s a possibility the rope snapped leaving the crew in a small boat at the mercy of the Atlantic. There would have been no chance of survival. No sighting has ever been made of the Captain or his crew ever again.
The Mary Celeste swapped owners a number of times over the next few years before being caught in a storm in Haiti where it was wrecked and the owners pocketed a tidy insurance payout.
The Mary, or ‘Marie’ Celeste has taken on legendary status and its name is often quoted when talking about an empty or abandoned place or object. Legends grow and Conan Doyle certainly started a hare running with this event. What Donald Trump would make of this American loss one can only guess.