THE YEAR 1866 was marked by a bizarre development, an unexplained an_ownright inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten. Withou_etting into those rumors that upset civilians in the seaports and derange_he public mind even far inland, it must be said that professional seamen wer_specially alarmed. Traders, shipowners, captains of vessels, skippers, an_aster mariners from Europe and America, naval officers from every country,
and at their heels the various national governments on these two continents,
were all extremely disturbed by the business.
In essence, over a period of time several ships had encountered "an enormou_hing" at sea, a long spindle-shaped object, sometimes giving off _hosphorescent glow, infinitely bigger and faster than any whale.
The relevant data on this apparition, as recorded in various logbooks, agree_retty closely as to the structure of the object or creature in question, it_nprecedented speed of movement, its startling locomotive power, and th_nique vitality with which it seemed to be gifted. If it was a cetacean, i_xceeded in bulk any whale previously classified by science. No naturalist,
neither Cuvier nor Lacépède, neither [Professo_umeril](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auguste_Dum%C3%A9ril) nor [Professor d_uatrefages](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Louis_Armand_de_Quatrefages_de_Br%C3%A9au),
would have accepted the existence of such a monster sight unseen—
specifically, unseen by their own scientific eyes.
Striking an average of observations taken at different times— rejecting thos_imid estimates that gave the object a length of 200 feet, and ignoring thos_xaggerated views that saw it as a mile wide and three long—you could stil_ssert that this phenomenal creature greatly exceeded the dimensions o_nything then known to ichthyologists, if it existed at all.
Now then, it did exist, this was an undeniable fact; and since the human min_otes on objects of wonder, you can understand the worldwide excitement cause_y this unearthly apparition. As for relegating it to the realm of fiction,
that charge had to be dropped.
In essence, on July 20, 1866, the steamer Governor Higginson, from th_alcutta & Burnach Steam Navigation Co., encountered this moving mass fiv_iles off the eastern shores of Australia.
Captain Baker at first thought he was in the presence of an unknown reef; h_as even about to fix its exact position when two waterspouts shot out of thi_nexplicable object and sprang hissing into the air some 150 feet. So, unles_his reef was subject to the intermittent eruptions of a geyser, the Governo_igginson had fair and honest dealings with some aquatic mammal, until the_nknown, that could spurt from its blowholes waterspouts mixed with air an_team.
Similar events were likewise observed in Pacific seas, on July 23 of the sam_ear, by the Christopher Columbus from the West India & Pacific Stea_avigation Co. Consequently, this extraordinary cetacean could transfer itsel_rom one locality to another with startling swiftness, since within a_nterval of just three days, the Governor Higginson and the Christophe_olumbus had observed it at two positions on the charts separated by _istance of more than 700 nautical leagues.
Fifteen days later and 2,000 leagues farther, the Helvetia from the Compagni_ationale and the Shannon from the Royal Mail line, running on opposite tack_n that part of the Atlantic lying between the United States and Europe,
respectively signaled each other that the monster had been sighted in latitud_2 degrees 15' north and longitude 60 degrees 35' west of the meridian o_reenwich. From their simultaneous observations, they were able to estimat_he mammal's minimum length at more than 350 Englis_eet;[](footnotes.xml#footnote_1) this was because both the Shannon and th_elvetia were of smaller dimensions, although each measured 100 meters stem t_tern. Now then, the biggest whales, those rorqual whales that frequent th_aterways of the Aleutian Islands, have never exceeded a length of 5_eters—if they reach even that.
One after another, reports arrived that would profoundly affect publi_pinion: new observations taken by the transatlantic liner Pereire, the Inma_ine's Etna running afoul of the monster, an official report drawn up b_fficers on the French frigate Normandy, dead-earnest reckonings obtained b_he general staff of Commodore Fitz-James aboard the Lord Clyde. I_ighthearted countries, people joked about this phenomenon, but such serious,
practical countries as England, America, and Germany were deeply concerned.
In every big city the monster was the latest rage; they sang about it in th_offee houses, they ridiculed it in the newspapers, they dramatized it in th_heaters. The tabloids found it a fine opportunity for hatching all sorts o_oaxes. In those newspapers short of copy, you saw the reappearance of ever_igantic imaginary creature, from "[Moby Dick](http://en.wikisource.org/wiki
/Moby-Dick)," that dreadful white whale from the High Arctic regions, to th_tupendous kraken whose tentacles could entwine a 500-ton craft and drag i_nto the ocean depths. They even reprinted reports from ancient times: th_iews of [Aristotle](http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Aristotle) and
[Pliny](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pliny_the_Elder) accepting the existenc_f such monsters, then the Norwegian stories of Bishop Pontoppidan, th_arratives of Paul Egede, and finally the reports of Captain Harrington— whos_ood faith is above suspicion—in which he claims he saw, while aboard th_astilian in 1857, one of those enormous serpents that, until then, ha_requented only the seas of France's old extremist newspaper, Th_onstitutionalist.
An interminable debate then broke out between believers and skeptics in th_cholarly societies and scientific journals. The "monster question" inflame_ll minds. During this memorable campaign, journalists making a profession o_cience battled with those making a profession of wit, spilling waves of in_nd some of them even two or three drops of blood, since they went from se_erpents to the most offensive personal remarks.
For six months the war seesawed. With inexhaustible zest, the popular pres_ook potshots at feature articles from the Geographic Institute of Brazil, th_oyal Academy of Science in Berlin, the British Association, the Smithsonia_nstitution in Washington, D.C., at discussions in The Indian Archipelago, i_osmos published by Father Moigno, in Petermann'_ittheilungen,[](footnotes.xml#footnote_2) and at scientific chronicles i_he great French and foreign newspapers. When the monster's detractors cited _aying by the botanist Linnaeus that "nature doesn't make leaps," witt_riters in the popular periodicals parodied it, maintaining in essence that
"nature doesn't make lunatics," and ordering their contemporaries never t_ive the lie to nature by believing in krakens, sea serpents, "Moby Dicks,"
and other all-out efforts from drunken seamen. Finally, in a much-feare_atirical journal, an article by its most popular columnist finished off th_onster for good, spurning it in the style of Hippolytus repulsing the amorou_dvances of his stepmother Phaedra, and giving the creature its quietus amid _niversal burst of laughter. Wit had defeated science.
During the first months of the year 1867, the question seemed to be buried,
and it didn't seem due for resurrection, when new facts were brought to th_ublic's attention. But now it was no longer an issue of a scientific proble_o be solved, but a quite real and serious danger to be avoided. The questio_ook an entirely new turn. The monster again became an islet, rock, or reef,
but a runaway reef, unfixed and elusive.
On March 5, 1867, the Moravian from the Montreal Ocean Co., lying during th_ight in latitude 27 degrees 30' and longitude 72 degrees 15', ran it_tarboard quarter afoul of a rock marked on no charts of these waterways.
Under the combined efforts of wind and 400-horsepower steam, it was travelin_t a speed of thirteen knots. Without the high quality of its hull, th_oravian would surely have split open from this collision and gone dow_ogether with those 237 passengers it was bringing back from Canada.
This accident happened around five o'clock in the morning, just as day wa_eginning to break. The officers on watch rushed to the craft's stern. The_xamined the ocean with the most scrupulous care. They saw nothing except _trong eddy breaking three cable lengths out, as if those sheets of water ha_een violently churned. The site's exact bearings were taken, and the Moravia_ontinued on course apparently undamaged. Had it run afoul of an underwate_ock or the wreckage of some enormous derelict ship? They were unable to say.
But when they examined its undersides in the service yard, they discovere_hat part of its keel had been smashed.
This occurrence, extremely serious in itself, might perhaps have bee_orgotten like so many others, if three weeks later it hadn't been reenacte_nder identical conditions. Only, thanks to the nationality of the shi_ictimized by this new ramming, and thanks to the reputation of the company t_hich this ship belonged, the event caused an immense uproar.
No one is unaware of the name of that famous English shipowner,
[Cunard](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Cunard). In 1840 this shrew_ndustrialist founded a postal service between Liverpool and Halifax,
featuring three wooden ships with 400-horsepower paddle wheels and a burden o_,162 metric tons. Eight years later, the company's assets were increased b_our 650-horsepower ships at 1,820 metric tons, and in two more years, by tw_ther vessels of still greater power and tonnage. In 1853 the Cunard Co.,
whose mail-carrying charter had just been renewed, successively added to it_ssets the Arabia, the Persia, the China, the Scotia, the Java, and th_ussia, all ships of top speed and, after the Great Eastern, the biggest eve_o plow the seas. So in 1867 this company owned twelve ships, eight wit_addle wheels and four with propellers.
If I give these highly condensed details, it is so everyone can full_nderstand the importance of this maritime transportation company, known th_orld over for its shrewd management. No transoceanic navigational undertakin_as been conducted with more ability, no business dealings have been crowne_ith greater success. In twenty-six years Cunard ships have made 2,00_tlantic crossings without so much as a voyage canceled, a delay recorded, _an, a craft, or even a letter lost. Accordingly, despite strong competitio_rom France, passengers still choose the Cunard line in preference to al_thers, as can be seen in a recent survey of official documents. Given this,
no one will be astonished at the uproar provoked by this accident involvin_ne of its finest steamers.
On April 13, 1867, with a smooth sea and a moderate breeze, the Scotia lay i_ongitude 15 degrees 12' and latitude 45 degrees 37'. It was traveling at _peed of 13.43 knots under the thrust of its 1,000-horsepower engines. It_addle wheels were churning the sea with perfect steadiness. It was the_rawing 6.7 meters of water and displacing 6,624 cubic meters.
At 4:17 in the afternoon, during a high tea for passengers gathered in th_ain lounge, a collision occurred, scarcely noticeable on the whole, affectin_he Scotia's hull in that quarter a little astern of its port paddle wheel.
The Scotia hadn't run afoul of something, it had been fouled, and by a cuttin_r perforating instrument rather than a blunt one. This encounter seemed s_inor that nobody on board would have been disturbed by it, had it not bee_or the shouts of crewmen in the hold, who climbed on deck yelling:
"We're sinking! We're sinking!"
At first the passengers were quite frightened, but Captain Anderson hastene_o reassure them. In fact, there could be no immediate danger. Divided int_even compartments by watertight bulkheads, the Scotia could brave any lea_ith impunity.
Captain Anderson immediately made his way into the hold. He discovered tha_he fifth compartment had been invaded by the sea, and the speed of thi_nvasion proved that the leak was considerable. Fortunately this compartmen_idn't contain the boilers, because their furnaces would have been abruptl_xtinguished.
Captain Anderson called an immediate halt, and one of his sailors dived dow_o assess the damage. Within moments they had located a hole two meters i_idth on the steamer's underside. Such a leak could not be patched, and wit_ts paddle wheels half swamped, the Scotia had no choice but to continue it_oyage. By then it lay 300 miles from Cape Clear, and after three days o_elay that filled Liverpool with acute anxiety, it entered the company docks.
The engineers then proceeded to inspect the Scotia, which had been put in dr_ock. They couldn't believe their eyes. Two and a half meters below it_aterline, there gaped a symmetrical gash in the shape of an isoscele_riangle. This breach in the sheet iron was so perfectly formed, no punc_ould have done a cleaner job of it. Consequently, it must have been produce_y a perforating tool of uncommon toughness— plus, after being launched wit_rodigious power and then piercing four centimeters of sheet iron, this too_ad needed to withdraw itself by a backward motion truly inexplicable.
This was the last straw, and it resulted in arousing public passions all ove_gain. Indeed, from this moment on, any maritime casualty without a_stablished cause was charged to the monster's account. This outrageous anima_ad to shoulder responsibility for all derelict vessels, whose numbers ar_nfortunately considerable, since out of those 3,000 ships whose losses ar_ecorded annually at the marine insurance bureau, the figure for steam o_ailing ships supposedly lost with all hands, in the absence of any news,
amounts to at least 200!
Now then, justly or unjustly, it was the "monster" who stood accused of thei_isappearance; and since, thanks to it, travel between the various continent_ad become more and more dangerous, the public spoke up and demanded straigh_ut that, at all cost, the seas be purged of this fearsome cetacean.