Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cape Recife’s “Mary Celeste” Affair

The Mary Celeste, which is often erroneously referred to as Marie Celeste, was an American merchant brigantine discovered adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean off the Azores Islands on December 4, 1872. The contents of the vessel, including the cargo, was still intact and useable. All that was missing was the lifeboat.

Eight years prior to this mysterious occurrence, Port Elizabeth bore witness to a similar incident which occurred off Cape Recife when a fully-rigged sailing ship named Scindia was spotted drifting. For historical accuracy purposes, should the Mary Celeste not be referred to as the Scindia redux instead of vice versa?  

Main picture: An 1861 painting of Mary Celeste (named Amazon at the time), by an unknown artist

Captain Briggs of the Mary Celeste
Benjamin Briggs was one of five sons of a sea captain Nathan Briggs, with all but one of the sons going to sea and two becoming captains. Benjamin was an observant Christian who read the Bible regularly and often bore witness to his faith at prayer meetings. In 1862, he married his cousin Sarah Elizabeth Cobb, and enjoyed a Mediterranean honeymoon on board his schooner Forest King. Growing bored with the tedium of sea life, Benjamin purchased a share in a vessel, Mary Celeste, and in October 1872, Benjamin took command for her first voyage, following her extensive New York refit, which was to take her to Genoa in Italy. He arranged for his wife and infant daughter to accompany him, while his school-aged son was left at home with his grandmother. Briggs chose the crew for this voyage with care.

On October 20 1872, Briggs arrived at Pier 50 on the East River in New York City to supervise the loading of the ship’s cargo of 1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol; his wife and baby daughter joined him a week later. On Tuesday morning, Mary Celeste left Pier 50 with Briggs, his wife and daughter, and seven crew members, and moved into New York Harbour. The weather was uncertain, and Briggs decided to wait for better conditions. He anchored the ship just off Staten Island, where Sarah used the delay to send a final letter to her mother-in-law. “Tell Arthur,” she wrote, “I make great dependence on the letters I shall get from him, and will try to remember anything that happens on the voyage which he would be pleased to hear.” The weather eased two days later, and Mary Celeste left the harbour and entered the Atlantic.

A parallel mystery off Cape Recife
The life of a lighthouse keeper in days of yore must have been monotonous and one of solitude if one’s family did not reside with you. Yet occasionally, very infrequently, it would be filled with disaster, tragedy and paradoxically even excitement as vessels not adhering to shipping regulations would pay the consequences of their folly.

So it was to be on one day in late September 1864, the lighthouse keeper at Cape Recife spotted a sailing ship flying the distress signal and showing signs of damage. He sent a message back to the harbour and three port launches “Sailor’s Friend”, “Little Bess” and “Little Meek”, set off with high hopes of earning salvage money. Much to their chagrin, when they reached the ship, however, they found two sailing ships standing by whose captains had come to an agreement to put a prize crew on board. The crews of the Port Elizabeth boats were not going to stand for this and attempted to put a pilot on board. A fight ensued and the boats had to withdraw. While they were pulling away a seaman named Phillips fell overboard and was drowned. And so, a stately convoy of three harbour boats, two sailing vessels and the damaged vessel sailed into the harbour.

Discovery of the Mary Celeste
The vessel, Dei Gratia, sailed from New York five days after the Mary Celeste. On Wednesday, December 4, 1872, Captain Morehouse came on deck and the helmsman reported a vessel about 9.7 km distant, heading unsteadily towards the Dei Gratia. The ship’s erratic movements and the odd set of her sails led Morehouse to suspect that something was wrong. As the vessel drew close, he could see nobody on deck, and he received no reply to his signals, so he sent Deveau and second mate John Wright in a ship’s boat to investigate. The pair established that this was the Mary Celeste by the name on her stern. They then climbed aboard and found the ship deserted. The sails were partly set and in a poor condition, some missing altogether, and much of the rigging was damaged with ropes hanging loosely over the sides. The main hatch cover was secure, but the fore and lazarette hatches were open, their covers beside them on the deck. The ship’s single lifeboat was a small yawl that had apparently been stowed across the main hatch, but it was missing, while the binnacle housing the ship’s compass had shifted from its place and its glass cover was broken. There was about 1.1 metres of water in the hold, a significant but not alarming amount for a ship of this size. A makeshift sounding rod (a device for measuring the amount of water in the hold) was found abandoned on the deck.

They found the ship’s daily log in the mate’s cabin, and its final entry was dated at 8 a.m. on November 25, nine days earlier. It recorded Mary Celeste‘s position then off Santa Maria Island in the Azores, nearly 400 nautical miles (740 km) from the point where Dei Gratia encountered her. Deveau saw that the cabin interiors were wet and untidy from water that had entered through doorways and skylights, but were otherwise in reasonable order. He found personal items scattered about Briggs’ cabin, including a sheathed sword under the bed, but most of the ship’s papers were missing along with the captain’s navigational instruments. Galley equipment was neatly stowed away; there was no food prepared or under preparation, but there were ample provisions in the stores. There were no obvious signs of fire or violence; the evidence indicated an orderly departure from the ship by means of the missing lifeboat.

Deveau returned to report these findings to Morehouse, who decided to bring the derelict boat into Gibraltar 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) away. Under maritime law, a salvor could expect a substantial share of the combined value of rescued vessel and cargo, the exact award depending on the degree of danger inherent in the salvaging. Morehouse divided Dei Gratia‘s crew of eight between the two vessels, sending Deveau and two experienced seamen to Mary Celeste while he and four others remained on Dei Gratia. The weather was relatively calm for most of the way to Gibraltar, but each ship was seriously undermanned and progress was slow. Dei Gratia reached Gibraltar on December 12; Mary Celeste had encountered fog and arrived on the following morning. She was immediately impounded by the vice admiralty court to prepare for salvage hearings.

Gibraltar in the 19th century

The Scindia in Algoa Bay
The damaged ship turned out to be a British full-rigged sailing ship named “Scindia”. When the captain of one of the sailing vessels boarded her, he found her yawing badly but still sailing on under jib and reefed foresail. The main mast had gone, and the mizzen mast was broken. There was water in the holds but not enough to endanger the ship and there was a valuable cargo of silks, tea, and jute. There was not a person on board. The ship was anchored in the roadstead and for some week’s speculation ran riot as to the fate of the crew.

Then after some months came the news of a shipwrecked crew being landed at St. Helena. It was Captain Carr and the crew of the “Scindia”. The ship was sailing from Calcutta to Britain when she ran into a heavy south-easter and was dismasted. She was rolling so badly that the captain abandoned all hope of saving her. Just then another ship came by and offered to take off the crew.  The captain accepted the offer and left his ship to what seemed to be her certain fate. One can imagine his consternation when he learned she was safely anchored in Algoa Bay.

Mary Celeste: Not the reward expected
The salvage court hearings began in Gibraltar on December 17, 1872, under Sir James Cochrane, the chief justice of Gibraltar. The hearing was conducted by Frederick Solly-FloodAttorney General of Gibraltar who was also Advocate-General and Proctor for the Queen in Her Office of Admiralty. Flood was described by a historian of the Mary Celeste affair as a man “whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ“, and as “… the sort of man who, once he had made up his mind about something, couldn’t be shifted.” The testimonies of Deveau and Wright convinced Flood unalterably that a crime had been committed, a belief picked up by the New York Shipping and Commercial List on December 21: “The inference is that there has been foul play somewhere, and that alcohol is at the bottom of it.”

Mary Celeste

On December 23, Flood ordered an examination of Mary Celeste, which was carried out by John Austin, Surveyor of Shipping, with the assistance of a diver, Ricardo Portunato. Austin noted cuts on each side of the bow, caused, he thought, by a sharp instrument, and found possible traces of blood on the captain’s sword. His report emphasized that the ship did not appear to have been struck by heavy weather, citing a vial of sewing machine oil found upright in its place. Austin did not acknowledge that the vial might have been replaced since the abandonment, nor did the court raise this point. Portunato’s report on the hull concluded that the ship had not been involved in a collision or run aground. A further inspection by a group of Royal Naval captains endorsed Austin’s opinion that the cuts on the bow had been caused deliberately. They also discovered stains on one of the ship’s rails that might have been blood, together with a deep mark possibly caused by an axe. These findings strengthened Flood’s suspicions that human wrongdoing rather than natural disaster lay behind the mystery. On January 22, 1873, he sent the reports to the Board of Trade in London, adding his own conclusion that the crew had got at the alcohol (he ignored its non-potability) and murdered the Briggs family and the ship’s officers in a drunken frenzy. They had cut the bows to simulate a collision, then fled in the yawl to suffer an unknown fate. Flood thought that Morehouse and his men were hiding something, specifically that Mary Celeste had been abandoned in a more easterly location, and that the log had been doctored. He could not accept that Mary Celeste could have travelled so far while unmanned.

Fake news, myths and false histories
In an era, a century and a half prior to the invention of the words fake news, the whole Mary Celeste episode was engulfed in the ancient equivalent of this modern day phenomenon.  

Fact and fiction became intertwined in the decades that followed. The Los Angeles Times retold the Mary Celeste story in June 1883 with invented detail. “Every sail was set, the tiller was lashed fast, not a rope was out of place. … The fire was burning in the galley. The dinner was standing untasted and scarcely cold … the log written up to the hour of her discovery.” The November 1906 Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine reported that Mary Celeste drifted off the Cape Verde Islands, some 1,400 nautical miles (2,600 km) south of the actual location. Among many inaccuracies, the first mate was “a man named Briggs,” and there were live chickens on board.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Amongst those propagating and disseminating the Mary Celeste myths was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose 1884 short story did much to make the myth durable.

If the truth be told, personally I can only recall the fabricated version and not the real facts of the case. Such is the durability of myths and forms a cautionary tale of the current penchant for invoking conspiracy theories to buttress one’s world views.

Briggs, his wife and daughter were never found, and neither was his handpicked crew.

Cape Recife by Alf Porter [Looking Back, March 1981]

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