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Ghost ship: The Mary Celeste

01:00 Fri 01st Feb 2002 |

Q. Hasn't the wreck of the Mary Celeste recently been found

A. In summer 2001 the author Clive Cussler, a veteran wreck-finder, announced that he had found the remains of the Mary Celeste, one of the most mysterious ships ever to sail the briny ocean. The Mary Celeste's end came some twelve years after the events which made it famous, and it was a rather ignominious one at that.

Q. What happened

A. In 1884 her last captain loaded her up with a cargo of cheap rubber boots and cat food before deliberately sinking her and then filing an exorbitant insurance claim for an exotic cargo that never existed. Unfortunately for the captain his plan fell apart after running the ship on to the Rochelois Reef off Haiti, because the ship became caught on the coral and refused to sink. Insurance inspectors investigated and found the worthless cargo, leading to a conviction against the captain and his first mate.

Q. Not a glamorous end. We've all heard the likes of 'it was like the Mary Celeste in there' to describe a deserted place, particularly somewhere you'd expect to be full of people, so what's the story

A. On the 7 November 1872 Captain Benjamin Briggs set sail from New York on a routine journey across the Atlantic in the Mary Celeste, a twelve-year-old brigantine of which he was part owner. Briggs was an experienced captain and had made many trips to Europe before. He was travelling with his wife, Sarah, their two-year-old daughter and a crew of eight.

Q. Any details about the ship

A. Originally called the Amazon, the Mary Celeste was 103 feet long and weighed 280 tons. Briggs and his co-owners had bought the ship at an auction for $3,000 and they had made extensive repairs.

Q. And the voyage

A. When it set sail in November, the craft was carrying 1,700 barrels of alcohol. On the 15 November another brigantine, the Dei Gratia, set sail from New York. This was a British-owned vessel, captained by a friend of Briggs named Morehouse.

Two weeks out, on 4 December, the crew of the Dei Gratia spotted another ship drifting aimlessly near the Azores. Captain Morehouse signalled the vessel, but there was no response. The Dei Gratia drew closer and Morehouse was alarmed to discover that it was the Mary Celeste.

Q. So, the mystery

A. The craft was boarded and found to be completely deserted. According to the log the crew had apparently abandoned ship nine days earlier, though no explanation was given. The life boat was gone and the brigantine had drifted some 700 miles from the last point recorded. A final entry, written in draft form on the 25 November, detailed a minor course correction: 'At 8 eastern point bore SSW 6 miles distant'.

Morehouse could think of no logical reason why the ship should have been abandoned. Although some water had seeped in at the bottom of the craft the Mary Celeste had suffered no structural damage; there was plenty of food and water on board - six months supply, in fact; according to the log, no one had suffered any ill-health or mental disturbance; and since the cargo was intact, apart from one barrel of alcohol which had been slightly damaged, piracy was ruled out. To leave a perfectly sound ship mid-voyage and to take your chance in a small life boat in the middle of the Atlantic seemed insane.

Nonetheless, sometime on the 25 November 1872, Briggs, his wife, their daughter and all the crew had indeed abandoned ship. They were never to be seen again.

A skeleton crew sailed the Mary Celeste alongside the Dei Gratia, and both arrived in Gibraltar on 13 December, where an inquiry was held into the affair. The British officials in Gibraltar were suspicious of Morehouse, thinking that he might be in league with Briggs in some kind of fraudulent salvage claim. There was no evidence to justify this suspicion, however, and despite intensive questioning none of the men who had boarded the ship was able to cast any light on the mystery. The inquiry ended without a firm conclusion and Morehouse received his dues for the recovery of the vessel.

Q. The theories

A. Apart from the original hypothesis, that Briggs had somehow planned to abandon the ship in collusion with Morehouse, there have been a number of theories, of varying degrees of credibility.

One suggestion is that the vessel was struck by a storm, which would explain the three and a half feet of water discovered in the hold, but the ship was not badly damaged and it would have been nuts to abandon it on the off-chance that it might suffer further damage.

Others have drawn attention to the bread on board ship, which was made from rye rather than wheat. Rye, when wet, breeds a kind of fungus that causes blindness and insanity when ingested. This theory suggests that the half-crazed crew crammed themselves into the lifeboat and abandoned ship, leaving everything behind them.

Another theory suggests insanity caused by fumes rising up from poorly stored barrels of alcohol. It was certainly the first time Briggs had carried such substances and it may be that he did not take sufficient precautions.

Q. Extraordinary. And the ending

A. Whatever the truth, it seems almost certain that the crew would have died shortly after leaving. They were too far from land and had too little in the way of supplies to have much chance of survival in the mid-Atlantic. However, the Mary Celeste itself endured and continued in service until it was scuppered off Haiti.

Q. How about the fiction

A. In 1884, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a story for Cornhill Magazine entitled Habakuk Jephson's Statement. It concerned a fictional ship, the Marie Celeste, and mixed many of the true facts of the case with some of his own invention. It was this story that fixed the mystery in the minds of the public and ensured that the Mary Celeste and its unfortunate crew were not forgotten.

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By Simon Smith

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