Mary Celeste

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A hermaphrodite brig of some 280 tons found abandoned in the Atlantic in November 1872. How she came to be in that condition remains one of the great mysteries of the sea.

She sailed from New York on 5 November with a cargo of 1,700 barrels of alcohol, bound for Genoa. Her master was Benjamin Briggs, who had his wife and 2-year-old daughter on board, and his crew comprised a mate, second mate, cook, and four seamen. On 24 November he made the Azores, but ran into a near gale which forced him to shorten sail. On the morning of the 25th he sighted and sailed past the island of Santa Maria, leaving it to the southward and made a note to this effect on the deck slate so that it could be later entered into the ship's log.

Nine days later the Mary Celeste was sighted some 560 kilometres (350 mls.) east of Santa Maria by the brigantine Dei Gratia, also out of New York. The Mary Celeste was heading in an easterly direction on the port tack in a light breeze, with her reduced sail area set for the starboard tack. To the crew of the Dei Gratia there was obviously something wrong and the brigantine's mate and one seaman boarded her. They found the vessel abandoned, her only boat gone, and the remains of the boat's painter hanging over her stern. The side rails abreast of the boat's stowage on board were lying on the deck, an evident sign of a hasty abandonment, and by the deck pump was lying a sounding rod, with which the depth of water in the bilges was measured. Aloft, the running rigging was snarled up, the halyard to the main gaff parted (the rest may have been used as the boat's painter), and the upper topsail and foresail blown out. The main hatch and the cargo was secure but the small fore and after hatches were off, as was the galley hatch, and the skylight above the main cabin was open. There was one metre of water in her, but this was not excessive for such a ship.

A salvage crew from the Dei Gratia was put aboard the abandoned ship and she was sailed to Gibraltar, where she arrived on 13 December 1872. On the way she had made very little water. After her arrival an extensive survey was made but this revealed virtually no internal or external damage beyond very minor damage to the hull planking on either bow about a metre above the surface. A court of inquiry was then assembled to try to discover why she had been abandoned. A number of theories were put forward, some of them assisted by the evident desire of the assessor at Gibraltar to prove foul play. He tried to make much out of the discovery of an old sword on board covered with bloodstains, but on analysis these were found to be rust, and the theories of mutiny and murder occasioned by its discovery had to be abandoned. A collision with a giant squid was another theory, while the most popular suggestion for a long time was that there was collusion between Briggs and the master of the Dei Gratia so that salvage money could be claimed and later divided. The inquiry concentrated on this theory for many days but, somewhat regretfully, had to abandon it in the end.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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