in ,

The Enigma of the Mary Celeste, the cursed ship brought to Gibraltar (I)

Soraya Fernández

The Enigma of the Mary Celeste, the cursed ship brought to Gibraltar Part One

It is one of the greatest enigmas in maritime history. This cursed American brig was found unmanned and adrift off the Azores in 1872 and brought to Gibraltar.

The ‘Mary Celeste’ set sail from New York on November 7, 1872, on its way to Genoa. She was loaded with 1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol, but she never reached her destination.

She was found, unmanned, by a Canadian brig, the sails were partly set, a lifeboat was missing and there was no sign of the crew inside the ship. The final entry in the logbook was dated ten days before its discovery and indicated that the ship was 400 miles away from where it was found at the time. A considerable distance to drift…

Mary Celeste, the cursed ship brought to Gibraltar (I)

It had plenty of supplies when it was found. The cargo was intact, as were the personal belongings of the captain and crew. The safe had not been forced open either. Everything seemed to be in its place; as if nothing had happened. However, it remains unknown as to who was aboard the ship or what fate these passengers met.

The ship was built in Nova Scotia and launched with British registration in 1861 under the name ‘Amazon’. One misfortune after another followed from the day it first set sail.

On its first voyage that year, the then captain became ill. John Nutting Parker took command and resumed the journey, which turned out to be a rough one: The ‘Amazon’ collided with fishing tackle in Maine and then, after leaving London, with a brig in the English Channel.

Two years later, Parker was succeeded by William Thompson and in 1867, after numerous smooth sailings, a storm drove the ship ashore at Cape Breton Island.

Alexander McBean of Nova Scotia bought it and sold the wreck. Richard W. Haines, a seafarer from New York, paid $1,750 and spent $8,825 on its restoration. He renamed it Mary Celeste. After being confiscated and sold to a New York consortium, the ship was then remodelled in 1872.

Eleven crew members

Benjamin Spooner Briggs, a man of strong religious beliefs, assumed the captaincy of the ship. He was joined by his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Cobb, and one of their two children, Sophia, who was only two years old at the time. Their eldest son, seven-year-old Arthur, stayed home with his grandmother.

Benjamin Spooner Briggs

The first officer was Albert G. Richardson and the second Andrew Gilling, who was just over 20 years old. The purser, Edward William Head, was newly married. The four sailors were German: brothers Volkert and Boz Lorenzen, Arian Martens and Gottlieb Goudschaal.

It was ‘Dei Gratia’, a Canadian brigantine that had departed for Gibraltar eight days after the Mary Celeste, that found it between the Azores and the Portuguese coast. The ship was sailing erratically. Two officers stepped aboard, but found no one inside.

What happened?

What happened to the ‘Mary Celeste’ remains a mystery to this day. There was no sign of violence and it seemed that the crew had calmly abandoned ship. Everything seemed to be in order. Only a few documents and navigational items were missing from the captain’s quarters. The strangest thing found were indentations on the sides of the ship, one metre above the waterline and two metres long.

The captain of ‘Dei Gratia’, David Morehouse, took the ‘Mary Celeste’ to Gibraltar. Under maritime law, whoever rescues a vessel is awarded the value of the salvaged vessel and its cargo.

The ‘Dei Gratia’ arrived in Gibraltar on December 12, 1872. The ‘Mary Celeste’ arrived a day later, along with a few of the crew from the ship that had found it.

The ‘Mary Celeste’ was confiscated by the Admiralty Court in Gibraltar for salvage hearings, which were held in Gibraltar. At these hearings, several possibilities as to what had happened were heard: a crew mutiny, a pirate raid and even an insurance fraud scheme.

The first thing that was thought of was a storm, but everything was intact. There was some water in the hull, but nothing alarming. Several scattered belongings were found in the captain’s cabin, including a sword in its sheath that was under the bed, but most of the ship’s papers were lost along with the captain’s navigational instruments. There were no signs of fire or violence, nor of a hurricane or any other atmospheric phenomenon. An attack was also ruled out.

The shadow of suspicion came to rest on the captain of the ‘Dei Gratia’. It was said that he was a friend of the captain of the ‘Mary Celeste’ and that they had entered into a conspiracy to collect the salvage award. It was also thought that he might have killed the crew to collect it. Both hypotheses were ruled out. No theory was substantiated by evidence, but suspicions of possible fraud made the reward very low, at only £1,700.

When the Gibraltar hearings concluded, it was open season for all kinds of theories: the effect of alcohol vapours on the crew, a tidal wave, a giant marine animal and even many now famous ghost stories.

The Mary Celeste sailed with new owners. Its captain deliberately scuppered it near Haiti in 1885 to defraud the insurance company. It was undoubtedly a cursed ship. It changed hands 17 times, ran aground and caught fire several times…

An inexhaustible source of inspiration

The Mary Celeste became a legend, a forever cursed ship, inspiring a multitude of newspaper articles, books and even a film. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the story “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” in 1884 which elevated the legend, which also inspired the 1935 film “The Mystery of the Mary Celeste”, known as “Phantom Ship” in the United States and starring Bela Lugosi.

Arthur Conan Doyle

In Gibraltar, postage stamps were issued on two occasions to commemorate the incident. In the Campo de Gibraltar, the story inspired Los Barrios journalist and writer José Antonio Ortega to write “El reino de las sirenas” (“the kingdom of the sirens”) in 2011.

Mary Celeste Postage Stamps Gibraltar
@Gibraltar Stamps

We wanted to investigate the mystery of the Mary Celeste further and spoke to Gibraltarian historian Richard García and author José Antonio Ortega (Part 2)…

The Enigma of the Mary Celeste, the cursed ship brought to Gibraltar Part One

What do you think?