Retro review: Paul Begg – Mary Celeste

Review originally published on LiveJournal in March 2008.

When I was a wee thing, I entertained myself on slow afternoons by raiding the bookshelves. There were many of these around our house, with a wide variety of books ranging from my picture books to deceptively slim volumes of Kafka. One of my favourites was a large-format hardback my grandfather had acquired called Mysteries of the Universe.

Every bit as highbrow as it sounds, this fabulous book was a survey of the unlikely. At a tender age, I discovered ghosts, aliens, pyramidology, ley lines, spontaneous human combustion, and other favourites of the lunatic fringe. I loved it*.

One section dealt with Mysteries of the Sea, cataloguing legendary beasties, lost islands, and phantom ships. This was my first encounter with the Mary Celeste.

The Mary Celeste** was found deserted in November 1872, adrift somewhere between Portugal and the Azores. And that, my friends, is almost the only thing people can agree on. Her sails were either perfectly-set or a complete shambles, but she was probably drifting after heavy weather. The lifeboat was missing, a section of rail torn away to launch it… or it was carefully stowed on top of the cabin. The beds were perfectly made… or contained the impression of a sleeping child. Breakfast was on the table, the smell of pipesmoke in the air… or you get the picture.

Unmysteriously, this is all a matter of public record. The Mary Celeste was salvaged and sailed back to Gibraltar, where an Admiralty Court convened to decide what had happened to her and award the prize crew. The testimony of the prize crew and the official examiners (including a diver who checked out the hull) can all be read.

The question here was never “what happened to the crew?”, it was always “why?”. It was clear that the ship had been abandoned, the crew tumbling in a rush into the lifeboat (they had taken an axe to the ship’s rail to launch it). But neither the prize crew nor the examiners could find a reason to abandon ship; the best they could do was suggest that “something” made the crew think they were taking on water.

In the absence of an explanation, fiction was far more fun. Arthur Conan Doyle started it, and the London papers popularised it, even holding competitions to see who could devise the best story. Even Hammer House of Horrors had a go, although their tale of scorned lovers and maniacs is best left unexplored.

Enter Paul Begg, Ripperologist and writer. His attempt at disentangling fact from fiction (Mary Celeste: Greatest Mystery of the Sea) captures the facts, traces the fictions and has a look at some of the modern theories. Sadly (and unlike his research into Jack the Ripper), he fails to cover his bases or present his findings in a satisfying manner. Still intrigued by the mystery, I found myself frustrated by the book, which had much background information (who built the ship; who wrote what hoaxes) but no cross-examination of what evidence we have. I can only imagine that Mr Begg is not an expert in naval matters and felt he could offer no opinion, but it would have been nice if he had consulted with someone who could.

The book is padded with repetitions and owes half its thickness (literally) to reprints of testimonies (forgivable) and fictions (not). Finishing it, I felt I understood the basics but had been thoroughly ripped off. Perhaps I’m just hard to please; I don’t doubt that it took some effort to pull together the research the book contained – it just felt focused on the wrong things. I would have preferred more detail on what can be inferred from the state of the ship when she was found, and a lot more detail on why individual theories may or may not provide an explanation.

But enough moaning.

My favourite mystery of the sea was always the tale of the Ellen Austin, who discovered a schooner so determinedly deserted that not only its original crew, but the would-be prize crew all vanished without a trace – and the second prize crew were carried off over the horizon by a wind that didn’t touch the sails of the Ellen Austin (or in another version disappeared in thick fog). Sadly, it’s all an old sea-dog’s tale: there’s not a shred of evidence the Ellen Austin lost any men that year – in fact, she no longer existed, having been rechristened the Meta the previous year. But on a cold, windy night in a harbour tavern…

**Not Marie. That was Arthur Conan Doyle getting it wrong. He just got read more widely.

*Yes, yes, it explains a lot, I know.