The captain, the sea-serpent, and “the Illustrious News”

What can an 1848 sea-serpent sighting tell us about the workings of the mid-19th-century newspaper industry?

Sixty feet long!
Awfully strong!
It held its course straight on, for right or for wrong,
And many a brave tar on board of the Daedalus,
Thought to himself if he comes here he’ll settle us.

Its size and its hues,
All who might chuse,
May learn if they read the Illustrious News,
How the captain and crew, and his officers, all of ’em,
Swore ’twas a snake – though the wise men made small of ’em.

“The Fate of the Sea Serpent Sealed”, The Literary Gazette, December 1848, p795 (link)

At four o’clock in the afternoon on August 6th, 1848, a Royal Navy vessel on its passage home from China encountered something very unusual. Crew members from H. M. S. Daedalus, alongside their captain Peter McQuhae, saw an enormous serpent-like creature in the water, with its head about four feet above the surface, which kept pace with the ship for about twenty minutes before passing underneath it and disappearing. Marvelling at the sight of a creature whose jaws, some reckoned, were “sufficiently capacious to admit of a small man standing upright between them”, the crew returned home to Britain, unaware that their experience was about to spark off a modest sea monster craze in the popular press.

Sea serpents were not a new phenomenon in the 1840s – sightings of unknown creatures at sea had captured imaginations for centuries. In mythology, heroes had been fighting sea monsters since the time of the ancient Greeks, and no medieval map of the world was complete without a sea serpent or two. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, sea monster sightings had been reported sporadically in the British papers, but these were often attributed to American sources, and rarely generated sustained interest. Perhaps because it took place at a time in which the science of paleontology was becoming better known to the public (the term “dinosaur” had been coined by Richard Owen in 1842), the Daedalus’s sea serpent sighting would receive an unprecedented amount of attention from the popular media.

Detail of an area of ocean from a coloured map of Scandinavia from 1539. The Faroe islands are shown to the right of the image and various labels in Latin are visible, while in the top left an enormous green sea monster is menacing a tiny ship with red and yellow sails. The sea monster has dark green spikes on its back and is open-mouthed, with water coming from two spouts on top of its head.

Detail from Marine map and Description of the Northern Lands and of their Marvels, most carefully drawn up at Venice in the year 1539 through the generous assistance of the Most Honourable Lord Hieronymo Quirino (link)

On October 10th, a short account of the sighting by the Daedalus first appeared in The Times, and was swiftly reprinted in a handful of other London newspapers, including the London Evening Standard, the Globe, and the St. James’s Chronicle. In the following weeks, the story would spread to at least 45 more newspapers around Britain and Ireland. The initial piece was shortly followed into print by a more detailed account of the incident from Captain McQuhae. According to his report to the Admiralty, the creature was decidedly snakelike, but with “something like the mane of a horse … washed about its back”; it had been seen not just by the captain but also by two officers and several other crew members, and it took no notice of the ship, never deviating in the slightest from its south-westerly course, “apparently on some determined purpose”. It passed so close by the Daedalus, reported Captain McQuhae, that “had it been a man of my acquaintance, I should have easily recognised his features with the naked eye”.

Black and white engraving of a sea monster and a ship at sea. The monster is standing out of the water to the left foreground and looks a bit like a seal, with vestigial fins. It's spouting water from its mouth. The ship on the right is in the background of the picture and appears to be heading away from the monster. It's three-masted and is flying a dark flag with a white cross on it.

Illustration from the Literary Gazette, October 1848 (link). Initially persuaded by the reports, the Literary Gazette provided a detailed account of the sighting in its October edition; later editions were more sceptical.

This eyewitness account, which (as the Times stated) was a faithful copy of Captain McQuhae’s official report to the Admiralty, provided authentication to the narrative, and other newspapers quickly followed the Times’s lead. Between the 14th of October and the 4th of November, at least 52 newspapers republished the report from the Times, often without changing the text of the article at all. The Illustrated London News produced a special feature on the sea serpent, with multiple engravings and quotes from well-respected natural historians. On November 14th, Richard Owen himself weighed in on the sea serpent question, arguing that the crew of the Daedalus had most likely spotted an elephant seal, a charge which Captain McQuhae indignantly rebutted in a letter to the editor of the Times, on November 21st. Both of these pieces were themselves recirculated by many media outlets; Owen’s letter was reprinted no less than 35 times, and McQuhae’s response to him appeared at least 15 times. Between these, and the substantial number of other eyewitness reports, letters to the editor both sceptical and supportive, and satirical pieces such as the Literary Gazette’s pun-filled poem “The Fate of the Sea Serpent Sealed” (below), the sea serpent sighting resulted in the publication of at least 275 items in the British and Irish newspapers.

“Copied into most of the papers”: the spread and debunking of fake sea-serpent news

So what makes the Daedalus sea monster sighting interesting, almost two hundred years later?

As it happens, my own interest in these events isn’t so much about the sighting itself, but the ways in which it was reported in the press. One of my current research projects involves looking at how nineteenth-century newspapers interacted with one another; I’m particularly interested in how they reprinted and responded to each other’s news articles. The case of the Daedalus sea serpent is a great case study for this project. It wasn’t a politically charged event, meaning that texts relating to the sighting were equally attractive to newspapers regardless of their political stance. It also resonated with contemporary debates in natural history: were dinosaurs truly extinct, or could some still walk (or swim) among us? Then, as now, a degree of controversy was a positive thing for news providers, which meant that the back-and-forth between the celebrity scientist and the respectable sea captain was a great way to keep the public buying papers.

What this meant is that once the initial reports of the sea monster were published in The Times, other newspapers began picking them up and reproducing them wholesale. For a modern researcher such as myself, with access to massive digital newspaper archives, it’s now possible to track the paths that these reprinted articles took as they filtered outward from their points of origin. By searching for the appearance of specific keywords, such as “Daedalus” and “serpent”, almost every piece that was ever published on the subject can be identified.

As the Daedalus news event shows, papers and magazines all over the British Isles relied heavily on one another for content and frequently reprinted each other’s articles. Sometimes it might suit them to cite their sources – adding a tag such as “From the Globe” or “Limerick Chronicle” might help lend an air of authenticity to an article, especially if it featured news from another country. However, they more often neglected to mention where their reprint copy had originated, sometimes even implying that the journalism was their own. In one rather sneaky example, the Weekly Chronicle reprinted a letter with the header “To the Editor” at the top, but neglected to mention that it had in fact been addressed to the editor of the Globe!

This pattern of reprints in this particular incident might seem to suggest that news travelled from the centre to the margins. In most of the cases I’ve identified, sea-monster-related news originated in London (often in The Times) and circulated around a number of London daily papers before fanning out to the provinces, slowly making its way to major news outlets in cities like Dublin, Liverpool, and Edinburgh, before finally appearing in far-flung weeklies such as the Nairnshire Mirror and the Downpatrick Recorder. However, one incident – the case of the “Mary Ann” hoax – demonstrates that the provincial papers could speak back to the metropolitan news in important ways.

An Excel graph showing a timeline from October 10th 1848 to November 11th of the same year, demonstrating the progress of each of four heavily-reprinted texts: the original short report from the Times in blue, the full report from McQuhae in orange, the "Mary Ann" hoax in grey, and the hoax retraction in yellow. The original data is linked in the caption.

Timeline of four key news texts relating to the Daedalus sea serpent sighting, between Oct 10th and Nov 11th 1848. Spikes in the number of articles coincide with Saturdays, which was the day of the week that many weekly papers were published. Dataset can be accessed here.

On the 21st of October, the London newspaper The Globe ran a letter to the editor which was attributed to one “James Henderson”, the master of a vessel called the Mary Ann which was currently berthed in Glasgow. Henderson claimed that his ship had recently been in contact with an American vessel, the Daphne, which had not only seen a sea serpent identical to that of the Daedalus, but had fired upon the monster and left it with injuries. This highly exciting report, seemingly confirming the existence of the monster, was reprinted no less than 36 times over the following fortnight. However, all was not as it seemed. On the 26th of October, the North British Mail, which was a daily paper printed in Glasgow, triumphantly published the following article:

“THE GREAT SEA SERPENT AGAIN. – A letter under this head signed “John Henderson, master, Broomielaw, Berth No. 4,” dated “Mary Ann, of Glasgow, October 19,” appeared in Friday’s Globe and was copied into most of the papers. It purported to be a confirmation of the story of the sea monster having been seen by the captain of her Majesty’s ship Daedalus between St. Helena and the Cape. That letter turns out, however, to be a hoax, as we suspected it to be when we read it, and therefore did not give it a place in our columns. Upon inquiry, we did find that there has been no such ship, with the master’s name as given at the Broomielaw since the month of August.”

North British Mail, October 26 1848

Several of the London papers in question hastily reprinted this retraction. In a pattern which suggests the possibility of allegiances and rivalries between the London dailies, two papers (the Sun and the Morning Post) declined to mention that the Globe had been the first to publish the false report, simply saying it had appeared in “several of the London papers”; by contrast, the Morning Herald called out the Globe specifically. Over the course of the following week, the retraction spread to several other papers around the country, in some cases requiring editiorial commentary on how the story had managed to get so far; the Leeds Times took pains to note that although the Henderson letter had been debunked, Captain McQuhae’s original report was still considered legitimate. Interestingly, all the reprints took care to give credit to the North British Mail as their source. Perhaps at this point in the news cycle, they felt that the story was on shaky footing and needed all the provenance it could get!

As is always, the way, the retraction didn’t get nearly as much of an audience as the hoax letter had: it was only reprinted eight times after its initial appearance. In the (often misquoted) words of Jonathan Swift, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”.

The fate of the sea serpent: sealed?

So what, in the end, did Captain McQuhae and his crew see that day out in the middle of the Indian Ocean?

While McQuhae was adamant that the creature he had seen was not an elephant seal, there were other mundane explanations available. Some contemporaries put forward a school of porpoises as another possible candidate. One modern commentator suggests that they may have seen a sei baleen whale occupied in surface skim feeding, with its head partially out of the water. Although he rejected Owen’s hypothesis, McQuhae himself was confident that the identity of his mystery beast would someday be revealed to science. As he said in his response to Richard Owen, “I leave [my reports] as data whereupon the learned and scientific may exercise the “pleasures of imagination” until some more fortunate opportunity shall occur of making a closer acquaintance with the “great unknown” – in the present instance most assuredly no ghost.”

Listen to a reading of McQuhae’s full report to the Admiralty, on Soundcloud.

Transcript of “The Fate of the Sea Monster Sealed”, from the Literary Gazette (December 1848)

Page from the Literary Gazette showing the poem "The Fate of the Sea Monster Sealed", in black and white newsprint. A transcript of the complete poem can be found at the end of this blog post.

A Sea Song.

Captain McQuhae,
Crossing the say,
Met a huge monster that blocked up his way,
And settled at once in his mind ’twas the very tar-
nation great sea snake the know in America. (?)

The captain looked grim,
As past it did swim,
With its noddle cocked stiff up and staring at him,
And as the great brute made its way through the water, his
Dimension were noted by young Mr. Sar-toris.

Before it did pass,
They fetched up a glass,
And carefully spied it to see what it was;
Then noting its wriggle and marking how well it went,
Judged it a Serpent and not a sea-elephant!

It hadn’t a fin,
But stuck on the skin,
At the back of its neck on a line with its chin,
Grew a great bunch of sea-weed, or mane of a pony, or
Something like either, but stiffer and bonier!

Sixty feet long!
Awfully strong!
It held its course straight on for right or for wrong,
And many a brave tar on board of the Daedalus,
Thought to himself if he comes here he’ll settle us.

The Lords in Whitehall,
Were met one and all,
When a letter arrived that their souls did appal,
How one of their captains (now wasn’t it bold of him?)
Sketched the Sea Serpent, but couldn’t get hold of him!

Its size and its hues,
All who might chuse,
May learn if they read the Illustrious News,
How the captain and crew, and his officers, all of ’em
Swore ’twas a Snake – though the wise men made small of ’em.

For Owen came down,
Slap on its crown,
And put an extinguisher on its renowen,
Determined the beast’s proper nature to ferret, he
Dissected its picture with awful severity.

That it wasn’t a whale –
And hadn’t a tail –
But stirred up an eddy, he said he’d go bail,
And as to the mane – why, that might just stop it on –
‘Twas only the story we read in Pontoppidan!

Nor was it a shark,
But bore every mark,
Of a mighty big sea-lion out on a lark –
A Phoca out cruising for stray cephalopoda,
And taking a sight at the ship ere he’d pop at her!

The wonder’s revealed,
The mystery peeled,
And the fate of the Sea Serpent finally sealed,
So our nautical friends would do well to look steadier,
Next time they stir up the P. proboscidea!

B. B.

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