The enigma of the Mary Celeste, the cursed ship brought to Gibraltar (II) Interviews with: Richard García Gibraltar Archives | Author José Antonio Ortega. Read Part I here
The Gibraltar court hearings in 1872 failed to uncover why the Mary Celeste’s crew disappeared. The mystery lingers to this day…
No one has yet been able to unravel the mystery surrounding the Mary Celeste, the American brig found abandoned in 1872 near the Azores. Nothing is known about what happened to its 11 crew members, led by Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, who included his wife and two-year-old daughter.
Reach-Alcance wanted to investigate this intriguing mystery further and spoke to Gibraltarian historian Richard García. It will be recalled that the ship was taken to Gibraltar, after being found adrift and unmanned, by another vessel called the Dei Gratia. It was discovered in perfect condition, and the crew members’ belongings were found intact. It was a veritable ghost ship…
The Mary Celeste’s passenger book which Richard García showed to Reach, can be found in perfect condition at the Gibraltar National Archives.
This historian, who acknowledges that it remains unclear as to what may have happened, explains that the Mary Celeste was brought to the Rock for its salvage case to be determined by the Gibraltar Court of Admiralty, which would conduct the salvage proceedings of the investigation and make the necessary awards of the ship and its cargo.
“The captain of the Dei Gratia had found it, and both the ship and its cargo – 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol – were of great value, even though it was a sailboat and, therefore, its technology was somewhat obsolete. In fact, the first steamship to arrive in Gibraltar had done so in 1823.”
The Gibraltar hearings began on December 17, 1872 and lasted until March of the following year. Edward Joseph Baumgartner was the Registrar of the Admiralty court and Frederick Solly Flood was the Attorney General for Gibraltar. Both have memorial plaques in Gibraltar’s Anglican Cathedral. The judge was James Cochrane and the lawyer representing the Dei Gratia, Henry Peter Pisani, one of the most famous Gibraltarian barristers of the 19th century.
Solly Flood ordered an inspection of the Mary Celeste which was carried out by shipping inspector John Austin and diver Ricardo Portunato.
“Solly Flood was convinced that there had been a crime aboard the Mary Celeste. He was looking for criminality to explain what had happened. A sabre slash was discovered on the deck as well as what Solly Flood claimed were traces of blood, although this turned out to be untrue. However, he left no record of that finding,” García explains.
A variety of scenarios were investigated, such as sabotage to collect insurance and even a natural disaster. Nevertheless, the court case ended without any clear determination of what had happened.
Garcia thinks that the captain and the crew abandoning ship may have been down to an explosion of gas emanating from the alcohol barrels, but acknowledges that, to this day, what happened remains unknown.
“In bad weather, the holds needed to be sealed and that type of cargo has to be aerated. But there were storms and maybe that’s why they were closed. One of the hypotheses is that there was a gas explosion and the captain thought that the ship was in danger, when in fact it was not,” he says.
What he is convinced of is that there was a “thorough” investigation in Gibraltar, “but the hearings did not come to a conclusion as to why the crew left the Mary Celeste.”
He believes that the brig was in “relatively good condition” when it was brought to Gibraltar. The judge, who was not completely convinced, awarded the minimum amount for the salvage to the captain and crew of the Dei Gratia. “The value of the ship was $5,700 and the cargo was valued at $36,943, but the judge only awarded them the sixth part, £1,700,” García tells us.
Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar
Gibraltarian historian and writer Dr Sam Benady wrote a book on the Mary Celeste, which was published in 1990 by Gibraltar Books, in England. He entitled it “Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar. The real solution to the mystery of the Mary Celeste”, in which he imagined the famous detective investigating this case. Pure fiction, according to Richard García.
Journalist and Author, José Antonio Ortega
Los Barrios-born journalist and author José Antonio Ortega became hooked on the story of the Mary Celeste when he first read about it in a newspaper in 2006, and decided to write a story that ended up becoming “El reino de las sirenas” (“The mermaid kingdom”), a novel recreation published in 2011, after years of arduous research.
“I began to investigate this, and I became more and more interested in the story. I bought an American bibliography in English on this subject. It was a lot of hard work”, he explains.
The more he discovered about the mystery, the more his enthusiasm grew. “It even ended up costing me money because I had to access websites and newspaper library articles and archives. Although my book is a novel, I wanted to have as much information as possible which I could then used.”
His passion for the history of the Mary Celeste even saw him travelling to the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, the easternmost island of this archipelago near to which the abandoned ship was discovered by the Dei Gratia.
“El reino de las sirenas” follows a fictitious character who is the son of Captain Briggs who, as a shipwreck survivor, stays on the island of Santa María. The novel is narrated through two timelines: what this character writes on the island and what another fictitious character, a descendant of his and journalist, narrates as part of his investigation into the mystery.
In this novel, he also introduces some hypotheses as to the disappearance of the crew, although he leaves the mystery open.
His own personal view is that the most reasonable explanation is that there was an explosion due to a gas leak in the hold. The captain and the crew, frightened, boarded a boat that they tied to the ship until the danger passed.
Such is his obsession over this story that José Antonio Ortega is already thinking of writing a sequel or a prequel to “El reino de las sirenas”. We’ll need to keep an eye on it.