December 4 – The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

Posted on December 4, 2014


Was she the victim of storms?

Probably not; the weather was fine!

The victim of pirates?

Almost surely not...after all, the ship was in good repair, and the stores and cargo—even the belongings of ship and passengers, including the valuables!—were still on board. It was not typical pirate behavior to leave all the spoils behind!

Then what happened? Why was the British ship Mary Celeste discovered on this date in 1872, sailing toward Gibraltar at full sail with six months' worth of food and water on board but no trace of the eight crew members and two passengers?

An abandoned ship that has nobody on board, usually found damaged and drifting, is called a derelict. The Mary Celeste was the most mysterious derelict in the history of sea travel, because nobody knows why the crew and passengers abandoned her. Her crew were capable and experienced mariners...but none of the people on board the ship that long-ago time were ever seen again!

Here are some facts of the case:
  • The ship's cargo, 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol, was worth about $35,000, and the ship and her cargo were insured for $46,000.
  • The ship was flying no distress signal. A ship in distress, especially back then, often flew its flag upside down.
  • There was no sign of violence, piracy, mutiny, struggle, nothing! The possessions of crew and passengers were just where they were they were expected to be—not hidden, not strewn about.
  • The one lifeboat aboard the ship was, along with crew and passengers, missing. So they most likely abandoned ship – but, again, why? 
  • I keep saying “two passengers,” but lest you think that maybe these passengers are culprits of some sort, you should know that they were the wife and toddler of the ship's captain, and they often traveled with him. The captain and all the crew members had high reputations. It seemed to everyone who knew them very unlikely that they were up to any unsavory shenanigans.
  • Although the ship was not sinking and was still seaworthy (and, indeed, later continued on to its destination in Italy, and sailed for more than a decade after this abandonment), there were signs of some sort of problem: 

    1. the ship was a “wet mess,” with water between decks and in the hold;
    2. two of the pumps had been disassembled (one was still operational);
    3. the ship's clock wasn't working;
    4. the ship's compass had been destroyed;
    5. navigational tools (the sextant and marine chronometer) were missing;
    6. a peak halyard was missing, and a rope (maybe the peak halyard) was found tied to the ship, with the other end trailing in the water and badly frayed;
    7. the captain's logbook was still there but gave no hint as to what disaster befell the ship and crew; however, all the other ship's papers were missing.
  • Once the ship finally made it to its original destination, and the cargo was unloaded, it was discovered that nine of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol were empty.

All of these details would seem to give people a very good idea of what happened to the people aboard the Mary Celeste. It seems to me that the charts (maps) and navigation tools were missing because the captain intended to navigate to safety in the lifeboat. And maybe the need to get off the ship was something to do with all the water and the broken pump, or maybe the missing alcohol. Some people have speculated that there was a water spout (a tornado whipped up from sea water), or that the crew was in danger of being overwhelmed by alcohol fumes. Another hypothesis is that there was a seaquake. 

But apparently no hypothesis (educated guess) takes into consideration all the facts known, so the dereliction of the Mary Celeste remains the biggest maritime mystery of all time!


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