The Mary Celeste - Fact Not Fiction

The true story

Oliver Deveau the Chief Mate of the 'Dei Gratia' was in charge of the boarding party. He found one pump out of order, and only used the other on his way to Gibraltar. He found the fore hatch off and also the lazarett hatch off with a great deal of water between decks. The clock and compass were spoilt and destroyed respectively. The Court record states that he found no beer or spirits in the ship, and the cargo had not shifted.

The Chronometer, the sextant navigation book and the ship's register and papers were also missing. There was not a log line ready for use.

Let us at this point forget about steaming mugs of tea, ships cats, everything in supposed pristine condition. Certainly there were no half eaten breakfasts, and no phial of oil balanced on the sewing machine. The vessel was observed out of control for two hours before she was boarded, and had experienced storms and heavy seas in the days prior to her discovery.

The court record states "The Galley was in a bad state, the stove was knocked out of its place, and the cooking utensils were strewn around. The whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess. The Captains bed was not fit to sleep in and had to be dried."

Now we come to a crucial bit, Charles Lurd, crew member states; "We found no boats on board", he could not state how many there should have been he felt sure there had been a boat at the main hatch from the fixing there.

There is much speculation in the fictional accounts about a sword with blood stains, pointing to violence, however in the court record the Mate Oliver Deveau states he did not see any blood anywhere. Although he saw the sword it was in its sheath and was rusty. He gave it little significance. The popular mystery has blood marks and a bloody sword, with the evidence of the inquiry sealed. What it really says is that the sword had been cleaned with lemon, and the result was iron citrate, not dried blood. No need for DNA testing, Dr Patron and the science of the day was sufficient.

The only dry clothes found were dry because they were in a watertight seaman's chest. Everything else was wet. There is a mystery of the clock face being upside down, but not because of any 'time warp' the Mate had removed it to clean it and put it back wrongly.

In his conclusion the Judge praises the crew of the 'Dei Gratia' for their great courage in view of the risk to both vessels in dividing the crew, and their great skill shown in bringing both vessels safely to Gibraltar.

So where does that leave us? There is easy explanation, for some reason the Captain and crew panicked and took to the ships boat. This could have been due to a mistake in sounding the pump and thinking she was sinking, or bearing in mind the nature of the cargo, there may have been an small explosion or rumbling in the cargo. We do know that when the cargo was finally unloaded in Genoa nine barrels were found to be empty.

We can safely assume there was a boat, lets say Briggs ordered his men to abandon ship and snatched up his navigational instruments. In great haste they all left. It may be significant that the main halyard, a stout rope 3 inches in circumference, was found later broken and hanging over the side.

This is detailed in the cross examination of Augustus Anderson in the Admiralty inquiry where he states "there were ropes hanging over the side". If they were trailing behind the ship, waiting to see if she exploded, perhaps suddenly, the wind took off snapped the rope, maybe sinking the small boat at the same time. Even if it did not, it would have been difficult to keep afloat in a small boat in bad weather.

The records of the Servico Metrologico in the Azores says that the weather deteriorated that morning and a storm blew up involving gale force winds and torrential rain. The Captain of the 'Dei Gratia' says in his sworn record that the weather had been blowing very hard for seven or eight days previous and had only moderated in the morning of the 4th.

So that left the poor people from the 'Mary Celeste' crowded into a tiny boat at the mercy of the Atlantic, in heavy seas. Perhaps the same violent rains quietened down the cargo and the final story is that Captain Briggs got it wrong and paid the ultimate price along with his wife, child and crew.

Another theory was that there was a mutiny, however, this was a very short voyage, with a small crew, a fair and experienced Captain and first officer. It seems unlikely that this was the cause.

The poor 'Mary Celeste' did not enjoy a good fate either, she became regarded as a ship seamen, and owners wished to avoid. She changed hands frequently. Twelve years later she sailed from Boston with a mixed cargo and was wrecked off the coast of Haiti apparently by her subsequent owners to cash in on her insurance.

However her history is probably typical of ships, she started life as the 'Amazon' and arrived practically a wreck in New York in 1868. She was sold in a public auction for $10,000 and arrested in Boston. From Boston she sailed to New York and was re-fitted at a total cost of $11,500 before she sailed into her fate in the history books.

To put the whole thing in perspective, when the court in Gibraltar had settled this matter (they were more concerned in ownership of the Vessel and the cargo, rather than solving any mystery) their next case was the forgotten derelict Vessel 'The Latin'.

Neither was the 'Mary Celeste' the only vessel found abandoned, in April 1849 the Dutch Schooner 'Hermania' was found dismasted but otherwise sound, with the Captain, his wife, child and crew missing, and in February 1855 the 'Marathon' was found in perfect order abandoned.

Now read about Captain Briggs

Introduction  .   The true story  .   Court Inquiry  .   Captain Briggs  .   Conclusion