“On this day in 1872, at around one o’ clock in the afternoon, the American merchant ship the Mary Celeste was discovered drifting off the coast of Portugal, cargo intact and sails set, but unmanned and abandoned, her crew never to be seen again. It was to be the greatest maritime mystery of all time.
Captained by accomplished sailor Benjamin Briggs, the Mary Celeste set sail from Staten Island, New York on 7 November 1872, bound for Genoa, Italy. The 31-metre brigantine carried a cargo of 1701 barrels of alcohol, worth approximately US$35,000, for fortifying wine. A crew of seven able seamen supported Captain Briggs on board, along with Briggs’s wife and two-year-old daughter. In a letter written to his mother before setting sail, Briggs expressed enthusiasm about the impending journey: “”We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage.”” That would be the last his mother heard from Briggs.
Briggs’s friend, David Morehouse, was also captaining a brigantine merchant ship, the Dei Gratia, on a similar course as the Mary Celeste, across the Atlantic, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and into the Mediterranean. About a month into the journey, some 600 miles west of Portugal, a helmsman aboard the Dei Gratia sighted a ship about five miles off the Dei Gratia’s port bow. At once, he noticed something strange about the vessel. Her sails were slack and the ship was yawning. She appeared seaworthy but no one seemed to be commanding the ship. Upon gazing through a spyglass, Captain Morehouse recognised the ship as the Mary Celeste, captained by his friend Briggs, with whom he had dined just before setting sail. Morehouse was puzzled: Briggs was an experienced captain and had set sail before the Dei Gratia, so he should have reached Genoa. After cautiously observing the vessel for two hours, Morehouse sent a boarding party to the Celeste.
On board, the party discovered a metre of water in the bilge and “”a thoroughly wet mess”” everywhere. Only one pump was operational, but the ship was still seaworthy. All the ship’s papers were missing except the captain’s logbook. There was six month’s of food aboard, and the cargo and the crews’ personal possessions were intact. One lifeboat appeared to be missing. There was no sign of struggle, theft, or violence, but the vessel seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry.
An investigation was conducted to determine what happened to the Mary Celeste, but it bore no answers. Ever since, maritime observers have put forth a number of theories, from piracy and seaquakes to a waterspout or mutiny. The most plausible explanation posits that several of the barrels of alcohol began emitting strong fumes. When Briggs ordered the hold to be opened, the fumes rushed out, panicking Briggs and his crew. They rushed into a lifeboat, but, failing to tie it securely to the ship, were blown away from the ship by a strong wind.
Despite many hypotheses explaining the crew’s fate, to this day, the story of the Mary Celeste remains a mystery.”
Credit: © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy
Caption: In Abel Fosdyk’s account of events, the crew of “Mary Celeste” falls overboard when a specially built deck collapsed.