Sunday, March 21, 2010
One day in 1850, fishermen saw a large sailing ship cutting through a rough sea, heading for the reefs off Easton's Beach near Newport, Rode Island. The men on the beach shouted and waved in warning. The ship swung around, navigated the narrow channel, and beached itself.
Although she had apparently been under manned control when she had turned into the channel, and no one had been observed leaving the vessel, when the fishermen boarded her, they found her deserted, except for a dog. Coffee was boiling on the stove, breakfast sitting on the table, and tobacco odor hanging around the cabin.
She was the Seabird, due back home in Newport from Honduras with a cargo of lumber and coffee. Her captain was one John Durham or Huxham.
The last entry in her log was about sighting Brenton Reef several miles offshore. The crew of a fishing boat reported that they had exchanged signals with the Seabird at sea, about two hours before the incident.
It is not clear whether a lifeboat was missing. The crew of the Seabird may have jumped overboard when they thought their ship was going to hit the reef and been drowned, but what strange guidance had then steered her into the channel? If human agency had guided her, how could the crew vanish unobserved after she had attracted everyone's attention through her near miss at the reefs? In any event, no bodies where ever found.
The Seabird was wedged too deeply into the sand to be floated off. When a storm hit the area, folks expected to find her shattered to pieces in the morning.
Yet, when the storm had blown over, no trace of her was to be found on the beach. She had once more negotiated the channel on her own and vanished out to sea as mysteriously as she had appeared from there, never to be seen again. (Gaddis, Invisible Horizons, pp. 131.)
According to Group, the captain's sleeping gown was found lying in a companionway, but the longboat and logbook were missing. Consequently, there cannot have been an entry on sighting Brenton Reef, and thus there is no evidence that there was any human left on board the Seabird (or Sea Bird) at that point.
There had been a storm in the morning, but fishermen had allegedly communicated with the captain afterwards. No traces of violence were found aboard. (Group, pp. 21.)
Group cites C. P. Beauchamp Jefferys, who found that a detailed report was not written down before seventy or eighty years after the alleged fact, and then by an uneducated man who had been a child at the time the story is set. As can be expected, the details are very uncertain: The year was not 1850, but rather 1750, or might have been 1749 or 1760. The name of the captain might be Huxham, Maxham, Hayden, Buffin, or Durham.
Jefferys' solution is a mutiny against a tyrannical captain. Two crewmen, who had been unjustly imprisoned and were to be murdered by the captain and his cronies, escaped from the brig of the brig, killed off the others one after another as they woke up, deep-sixed the bodies, and made off with the longboat. That's what one of the mutineers allegedly told Captain Henry Robinson of the Soldan.
But how could the derelict Seabird then swerve to clear the reef and navigate right into the channel, of all places? Were the winds and currents just right?
If we don't have a mystery about a supernaturally vanishing crew here, then we have a mystery about a ship with a mind of her own, right? But did that part ever happen, or is that just sailor's yarn grafted onto the story during the decades and decades of oral tradition?
I rate this one a minor mystery. It may be worthwhile to look into it to see if more evidence can be unearthed as to whether the solution is correct and whether the story ever happened at all. It is, however, not such a high quality mystery as, like, the Carroll A. Deering, where we at least have photos and credible witnesses so we can be sure that the ship existed in the first place and that the incident happened at all.
Much like the Columbus case, this one's a tossup. What little evidence there is can be selectively dismissed to arrive at any number of theories.
If you accept the laws of identity and causality implied by any everyday observation (things are what they are and behave according to predictable laws of nature), you'll be looking for a naturalistic explanation like the one outlined by what little evidence there is. If you prefer to believe in a mysterious, unknowable, awe-inspiring universe, you'll conclude that zombie ghouls from Mars beamed the crew up to the mothership for dinner. (They don't seem to fancy dog, though.)