Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A novel sea monster report. Or not...

This newspaper report was originally published on Saturday the 16th of October, 1725, in Farley's Bristol News. I have copied the report below:

"Bristol, the 16th. Last Wednesday morning, when the Fishermen went to take up their Nets at Fosset-Point, they found entangled in them, and dead, a Fish call'd a SEILE, or Sea Dog, being 4 Foot 4 Inches long, very fat, as big in Body as a Man; the Head much like a Calfe's without Ears, the snout like a Lion's, but the under Jaw and set of Teeth like a young Mastiff; his fore Legs short, but thick and strong as Lion's, having 5 Tallons on each Foot, shap'd like a Christian's Hand, it's hinder Legs are Finny, and the Feet like a Goose, with 4 strong Tallons in each, and near a Foot wide; the Tail like a Deer's Skut, and Fundament like a Dog-Bitch, being full of Young; with a Navel like a Christian's, and a Skin as fine as Velvet, full of mottled spots; above a Hundred Weight; the like hath hardly ever been taken in or near our channels. It was brought up to Town the same Morning, and ever since expos'd to publick view."

At this point, with a normal "sea-monster" report, you, dear reader, would be allowed to make up your own mind on what the animal was. This time, I am not giving you that luxury: the animal is blatantly a common/harbour seal Phoca vitulina.

Yes, I know, the report calls the animal a Seile, but still, that description is pretty blatant. Apart from the references to "thick and strong" forelegs, the calf head, the lack of reference to a "Finny", taloned forearm and the missing digits on the hind limbs, the description is clear.

But the report is still really interesting, even if no sea-monsters are described within. What, for instance, is up with the repeated references to Christians? Can you tell a Christian apart from other people by their hands or navels?

But really, if you try to imagine the animal as the article describes you do come up with something that does look like a seal, but a very strange one with well developed, strong human-like forearms.

It does go to show: its probably best not to look too deeply into old newspaper reports of sea-monsters. People do have a colossal tendency to "monsterify" even fairly mundane discoveries.

And as to how I found this article? Its long and complicated, but once again I have to thank the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery...