When it comes to ghost ships, there are legends and then there are true stories. The history of the Mary Celeste falls into the second category – the ship did exist. But in 1872 it was discovered adrift between the Azores and the coast of Portugal, with no sign of anyone on board. The reasons behind the crew’s disappearance remain a mystery to this day, with the legend still very much alive…

The classic definition of a ghost ship is a haunted or cursed vessel, sometimes the ghostly apparition of a missing boat. Legend has it that such a boat is doomed to sail the seas forever, keeping its sailors’ souls prisoner for good measure.

The most famous ghost ship is without doubt the Flying Dutchman. Its story has been told in several different ways over the years, inspiring literature, music, cinema* and more.

Along the same lines, the case of the Mary Celeste is not lacking in originality insofar that it arguably tops the hit parade when it comes to… real-life ghost ships. Indeed, this two-masted brigantine ship, 30 metres in length and 198 tonnes in weight, was built in Nova Scotia (Canada) in 1861. Originally christened Amazon, it had crossed both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean as well as navigating the Caribbean. After several changes in ownership and some renovation work, it became the Mary Celeste

On 7 November 1872 the ship left New York for Genoa (Italy) with a cargo of industrial-strength alcohol. Benjamin Briggs, a veteran sailor and the ship’s co-owner, was captain. In addition to a seven-strong crew of carefully selected and experienced sailors, Briggs’ wife and two-year-old daughter were also on board. Shortly after its departure, the Mary Celeste was followed by the Dei Gratia, under the command of Captain Morehouse and also en route to Europe. On 4 December, 650 kilometres east of the Azores, the Dei Gratia crew spotted a drifting ship that wasn’t responding to any of their signals: it turned out to be the Mary Celeste. They boarded the vessel, which was in seaworthy condition, but no one was there. The Mary Celeste’s only lifeboat was missing. The last entry in the ship’s log was dated 25 November, nine days prior. All the evidence seemed to suggest that the Mary Celeste had been hastily abandoned. But why? 

The Dei Gratia sailors brought the Mary Celeste into Gibraltar without any difficulty. The ensuing investigation into the causes of this mystery examined several theories, ranging from the highly plausible (but these were all overruled) to the most far-fetched. Had Briggs been killed by the mutinous Mary Celeste sailors (despite their impeccable service records)? Did those on-board Dei Gratia kill all the Mary Celeste crew members to be rewarded for bringing the ship into the right port? Either way, there were no visible signs of violence. Was it insurance fraud (the two captains knew each other well and could have reached an agreement)? Did a fire break out, creating a risk of explosion due to the alcohol on board (but the vessel neither set on fire nor exploded)? Was it a tornado? An undersea earthquake? An attack by a giant octopus, or even by aliens? What on earth could have prompted Captain Briggs to board a small lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with his wife, his daughter and his crew? 

In his 1884 in his new J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement, in the form of a testimony by a Mary Celestesurvivor, Arthur Conan Doyle gave both an apocryphal and fictive account of the drama, obviously with no other result than to stir the readership’s imagination. 

As no crew members of the Mary Celeste were ever found, either at sea or on land, it remains an enigma even now and probably for evermore. Besides, as every sailor knows: the sea never reveals its secrets.

*It appears that the ‘Flying Dutchman’ first appeared in Englishman George Barrington’s, ‘A Voyage to Botany-Bay’, which was published in 1795 and featured a rather short reference to the vessel. In 1843 ‘Der fliegende Holländer’ – known in English as ‘The Flying Dutchman’ – was Richard Wagner’s fourth opera, featuring the composer’s favourite themes: wandering, the arrival of an unknown character, sacrifice and redemption through love. And we can’t talk about the ‘Flying Dutchman’ without mentioning ‘Pandora’, Albert Lewis’ cinematic masterpiece (1951) with Ava Gardner and James Mason, a grandiose and surrealist retelling of the legend.

Text : Jacques Rivière