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Phantom Ship

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 4, Summer 2007
pp. 793-799 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Anyone who knows any good sea stories knows this one. On 4 December 1872, a one-hundred-foot brigantine was found drifting in the North Atlantic, some distance from the Azores, completely deserted by officers and crew. The boarding party of the ship that spotted it, the Deo Gratia, observed that it seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry—the sailors, for one thing, had left their pipes behind, something unimaginable except in an emergency—and that a lifeboat was missing. Despite these signs of panicked evacuation, there was no evidence of foul play, and the ship itself was thoroughly seaworthy. The log, up to its last entry, showed nothing out of the ordinary. Its name was the Mary Celeste, bound from New York to Genoa with a cargo of alcohol. None of the ten persons who embarked on the trip was ever heard from again. After a dutiful, futile search for survivors, the captain of the Deo Gratia, hoping to claim salvage money from Her Majesty’s government, had the ship towed into Gibraltar.

This is where Ulysses comes in. Thanks largely to the fevered suspicions of the Queen’s Proctor, Frederick Solly Flood, in effect the prosecuting attorney, the 1873 inquest before the Gibraltar Admiralty Court became a sensation. Wild accusations were advanced, chief among them that the Deo Gratia party had either murdered the Mary Celeste’s passengers or that the captains of the two ships had concocted an insurance fraud and bumped off inconvenient supernumeraries. Some speculated that the crew had broken into the alcohol (in reality, probably impotable), become maddened with drink, killed the officers, and then abandoned ship. The papers, at home and abroad, were full of such talk. It is not surprising, therefore, that Molly Bloom, living in Gibraltar at the time, should have heard of the Mary Celeste or that thirty-one years later, in Dublin, she should still remember it as “that derelict ship that came up to the harbour Marie the Marie whatyoucallit” (U 18.871–72).

Not surprising, that is, except that Molly was two years old at the time of the discovery and inquest. Do we have here a Ulysses anomaly? Did Homer nod? Not, I think, this time. It is possible, though, that he fudged some. After all, this is a very good story—routinely cited as the greatest mystery of the sea—and Joyce had an eye for good stories. He would have wanted to get it into his book some-how—along with the stories of Mulcahy from Coombe, of the nun who invented barbed wire, of the woman who hid in a clock to spy on the Masons, of the Hapsburg who used to eat the scruff of his own head, of William Shakespeare’s line about how William the Conqueror came before Richard the Third, of how Jesus was really begotten by a Roman centurion named Panthera, of how Edward VII once used an oyster knife to remove a mistress’s chastity belt, and so on—and the Gibraltar connection probably made it irresistible. It is conceivable that he was willing to overlook the discrepancy of dates if that is what it took.

Conceivable, but not, perhaps, necessary. Note that Molly does not quite say that she remembers setting eyes on the ship, only that she has heard of it. Given the éclat and its aftermath, that might have occurred well after the incident itself. In fact, one detail of her memory makes it likely that it comes not from the period of the ship’s arrival, when she was an infant, but from what, when she was in her early teens, had become the ship’s place in folklore. By the time Molly turned thirteen, the Mary Celeste had become a full-blown yarn, what today would be called an urban legend. It was said that it was cursed, that all its voyages before and since had ended in disaster (not far from the truth, actually), that those aboard had been dragged into the sea and devoured by a sea monster or giant squid, that their end came so suddenly that the boarding party had found dinner laid out in the...



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