WITHOUT A TRACE: A Fresh Investigation of Eight Lost Ships and Their Fates by John Harris

WITHOUT A TRACE: A Fresh Investigation of Eight Lost Ships and Their Fates

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The ""fresh investigation"" promised by the subtitle seems to be mostly cogitation: no new evidence is offered as to what actually did happen to the eight famous phantoms whose stories are retold here. But the recaps are fine, and Harris' reasoning makes sense. Consider, then, the H.M.S. Terror (1847), sent into the Arctic on the urgings of the Royal Geographic Society to find the Northwest Passage. Of the 129 men on the venture, none returned. The ship and her sister H.M.S. Erebus were beset in ice and later abandoned, with 105 men attempting a subzero, blizzardy ice-crossing of 250 miles to safety--a march to oblivion. Nor were the ships found, though Eskimos later turned up with the captain's silverware. The greatest mystery of all was that of the brig Mary Celeste (1872), which left New York with ten aboard and was found under sail and abandoned in the Azores by the Dei Gratia. A skeleton crew sailed her to Gibraltar for a court of inquiry: she was well-officered, sound and provisioned, but seemingly senselessly abandoned. The court suspected murder and mutiny. Dozens of printed ""explanations"" were put forth over the years: a giant squid, epidemic, dematerialization over Atlantis, piracy, flying saucers. Probably, Harris thinks, the ship was abandoned--it was a floating bomb carrying over 1700 barrels of volatile alcohol--when it seemed about to explode after a flash fire of fumes in the galley. Remember the Maine (1898)? It blew up and sank in Havana harbor. A Spanish mine? More likely spontaneous combustion of soft coal in the bunker next to the ship's magazine. And more--all of them intriguing (if you haven't encountered them before).

Pub Date: June 1st, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum