Thursday, August 9, 2012


I wonder if the souls of those who sailed the lonely seas a century or more ago now roam the ether wringing their hands and accosting people like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who drew his cross-bow and shot the albatross. They should.  If Euterpe's passengers and crew were anything to go by, they dealt to an eye-watering haul of marine life and aquatic birds including, sad to say, the magnificent albatross, in the name of sport.

On the voyage of 1879 my great uncle Alec started it.  He was fourteen, and sailing to New Zealand with his father, the almost legendary Captain Phillips. It is, for me, a mournful story as recorded in the ship's newspaper. It seems that Master Phillips tossed out a baited line, tempting an albatross to alight on the water and take a bite. The bait proved fatal to the bird for it had hardly got it into its mouth than it felt something was wrong, but all its efforts to regain freedom were fruitless.

After being drawn by the beak through the water the bird was finally hauled on board.  It made desperate efforts to bite its captors so the bill was taped shut for safety. The albatross measured ten feet across the wings from tip to tip and its "plumage was a beautiful white colour with slight tints of primrose". After being paraded for the excited passengers it was, of course, killed.

Alec's albatross was the first of many on that voyage, but the man responsible for catching most of them was Mr Harry Middleton, described as "our excellent bird-catcher". He dried the skins and made them into muffs, the feet were used for tobacco pouches, the wing bones apparently made first class pipe stems from 18 to 24 inches long, and even the skull was preserved and even (ugh) stuffed.  These trophies were auctioned off or given away, and the bodies were thrown overboard as being too tough to eat.

How could they? we now ask, with our greater knowledge, understanding and sensitivity. But in those days shooting, spearing and fishing for anything that appeared on the vast, empty, lonely ocean was a welcome distraction, and presumably no one thought about conservation, let alone compassion. The world was teeming with resources and a few birds and fish counted for nothing. But there were thousands of sailing ships, and hundreds of thousands of bored passengers looking for something to do. Now we have to save what's left.

If the ghost of my great uncle Alec should appear before me, like the ancient mariner, whingeing about not being able to sleep for guilt, I'd be tempted to sock him in the eye.

No comments:

Post a Comment