Monday, December 29, 2014

The shark and the prayer book

On a breezy Tuesday in May 1792, the ship Gorgon was somewhere near the equator. It had recently rounded the Cape of Good Hope, en route from the Norfolk Island penal settlement, home to England. On board, Lieutenant Ralph Clark, a veteran of the first fleet and perhaps its most candid diarist, joined other crew members to examine the results of the morning’s fishing.

Two sharks lay on the deck, their bellies cut open. Clark doesn’t say who reached a hand in, but incredibly, from one fish, they pulled ‘a Prayer Book, Quite fresh, not a leaf of it defaced.’ Turning the find over, they saw the book had been inscribed with the name of a convict, ‘Francis Carthy, cast for death in the Year 1786 and Repreaved the Same day at four oClock in the afternoon.’

Like Jonah, Carthy’s Prayer Book had somehow been committed to the deep and swallowed whole by a great fish of the sea. There are a few possibilities for precisely how that came about. Clark did didn't know it, but Carthy had been convicted of highweay robbery and transported on the Scarborough five years previously. He made it as far as the Cape, where his name appears in victualling lists. But there’s no mention of him after that, no record of him reaching Sydney. Carthy went missing, presumably overboard, lost at sea. So: Did he go down clutching a prayer book, which the shark later found and swallowed?? Or did the volume somehow come into someone else's possession in the colony, and get carried back that way more recently???]

On actually finding the book, Clark's assumption was that some godless prisoner must have tossed it, quite recently, into the sea.  ‘As the book Seemed Quite fresh,' he surmised, 'Some Ship must be near us now going out to Botany Bay.’ When it comes to religious indifference in Australia, it has always been easy to blame the convicts!

The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark 1787-1792 (Sydney, Australian Documents Library in Association with The Library of Australian History, 1981) entry for Tuesday 1 May 1792
Stephen Gapps, ‘A strange history of shark stomachs’, Signals (Magazine of the Australian Maritime Museum) no.93 (Dec 2010) pp.5-6

No comments: