J is for the Modern Jonah

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 25 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.

Moby DickIn the latter years of the 19th century, the English whaling ship ‘Star of the East’ was operating around the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic when a whale was spotted.

The boats were launched and the whale harpooned, but its thrashing in the water capsized one of the boats and two men were lost, one of them a sailor called James Bartley.

The whale carcass was hauled onto the ship and work began to harvest the blubber. After two days they reached the creature’s stomach and were surprised to see that it contained something large and apparently alive. Cutting it open they found James Bartley unconscious and partly digested.

They washed him down with seawater and put him in the captain’s cabin where he recovered slowly over the course of several weeks.

This modern-day Jonah said he remembered flying through the air when the whale struck the boat with its tail and then suddenly being in darkness and slipping along a smooth passage of some sort before arriving in a larger area filled with slime. It was then that he realised he had been swallowed whole by the whale.

His memory was hazy, although he recalled that it had been very hot and there had been little air to breathe. He eventually lost consciousness and the next thing he knew he was having his saltwater soaking from the crew.

New York World 12th April 1896

New York World 1896

His story as the new Jonah spread. Parts of his skin was permanently bleached white by the gastric fluids, while others claimed that it took on a sort of blueish hue. Nevertheless, it was a truly remarkable tale – but was it true?

Certainly the popular journals of the day thought so as can be seen from the line drawing on the right, but in the 1980s Prof Edward B. Davis of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania set about uncovering the truth of the tale as part of his research into Biblical stories. His findings were summarised in the American Scientific Affiliation Journal in 1991.

In brief, Davis returned to the original reports and documentation and discovered that there had indeed been a ship called the ‘Star of the East’ but then the evidence began to fizzle out.

It had been reported that James Bartley’s injuries from whale’s gastric juices had been treated at a London hospital, but Davis could find no record to support this. Even worse, when he checked the records of the voyage, there was no mention of a James Bartley as one of the crew.

Most damning of all was a letter from the ship’s captain’s wife, published in The Expository Times, in which she said: ‘There is not one word of truth to the whale story. I was with my husband all the years he was in the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was with her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.’

So it seems that James Bartley is someone else who never was, but that has not stopped some people using his myth to support the Biblical truth of the story of Jonah and the Whale. But I think I’ll leave the last word to Abbott and Costello.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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