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Mermaids Sighted from Early Submarine March 21, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Beachcombing promised a month ago a mermaid text from the Isle of Man that would amaze one and all. And what Beachcombing particularly likes about the following eighteenth-century description is the way that the we have not only mermaids but also a ‘submarine’, using the word very loosely, that makes an appearance a century before such vehicles had became part of the popular imagination.

There was about some forty or fifty years [1670s] since a project set on foot for searching for treasures in the sea; accordingly vessels were got ready, and machines made of glass, and cased with a thick tough leather, to let the person down, who was to dive for the (in my opinion, dearly purchased) wealth. One of these ships happening to sail near the Isle of Man, and having heard that great persons had formerly taken refuge there, imagined there could not be a more likely part of the ocean to afford the gain they were then in search of than this. They, therefore, let down the machine, and in it the person who had undertaken to go on this expedition; they let it down by a vast length of rope, but he still plucking it, which was the sign for those above to increase the quantity, they continued to do so, till they knew he must be descended an infinite number of fathoms. In fine, he gave the signal so long that at last, they found themselves out of cord, their whole stock being too little for the capacious inquisition.

This seems then not to be a submarine as such but a diving bell? Still are there many of these around in the seventeenth century? Are there any records of treasure seeking in the Irish Sea from this period? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

A very skilful mathematician being on board, said that he knew by the proportion of the line which was let down he must have descended from the surface of the waters more than twice the number of leagues that the moon is computed to be distant from the earth. But having, as I said no more cord, they were obliged to turn the wheel, which, by degrees, brought him up again; at their opening the machine, and taking him out, he appeared very much troubled that his journey had so soon been at a period, telling them, that could he have gone a little farther, he should have brought discoveries well worth the search. It is not to be supposed but everybody was impatient to be informed of what kind they were; and being all gathered about him on the main deck, as soon as he had recruited himself with a hearty swill of brandy, he began to relate in this manner.

Beachcombing notes a motif here typical of the ill returning from near-death experiences or visionaries from their hallucinations – a reluctance to muddy themselves with earthly things again. And yet there is the strangely ‘modern’ setting of the diving bell/submarine…

After said he, I had passed the region of fishes, I descended into a pure element, clear as the air in the serenest and most unclouded day, thro’ which, as I passed, I saw the bottom of the watery world, paved with coral, and a shining kind of pebbles, which glittered like the sun-beams reflected on a glass. I long’d to tread the delightful paths, and never felt more exquisite delight than when the machine, I was enclosed in, grazed upon it. On looking thro’ the little windows of my prison, I saw large streets and squares on every side, ornamented with huge pyramids of crystal, not inferior in brightness to the finest diamonds; and the most beautiful building, not of stone, nor brick, but of mother of pearl, and embossed in various figures with shells of all colours.

Here things get complicated for our author seems to be able to move the ‘diving bell’ that takes us to early seventeenth-century English attempts to row ‘boats’ underwater on the Thames. Still there is no explanation as to how our intrepid discoverer gets his hands out to snaffle the treasures.

The passage which led to one of these magnificent apartments being open, I endeavoured, with my whole strength, to move my enclosure towards it, which I did tho’ with great difficulty, and very slowly. At last, however, I got entrance into a very spacious room, in the midst of which stood a large amber table, with several chairs round of the same. The floor of it was composed of rough diamonds, topazes, emeralds, rubies, and pearls. Here I doubted not but to make my voyage as profitable as it was pleasant, for could I have brought with me but a few of these, they would have been of more value than all we could hope for in a thousand wrecks; but they were so closely wedg’d in, and so strongly cemented by time, that they were not to be unfastened. I saw several chains, carcanets, and rings, of all manner of precious stones, finely cut, and set after our manner; which I suppose had been the prize of the winds and waves; these were hanging loosely on the jasper walls by strings made of rushes, which I might easily have taken down, but as I had edged myself within half a foot reach of them, I was unfortunately drawn back, thro’ your want of line.

In my return I saw several comely mermen and beautiful mermaids, the inhabitants of this blissful realm, swiftly descending towards it; but they seemed frighted at my appearance, and glided at a distance from me, taking me, no doubt, for some monstrous and new-created species.

Here, said my [sourc e], he ended his account, but grew so melancholy, and so much enamour’d of those regions he had visited, that he quite lost all relish for earthly pleasures, till continual pipings deprived him of his life; having no hope of ever descending there again, all design of prosecuting the diving project being soon after laid aside.

Again a common fairyland motif, the unbearable melancholy of the man who returns to face the misery of the world as is.

Apart from the submarine/bell, which is truly an extraordinary addition, this tale could have appeared in an early Irish manuscript. It fits in well with the Gaelic preoccupation of the overlapping of different worlds. Irish heroes descend into lakes, while ships drift through our skies from which anchors descend to earth…

Our author, in any case, finishes off describing something that Beachcombing has noted before, the importance of belief in these other worlds to the early modern Manx.

With the same confidence the truth of these narratives were asserted, did I hear a sailor protest that it was a common thing when they were out at sea, and too far from shore for the voice of any thing on land to reach their ears, for them to hear the bleating of sheep, the barking of dogs, the howling of wolves, and the distinct cries of every beast the land affords. As nothing is got by contradicting a fictitious report unless you can disprove it by more convincing arguments than right reason can suggest, but ill words, and perhaps worse usage; I contented myself with laughing at them, within myself, and attempted not to lay before people, whom I found such enemies to good sense, any considerations, how improbable, if not impossible, it was that any body should give credit to what they said. I should however, have doubtless heard many other accounts of the like nature, if, by my saying little in answer to them, and a certain air of ridicule which they observed in my countenance, and which, in spite of my endeavours to the contrary, I was not able to refrain, they had not perceived that it was vain to attempt bringing me over to their side.