J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement

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Illustration by William Small from the first publication of the story in The Cornhill Magazine, January 1884.

"J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" is an 1884 short story by Arthur Conan Doyle. It is in the form of a first-person testimony by a survivor of the Marie Celeste, a fictionalised version of the Mary Celeste, a ship found mysteriously abandoned and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872. Conan Doyle's story was published anonymously in the January 1884 issue of the respected Cornhill Magazine.

Influence[edit]

The story popularised the mystery of the Mary Celeste. Doyle drew heavily on the original incident, but some of the fictional elements that he introduced have come to replace the real events in the popular imagination. Doyle changes a number of details, including the names of the captain, crew, and passengers, and also the name of the vessel, from Mary Celeste to Marie Celeste.[1][2] In the story, the ship is in an almost perfect state when discovered (the Mary Celeste had been in heavy weather and was waterlogged) and the boats are still present (the Mary Celeste's one boat was actually missing).

The fictional story reached a much wider audience than the original story of the Mary Celeste, which has led to the widespread belief that Marie Celeste was the name of the real ship.[3] It is possible that the change to the ship's name was accidental, since Doyle does not change the name of the Dei Gratia, the ship that salvaged the Mary Celeste.[4]

Synopsis[edit]

Jephson is an American citizen who is a qualified doctor and well-known, fervent opponent of slavery. He explains that he was wounded while fighting for the Union during the American Civil War, and was nursed by an elderly black woman, who was aware of his abolitionist work. As a way of thanks, she gave him a small, carved, black stone. She said that the stone was a lucky charm that had been in her family for many generations, and that it would keep him from harm.

Some eleven years later, Jephson develops a lung complaint and is advised to take a sea voyage. In Boston he books a passage to Lisbon on a ship called Marie Celeste. There are seven crew and three passengers: Jephson; an accountant named Harton; and a man of mixed race named Septimius Goring. The captain's wife and child are also aboard.

The account then takes the form of Jephson's diary.

As the ship prepares to depart, two experienced crew members fail to appear, and the captain has to recruit two black sailors who happen to be on the quay. Jephson notes that the ship's cook is black and that Goring has a black servant.

Six days into the voyage, the captain's wife and baby disappear. The following day, the captain is found shot - suicide brought on by grief, Jephson supposes. There follows a series of unusual incidents, and Jephson and Harton become increasingly suspicious of Goring. Goring and the black sailors learn of Jephson's lucky charm, and take a great interest in it.

Eventually, the ship approaches land. Jephson, Harton, and Hyson (the stand-in captain) expect it to be the coast of Portugal, but soon realise that it is Africa. Hyson believes his navigational instruments have been tampered with, and the three decide to continue the voyage to Portugal the following day. During the night, Goring, Goring's servant, the cook, and the two black crewmen seize Jephson and tie him up. He sees that Harton has been killed. After Goring sends signals to the shore, a large canoe manned by black Africans approaches the ship. They climb aboard and overpower the remaining crew members.

There is then further discussion of the stone that Jephson is carrying, after which Goring tells Jephson that his life will be spared because the Africans believe the stone to have magical powers. While Jephson is taken ashore, the rest of the white crew are murdered and their bodies dumped into the sea. The ship - the Marie Celeste - is left to drift out to sea, where it is eventually discovered by the Dei Gratia.

Jephson is taken to a temple where the lucky charm proves to be an ear from a giant stone idol. This causes the Africans to worship Jephson as the bearer of the missing ear, and he is treated with reverence, although it is clear that he remains a prisoner. During the night he is visited by Goring, who explains the history and significance of the statue and the stone ear. He also tells Jephson that he has a hatred of the white race, and, in revenge for the ill-treatment of himself and his family by white slave owners, he carried out a series of murders of white people in the United States. He explains that on the Marie Celeste he killed the captain and the captain's wife and child, and tampered with the navigation instruments so that Hyson would unwittingly steer for Africa. Now he finds he cannot bear the presence of white people and intends to become the head of the tribe of Africans, whom he considers to have a purity he cannot find anywhere else. The passengers and crew of the Marie Celeste were to be his last victims, but the stone ear complicated matters.

Goring then announces that he has come to help Jephson escape. Jephson has become a rival for the tribe's devotion and stands in the way of Goring becoming the chief. Goring would like to kill Jephson, but that would antagonise the tribe. The safe alternative is to help Jephson escape and have the tribe believe that he has returned to heaven. The condition is that Jephson reveal Goring to be the black mass murderer who outwitted the white race for twenty years.

Goring provides a boat in which Jephson is pushed out to sea by the two black crewmen from the Marie Celeste. After a few days Jephson is picked up by a passing steamer and returns to his home and family.

Publication[edit]

The story was first printed anonymously in Cornhill Magazine in January 1884 under the title "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," illustrated by William Small. It has been reprinted a number of times. The Boston Herald reprinted it on 3 April 1885,[5] and it was anthologised in Dreamland and Ghostland (1887),[6] The Captain of the Polestar and Other Tales (1890)[7] and Tales of Pirates and Blue Water (1922).[8]

Reception[edit]

The story was first published anonymously, and one reviewer attributed it to Robert Louis Stevenson, while critics compared it to Edgar Allan Poe's work. Though fiction, it was presented as an eye-witness account of the end met by those on the mysterious "ghost ship". Some took the story as a true account, including the Boston Herald, which reprinted the tale, much to Doyle's astonishment.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ Jones, Thomas (17 February 2005). "Short Cuts". London Review of Books. 27 (4): 22. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  2. ^ Macdonald Hastings, Mary Celeste, (1971) ISBN 0-7181-1024-2[page needed]
  3. ^ "Mary Celeste". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  4. ^ Kent, Christobel. "The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  5. ^ Boston Herald (3 April 1885) "Strange Tale of the Sea. Remarkable Voyage of the Brig Marie Celeste. A Missing Crew and What Became of Them. A Mystery Explained After Many Years"
  6. ^ George Redway (1887) Dreamland and Ghostland vol. 2: Strange Stories of Coincidence and Ghostly Adventure
  7. ^ A collection of Doyle's short stories.
  8. ^ Another collection of Doyle's short stories, also called The Dealings of Captain Sharkey and Other Tales of Pirates.

Sources[edit]

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