After the stellar and promising start of the new series “One Hundred Years Ago …”, I am now under pressure to deliver a funny story every month. The problem: History is not always funny.
The whole month, I’ve been pondering whether (a) to use the Paris Conference on reparations to be paid by Germany to address the myth of the stab-in-the-back legend as well as of Germany’s financial overstretch by the Versailles Treaties, or (b) to use the Leipzig Trials to recall German war crimes in World War I and draw a connection to the Nuremberg Trials.
I find both very fascinating, but I am probably alone in this. So I choose (c) cats.
A hundred years ago, people were still environmentally conscious, which is why hardy anyone traveled by plane (and if they did, it was for dubious purposes). Railroads, long walks to Italy and ships were popular alternatives.
The latter is what we are going to talk about today.
About a particular five-masted gaff schooner, as we sailors call it. A sailing ship, that is. A wonderfully elegant sailing ship, made entirely of wood, but used to transport coal. It was the Carroll A. Deering, named after the daughter of the shipowner.
Since 1919, the ship sailed back and forth between its home port in Virginia, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Spain, which was more dangerous than it sounds. Because this is exactly the spot marked by the Bermuda warning triangle, which was supposed to be avoided at all costs.
But costs are what shipowners hate, and thus, the captain was ordered to sail right through.
On 9 January 1921, the ship left the Caribbean island of Barbados, after the captain had bailed out his first officer from prison.
The destination of the voyage was Virginia, although I’m not sure whether it was on a direct course or a rum-induced lurching course. Because the first sighting of the Carroll A. Deering off the US coast was not until 29 January 1921, when our sailing vessel passed a lightship off the coast of North Carolina and made contact by megaphone.
Oh yes, a lightship is something like a floating lighthouse that is firmly anchored and ideally marked on nautical charts. Please don’t ask “what for?”, you landlubbers. Or read the book by Siegfried Lenz.
So a crewmember from the Carroll A. Deering called over to the lightship, informing it that they had lost their anchors in the storm and asking it to convey the message to the shipping company by telegraph. In his log, the lightship captain noted with astonishment that the call was not made by the captain, nor by the first officer, but by an ordinary sailor. He also noted that he could not spot any of the officers on board.
Mysterious. But the Carroll A. Deering was already sailing on again, heading for Cape Hatteras.
There, she was next sighted on 31 January 1921. Now, not only the captain and the officers were invisible, but the entire crew had turned into ghosts. The Carroll A. Deering had run aground on a sandbar. The sails were set, the lifeboats were gone.
Because of a raging and roaring storm, it took four days for the brave men and women from the Coast Guard, who were probably only men at the time, to finally board the Carroll A. Deering.
They encountered nobody. Not a human soul. No message left behind. No log book.
Only a cat.
The Coast Guard searched the waters for another month and a half, but found no trace of the rescue boats or crew. No one ever saw them again. No one ever heard from them again.
There were many theories:
- Mutiny, not least because the lightship had not seen an officer aboard the Carroll A. Deering.
- Alcohol smuggling, because Prohibition had been in effect in the US for a year, and the ship came from the Caribbean (rum, mojito, daiquiri). But then why would no one from the crew ever be seen again?
- Abandoning ship because of the storm. But why would anyone do that? There was much less chance of survival in the small lifeboats. The ship itself was not destroyed.
- Maybe a pirate attack. But there were no traces of a fight.
- The wildest theory: The ship had been captured by Communists who wanted to take it to Russia. In fact, a search of the United Russian Workers Party headquarters in New York unveiled such plans. In 1920, German Communist Franz Jung had hijacked a steamer to sail to Murmansk to pay Lenin a visit, which, had this series begun a bit earlier, would surely have been honored in a separate episode.
The cat, the only one to know the truth, kept suspiciously silent.
“What is a cat doing on a ship?” you are wondering, and now the educational part begins:
Until very recent times, cats on ships were not only nothing unusual, but mandatory. Especially on merchant ships, but also warships hardly dared to sail without a cat. And thus, cats came to America with Columbus.
The legal sources date back to the Middle Ages: The Rôles d’Oléron, a 13th century French maritime code. The Black Book of the Admiralty from the 14th century. The 15th century Code of the Consulate of Valencia. They all stipulate that the shipowner is liable for damages if the ship fails to carry a cat and goods on board are damaged by rats as a result. If the cat dies en route, a new cat must be taken on board at the next port.
According to a Scottish law from the 13th century, a stranded ship remained the property of the shipowner as long as there was still a man, a dog or a cat alive on it. The cat thus prevented the ship from becoming an ownerless shipwreck that any beach walker could pocket.
From the time of mercantilism onwards, France insisted in all trade treaties that every ship must carry at least two cats. Otherwise, the vessel was not considered fit for sea.
It was not until 1975 that the Royal Navy banned ship cats from its warships, and it is probably no coincidence that this marked the final end of the British Empire. Just think of the Seychelles, Solomon Islands and Gilbert and Ellice Islands.
From ocean-going cats, I could now move on to the development of maritime law, submarine warfare, the Titanic or the Battle of Jutland.
But I return to the Bermuda Triangle.
Not only do ships disappear there, but so do plenty of airplanes. (That’s why most US citizens don’t fly directly to Cuba, but first to Mexico and then approach the Caribbean island from the west, to avoid the Bermuda Triangle.)
Because this series could also be called “How to get from one issue to another hundred topics” instead of “A Hundred Years Ago …”, the planes disappearing in the Sargasso Sea remind me of planes disappearing in Germany at the time covered in this series. Without the Bermuda Triangle, but in an equally mysterious way.
But I will keep this short and only reproduce a newspaper article from Freiheit, a left-wing Berlin daily newspaper from 29 December 1920:
Under the heading “The Mysterious Planes” it says:
The Reich Ministry of Transport appeals to the public to turn in the airplanes that are still being kept hidden among the population. Since the working class does not have barns, forests, sheds and similar places of storage, there is hardly any point in asking them to hand over the hidden planes. So where are the hiding places? Well, in the enclosures of the large agrarians in the countryside, and it is strange that it is always the Entente missions that uncover such hiding places, causing utmost inconvenience to the German government.
Just the other day, as the Reich Ministry of Transport has to admit, another batch of planes, which had been kept hidden, was flown to Poland. The government has the obligation to pose as harmlessly as if it considered these shenanigans with airplanes to be merely black-market maneuvers and financial speculation. In truth, of course, these planes fill the arms depots of Orgesch and its related organizations, which move their stockpiles of weapons around to keep them out of the sight of the Entente mission.
That would give rise to at least three further topics:
- The fight of right-wing forces against the republic did not begin in 1933, nor in 1923 with the Hitler putsch, but on the day the republic was founded. Perhaps that is why we should take a closer look at the constant revelations of right-wing extremist networks in the contemporary German military and police. In the past, airplanes disappeared, today weapons, explosives and ammunition disappear.
- You probably wondered why German planes were flown to Poland. Well, it’s a bit like Fiume: Neither the armistice nor the peace treaties really brought World War I to an end. War was still raging on all fronts in Poland, and the planes from Germany were probably used to support the Germans in Upper Silesia. Everything quite unofficially, of course.
- Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was prohibited from building an air force. What did the German military do? Well, of course, it secretly built up an air force. And it did so at the secret fighter pilot school and testing facility in – you’ll never guess – Lipetsk. That was in the Soviet Union. The intensive German-Soviet cooperation (there was also a joint secret tank school in Kazan) lasted until 1933. The foundations for the Hitler-Stalin Pact had been laid.
Each of these complexes deserves its own article. But for today, that was enough history, I think. So now I’ll disappear into my Bermuda Triangle and leave you to guess where in the world we will reappear in February 1921.
If someone is interested in deepening the topics only touched upon: No problem. With a little support for this blog, I could work on more topics per month. In return, you will get the perfect papers for your history class.
- All articles of the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”.
- More history.
- The message in a bottle, which I dispatched from the Azores, seems to have gotten lost in the Bermuda Triangle, too, because I still haven’t received any reply.
- With all this Bermuda Triangle stuff, maybe it’s safer not to have any sea, like Bolivia.
- If you do not want to leave your ship, your house and your cat alone during a long absence, you need not worry: I am available as a house and cat sitter!