30 April 2016

White Sharks Can't Jump: A 19th-Century Look at Sharks

The perception of sharks as 'mindless man-eaters' has changed considerably in recent decades (well, in most places outside Hollywood back lots and the Western Australian parliament). Their vital role in marine ecosystems is better understood, and despite the headline-grabbing shark-attack deaths and maimings of recent years, they are generally no longer presented as murderous monsters. These enlightened attitudes, however, are not as modern as we might think.

The article below was published in Queensland newspapers back in 1898, and is surprisingly sympathetic in its depiction of sharks, describing them as not being as dangerous as many thought. It contains some rather interesting anecdotes, a few misconceptions ('sharks can't jump'), and a plea for a better understanding of the much-maligned creatures.

'Capture of a large shark at Brighton, Victoria'. 'Sharks have lately become so numerous in Port Phillip and Hobson's bays, that the government has issued a scale of fees to those who can capture any of these unpleasant inhabitants of our waters.' (Illustrated Sydney News, 26 May 1877).


Many people will doubtless be surprised to hear that there is anything to be said in favour of the shark. The Squalidæ have so long been subject to cruelty only possible to ignorant prejudice that the very name of shark is a synonym for anything rapacious, unscrupulous, and wholly detestable. A few half-hearted attempts have been made at intervals of centuries to stem the flood of hatred, but they have been overwhelmed by the torrent of falsehood in the shape of anecdotes which has been steadily flowing for so many generations.

It is hardly too much to say that no creature known to man has continued so long under the stigma of ancient fabrications as the shark. Anecdotes which if told of any other animal would have been laughed into oblivion centuries ago are still current about him. One is amazed to find in ancient records tales which, originally invented about natural things under the influence of superstitious terror, are manifestly the source of modern shark yarns. The perpetuation of these fables in the case of the shark is perhaps in some slight degree excusable. Men who have had the most ample opportunities for observation have culpably neglected them, and it is absurd to expect professors of natural history to be seamen and fishermen. Their duties are engrossing enough as it is, without expecting them to become personally acquainted with the creatures they classify each in his own proper habitat. But seamen generally might render splendid aid to science by noting with careful watchfulness the characteristic habits of marine creatures with which they come in contact. They might also refuse to tell stories, which they could each prove to lie untrue, merely because they have heard them from their boyhood.

One of the most firmly held beliefs concerning sharks is that they prefer the flesh of man to any other food. Now the fact is (says Mr. Frank T. Bullen in the Spectator) that the shark family, with few exceptions, are naturally eaters of offal - scavengers of the sea. They are the only large fish that perform this most useful function. As a rule the duty of devouring the innumerable dead things which would otherwise pollute the sea devolves upon the crustacea. But the omnivorous Squalidæ, with their enormous stomachs, abnormal powers of digestion, and apparently insatiable appetites, patrol the waters for carrion that floats, thereby lightening the labours of the toiling workers at the bottom. In consequence of this prowling habit they are often near the surface where men may be unfortunate enough to fall in their way. Then, if the human animal be unskilful and timid, he will most probably be devoured by sharks, not because he is a man, but because he represents easily, obtainable food. For the shark, though a swift enough swimmer, is handicapped by the peculiar position of his mouth. Under ordinary conditions there are no fish so slow of movement that they cannot escape while the unwieldy Squalus is bringing his body into position to bite. Even man, when well accustomed to the water and to the limitations of sharks, can always successfully elude them.

As to their preference for blacks, it is a pure myth without the faintest foundation in fact. In many places visited by the writer where sharks were the commonest of fish black men were constantly swimming and diving without paying apparently any heed to the hungry monsters in their immediate vicinity. Yet never one of them was injured.

During the 'cutting in' of a whale at Hapai the water near the carcase was literally boiling with the largest existing anywhere. It seemed probable that before the blubber was all stripped the ravening monsters, many of them fully as long as one of our whaleboats, would have eaten a costly proportion of it, so energetic were they. At the same time, the natives hovering round in their canoes were constantly in and out of the water, actually among the sharks, heeding them no more than as if they had been so many sprats. On several occasions it has also been the writer's doubtful privilege to spend hours in the water clinging to fragments of broken boats in the immediate vicinity of a dead whale. And although one's legs always felt insecure, every touch seeming to promise their instant loss, casualties of that kind never happened.

Nor among the countless stories of the whale-fishery current among South Sea men has the writer ever heard of a man being seized by sharks when in the water near a dead whale. As to the prowess of these monsters, and the numbers of them that congregate wherever food is to be had, it may be interesting to record the following fact:- We had killed a large bull humpback (megaptera) in shoal water near Tongatabu, which sank at death. Unable to raise it for want of gear, that night one boat remained on the spot while the others returned on board. In less than one hour from the sinking of the carcase there were, at the lowest computation, 500 large sharks around the place. Many of them were so huge that we could hardly persuade ourselves that they were sharks at all, but that we knew no other fish of such a size existed. One, especially, that gave the boat a resounding blow with his tail as he turned beneath us, was larger in girth than she was, and as nearly as possible of the same length. Now, our boat was 3ft. 6in. beam amidships, and 28ft. long. Nevertheless. I am perfectly sure that this shark, vast as it was, could not possibly have swallowed a man, the shape and size of his mouth absolutely forbidding such an idea. He could have eaten several men no doubt, but swallow them whole, never. But to return. When at break of day we succeeded in raising the carcase again to the surface, amidst the foaming tumult caused by the still ravening multitude, more than half of it was gone. At least 40 tons of solid flesh and blubber had been devoured in a few hours.

Another story which has been repeated in nearly every natural history or article on sharks is of an alleged practice of slaving captains. They are said to have suspended the body of a negro from bowsprit or yardarm in order to enjoy the sight of the sharks leaping up at it, which they are said to have done to the height of 20ft. But a shark does not leap out of water at all. Neither if it did could it bite while so doing, for the simple reason that to do so it must be over its prey if right side up, or under it if on its back. A glance at a shark will instantly disprove this oft-repeated falsehood. As an instance of this disability I may mention a singular occurrence during the 'cutting in' by us of a cachalot off the coast of New Zealand. The lower jaw and throat piece had been lifted, turning the whale on its back, and leaving a great oval hollow of considerable depth in the carcase. There was a nasty sea running, which occasionally broke over the whale's body fore and aft, filling the aforesaid hollow with a greasy, gory mixture. Alongside, the usual concourse of frantic sharks fought madly for a morsel of blubber, regardless of the occasional disappearance of one of their number with a split brain-pan.

Now, it is necessary at this stage of 'cutting in' for a man to descend upon the carcase for the purpose of passing a chain strap through what is called the 'rising piece' or first cut of blubber. One of our harpooners, therefore, jumped into the foul pool, foolishly discarding the safety line, which hampered his movements. As he wrestled with the big links of the chain sling, a combing sea lifted two of the sharks, each about 7ft. long, into the cavity beside him. Of course, he promptly turned his attention to his visitors, laying hold of one by the tail, to which he clung with a death-grip. For a while the three were indistinguishable in the internal broil. Man and sharks writhed in one inextricable tangle amidst the foaming slime. It was impossible to strike down at any moment, for fear of killing our shipmate, and it really looked as if we should see him beaten to death beneath our eyes. But, suddenly exerting all his remaining strength in one great effort, the poor fellow flung one of the monsters out from him at right angles. Instantly a spade descended like a flash upon the shark's head, killing him at once. But at the same moment another wave lippered over and swept all three out of the hollow into the teeming sea alongside. With a wild yell two kanakas sprang after and seized their helpless shipmate in the midst of the startled crowd of sharks. Half a dozen ropes were flung, and in two minutes salvors and saved were on deck. The unfortunate harpooner was black and blue, besides being badly strained, but of toothmarks not a sign.

'Encounter with a shark in Sydney Harbor' (Sydney Illustrated News, 1786)

As Plutarch has remarked, the deep-sea shark is a tender parent. For a considerable time after the young are born (in the viviparous kinds) they are sheltered within the mother's body, finding instant refuge down her throat at the approach of danger. Numberless instances are on record of female sharks being caught with from 10 to 20 healthy, vigorous young ones in some receptacle within her body, they having previously been seen swimming about her and disappearing down her throat. The friendship of the pilot fish for the shark, too, is a beautiful instance of mutual aid which is entirely true. Therefore, apparently, much doubt is cast upon it, many refusing to believe any good of the piscis anthropophagus, as Dr. Badham gravely calls him.

Alopecias vulpes, or the ' thrasher,' is a shark of aggressive and dangerous character, but certainly not so to man. Its characteristic feature is au immensely long upper lobe to its tail. This it wields with wonderful effect when, in company with a small and fierce species of grampus (Orca gladiator) it attacks the peaceful mysticetæ, or toothless whales. The blows it deals are incredibly severe and rapid, cutting long strips of blubber from the back of the harassed mammal, who, incapable of fight or flight, soon falls an easy prey to the combined forces. The Pristiophordæ, or saw-fishes, are perhaps the most terrible in appearance of all the shark tribe. They are really a connecting link between the sharks and rays, partaking largely of the characteristics of the latter. The head is prolonged into a bony shaft varying in length and width, according to the size of the individual, but attaining a length of 3ft. and a width at the base of 9in. On either side it is furnished with pointed teeth some distance apart, the whole weapon forming a formidable double-edged saw carried horizontally. Neither does this awe inspiring monster attack man. It feeds upon the soft parts of certain sluggish fish which it disembowels with its saw. Its teeth are few and feeble, and unless hard pressed by hunger it does not prey on garbage. But want of space forbids the further pursuit at present of this most interesting subject, only the fringe of which it has been possible to touch here.'

05 April 2016

What Would Win in a Fight Between a Tiger and a Bull?

Sometimes historical research can go off on a tangent when something interesting catches your eye. When I was writing my article 'Tigers, Roller-Coasters and Special Effects: Brisbane's 19th-century Dreamworld', which mentioned the story of a tiger on the loose in Brisbane's George Street, I came across some old newspaper reports of staged fights between bulls and tigers, and quite frankly I was interested in the outcome of these contests. The result was, however, that people can be very stupid and very cruel, and animals can be very reluctant to fight upon demand.

1950 Topps card - 'Terror of the Jungle'.

I will cover three reports of tiger/bull fights here, although an earlier and supposedly fictional account had featured in the 1858 novel Jack of all Trades by Charles Reade. I say 'supposedly' because judging by later reports of actual fights, Reade's account was based on reality. After being placed in the arena, the two animals were reluctant to fight, and so Reade's protagonist poked the tiger with a red-hot iron to try and provoke it. As will be seen below, this behaviour was all-too-normal at these events.

The first account of an actual fight to appear in a Queensland newspaper was in 1898, and told of a fight between a Bengal tiger ('Cesar') and an Adalusian fighting bull in front of 1,300 spectators at the Plaza de Madrid. A seventeen-metre-square cage was erected in the middle of the arena, and the bull was the first to be released into the enclosure:
"The brute immediately began to run round and round his prison, bellowing and throwing up sand and gravel with his hoofs. The instant the tiger entered the cage he gave a roar and bounded on the bull, avoiding the horns, and fixed on his flanks and belly with both teeth and claws. The bull remained still for a few seconds, and then seemed to be sinking backwards to the ground. The spectators thought that all was over, but the tiger let go for a second to take another hold, and in the brief interval was kicked over by the wild plunges of the bull. Before the tiger had time to recover the bull was on him, and, staking his horns into the striped hide, it tossed the tiger into the air. This was repeated four or five times, the bull varying his tactics occasionally by banging his adversary against the bars. When the bull stopped the tiger lay limp on the ground, and the crowd, thinking he was dead, cried 'Bravo, toro.' The bull stood stamping for a moment in the middle of the cage, and then, seeing the tiger did not move, approached and smelt him. But Cesar was only shamming death, and seized the bull's muzzle in his powerful jaws so the animal could not move. Eventually, however, he was released, and, after stamping furiously on the tiger, again caught him on his horns. This time the tossing, stamping, and banging apparently ended in Cesar's death. The cage was then opened, and the bull rushed out and back to his stable. For precaution's sake, the tiger's van was brought up, and, to the general surprise, Cesar rose to his feet, glanced round as if afraid the bull was still there, and then bounded into the van. The tiger was found to have five ribs broken, besides having a number of wounds from the bull's horns. He is expected, nevertheless, to survive. It is said that all wild animals - bears, lions, panthers, and tigers - fare badly in combat with the Spanish fighting bull. Man and the elephant are the only sure victors over these active and ferocious beasts." (The Capricornian, 12 March 1898)

Detail from Henri Rosseau, 'Struggle between a tiger and a bull', c.1900.

Another bull vs tiger fight took place in front of a huge crowd in a bullring at San Sebastian, Spain, in 1904. The fight was staged in a large cage in the centre of the arena. A cameraman was set up behind a barrier to film the event, but he fled in terror when the bull charged him. The Bengal tiger was reluctant to enter the arena, and when it did the Andalusian bull charged him down and gored him, but the tiger caught him in the neck before retreating and positioned himself to pounce. This was repeated occasionally over half an hour before the crowd grew impatient at the lack of action. A photographer climbed into the arena and prodded the tiger with an iron rod through the bars, but the animals simply stood and stared at each other

At this point the furious Homer-Simpsonesque spectators "jumped into the arena and shouted all the names they could think of at the animals, hissed, lit squibs, and danced like mad creatures round the cage". This caused the bull to once more gore the tiger against the side of the cage, which made the wall fall over. Now the heroic bogans who had been taunting the animals fled in hysterical terror, and the Gendarme and everyone with a gun "blazed away indiscriminately" at the tiger. One report had eleven people wounded, but another had fifty being hit with bullets, with fourteen severely wounded, three in a critical condition, and one woman dead. The tiger, which had been too badly injured by the bull to attack anyone anyway, was also shot dead. After this it was torn to shreds by 'souvenir hunters', cutting off parts of the tiger's body as keepsakes. All of which proves that the most dangerous animal of all etc, etc.

Photo from the San Sebastian debacle. The tiger box can be seen to the left of the cage here. (Salt Lake Tribune, 25 September 1904)

The French government moved to ban these fights from taking place in France, although several hundred people gathered in a private enclosure in Marseilles in 1908 to watch just such a fight, this one staged with the intention of filming it. Not all went to plan because although the bull was ready for a fight, the tiger retreated to a corner and stayed there, prompting yet more human stupidity and cruelty. The impatient crowd pelted the animal with bricks and stones, and the attendants prodded it with an iron bar, turned a hose on it, and finally exploded fireworks in its face, but the tiger could not be provoked. It was returned to the cages and a second tiger produced. This one was much hungrier and instantly attacked the bull, which turned and ripped the tiger's shoulder open. The wounded tiger crawled back to its den, after which it was too dark to film any more and the fight was postponed until the next morning. However, when the time came and a tiger was about to be driven into the enclosure again, the police arrived and arrested the promoters, smashed the photographer's cameras, and led the cinematographer away in handcuffs.

'Tiger and Bull' by Alton S. Tobey.

Despite the cameraman's problems at San Sebastian in 1904, a silent movie short of that event called 'Tiger and Bull Fighting' was produced and screened to Australian audiences in 1906. The filming had reached the point where the tiger was pressed against the cage, but audiences were informed that the scene in which the bull supposedly killed the tiger was 'missing'. This movie was in circulation for a few years, and was quite possibly shown in Brisbane, but in 1909 the Sunday Times of Perth advised the film's distributor that they would...
"...do well to drop such films as "Bull and Tiger Fighting," "Bear hunting in Russia", these exhibitions being anything but of an elevating character. Usually the "savage tiger" is an ancient, toothless, doped animal, which can't get out of its own way, and seems glad to crawl into a corner, and die of disembowelment."
Tiger attacking a calf, Roman mosaic, 4th century CE.

The movie itself seems to have died of disembowelment and disappeared, as did the staging of bull and tiger fights in general. For the record, it looks like bulls generally got the better of the tigers, but then these were contests between bulls trained to fight and tigers trained to be docile. There were always plenty of people to watch them, however, and if the producers of Reality TV shows were given half a chance, they would quite happily stage animal fights and no doubt they would find a huge audience too.

01 April 2016

The Moon Man, the Headless Murderer, and Me

Back in 2004 I was researching the stories behind the men who were hanged at the old Petrie Terrace prison during the mid-19th century and then buried in Toowong Cemetery. This work was all going down the usual path of visits to the archives and libraries to trawl through microform records and old books, when one case jumped out and took me on an unexpected and rather gruesome tangent. It involved a Russian scientist, a Chinese murderer, a Sydney museum, a wild goose chase, and a head in a jar.

Nikolai Mikhoulo-Maclay, 1870s (Wikimedia Commons)
Nikolai Mikhoulo-Maclay, 1870s.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Four executions took place in Brisbane during the winter of 1880, and a notable element of these events was the presence of the famed Russian anthropologist Nikolai Mikhoulo-Maclay, nicknamed ‘the Moon Man’. He was studying the comparative anatomy of the brains of various races in order to determine their comparative intellectual capacities. His conclusions were at odds with most contemporary opinions, as he found that the ‘cerebral-neural equipment’ of different races were identical and so there "was nothing to justify the concept of higher and lower races". Through his own work, Mikhoulo-Maclay became a strong advocate of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Mikhoulo-Maclay had intended staying in Brisbane for just a few days en route to Sydney, but ended up staying for a few months after being given unexpected access to a laboratory, photographic equipment, and some ‘interesting specimens’ to examine - namely, the bodies of the four men hanged in Brisbane that winter. With colonial Queensland being as multi-racial as it was, these were a Caucasian, a Chinese man, a Filipino, and an Aboriginal man. And with colonial Queensland being as scientifically curious as it was, Mikhoulo-Maclay was allowed to remove and photograph their brains immediately after death.

This was all fascinating stuff, especially the case of the Aboriginal man, Kagariu, also known as Johnny Campbell, ‘the black Ned Kelly’. I will probably write more here at a later date about the bizarre journey that Kagariu’s body took after his death, but the story that involved a lot more digging than I expected was that of the Chinese man, thirty-something Jimmy Ah Sue.

Ah Sue had been sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow gardener at Nuggety Creek, near Copperfield. He had beaten the man to death after an argument over stolen rice, and so was hanged one May morning in 1880 in a Petrie Terrace prison yard alongside James Ellesdale, another murderer. After the event their bodies were handed over to Mikhoulo-Maclay, who neatly removed the tops of the skulls and took out the brains for examination.

What happened next was revealed when I read Frank Greensop’s 1944 biography of Mikhoulo-Maclay, Who Travels Alone. Greensop wrote of visiting the storage rooms at the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney and seeing two heads stored in jars on a cupboard shelf. He noted that the flesh, skin and hair were still “firmly attached”. The tops of the skulls had been neatly removed and, although they had been embalmed, the heads were not kept in preservative fluid. Greensop identified one of the heads as belonging to Jimmy Ah Sue, while the other seemed likely to be the Filipino man (Maximus Gomez). Mikhoulo-Maclay had donated the heads to the museum back in 1890.

The head of Jimmy Ah Sue in a Sydney museum (from Greensop, 1944)
The head of Jimmy Ah Sue (from Greensop, 1944)

I wondered if it was possible that these heads were still there, so I wrote to the museum and asked. It turned out that they were indeed still there, in a special store with restricted access. As I had traced the grave sites of the 23 executed prisoners in Toowong Cemetery, it occurred to me that perhaps the heads did not belong in a jar on a shelf but rather in the graves with the other remains. Given that the identification of Gomez was uncertain, I asked if it was possible for the head of Ah Sue to be repatriated, and was informed that I would need to contact Ah Sue’s descendants and then the museum staff would “consider their wishes in regards to the remains”.

Tracking down the descendants of an unhonoured ancestor born somewhere in China, sometime around the 1840s, was, as you might imagine, a daunting task. I tried to get help from the Chinese Embassy but none was forthcoming. The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society made an enquiry here and there, and we got a story in the Courier-Mail, but quite frankly we could have thrown the entire resources of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' at this and still got nowhere. Not having the rest of my life to dedicate to the task, I gave up and so the descendants remained unfound, the heads still sit on a shelf in Sydney, and whatever is left of the rest of their bodies are in Toowong Cemetery. But who knows, maybe by some billion-to-one shot a descendant of Ah Sue will read this. Or maybe the museum will have a change of policy. Either way, I'm not holding my breath.