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Havana Shark

( Originally Published 1851 )



From Chamber's Edinburgh Journal

Subsequent to the disastrous attack on the American lines before New Orleans, on the 8th of January 1815, the British army proceeded to Isle Dauphine, :n the Gulf of Mexico, where the troops remained until peace was concluded between Great Britain and the United States. As the men had been for several months exposed to severe hard-ships and many privations, the fleet was ordered, on its way home, to put into different ports, for the purpose of procuring fresh meat and vegetables. The ship I was on board of, with the regiment which I then commanded, belonged to that part of the fleet which touched at the Havana. The circumstance I am about to relate is the capture of an enormous shark, which created considerable interest at the time. On arriving at the Havana, I obtained leave from the general officer commanding, to live on shore, for the purpose of seeing something of the island. I generally went on board every morning about 10 o'clock, to give the necessary orders for the regiment. Several of our men had died during the passage to Havana, and were consigned to the deep in the harbor of that place. One morning when I was writing in the cabin, I heard a sudden running of the men upon deck towards the afterpart of the vessel, and a serjeant called to me from above to come on deck immediately. Not being exactly aware of what was going on, I drew my sabre, and ran on deck without my cap. I was received with a good laugh by the officers present, and very soon was made aware of the object of the men's curiosity. It was a sight I never can forget. One of our poor fellows had been thrown overboard in the morning, sewed up in his blanket, with a shot inside to sink him. By some accident, the sewing must have been loosened, and, consequently, the body floated; and, just as I came on deck, two enormous sharks made a dash at the body, divided it in two, and disappeared with their spoil. A feeling of horror ran through every spectator. At that instant, a third shark showed himself close to our vessel. I called to the men to keep him alongside, by throwing him pieces of biscuit, at the same time desiring one of them to bring me a musket; on getting which, I fired at the animal, and the men shouted out that the ball had gone clean through him. He gave a flap with his tail, and went down, leaving the water slightly tinged with blood. At this moment, the black who beat the large drum came aft, and said to me, " Major, if you give me leave, I kill him and eat him in five minutes. I told him he should have five dollars for his pains if he kept his word. He immediately produced a shark-hook, baited it with a piece of pork, and, having fastened it to a strong line, threw it high into the air, and let it fall with a splash into the water. The effect was magical. Quick as lightning, two of the sharks were seen making towards the bait, and, in an instant, one of them swallowed it. " Now is the time, grenadier," cried blackie; " clap on the rope-line, and give him plenty o' play." Away went the monster like a whale, but our Othello's " occupation was not gone," and he commanded the grenadier, like an experienced general, until his enemy was lying spent and powerless on the surface of the water. A boat was now lowered, and the animal having been hauled alongside, a noose was made on a very thick rope, and he was swung into the air amidst the cheers of the whole fleet, every yard having been manned to witness our proceeding. The tail having been cut, the shark was laid on the deck, and blackie having selected a delicate piece from the shoulder, immediately proceeded to fulfil the latter part of his bargain, by broiling and eating it. The shark measured eleven feet in length, and seven feet across. The liver weighed seventy-three pounds. In the upper jaw were five rows of teeth, and in the under, six rows. I had the satisfaction to see that my aim had been good, as the mark of the ball was about two inches below the dorsal fin. and had gone " clean through," as the men saki. Notwithstanding this wound, the voracious creature had returned to the charge within five minutes. The shark was a female, and had nineteen young ones in her belly when opened. They measured about eighteen inches each. During the time she was alongside, I (as well as two hundred others) had an opportunity of observing the young ones passing in and out of the mother's mouth; they seemed to take refuge there on the least appearance of danger. This fact, l believe, has been doubted by some naturalists. The jaw of this animal is now at Abbotsford, having been sent to the late lamented Sir Walter Scott, by the writer of this account. On the afternoon of the same day, after I had left the ship, the men caught another of the gang, rather longer than the first, and a bullock's hide and horns were found in the stomach. The horns were pre-served by the surgeon of the regiment, and appeared, when taken out of the shark, to be quite soft and pulpy.

To account for this rather singular part of the story, I ought to mention that the captain of the vessel had hung several bullock hides on the rigging of the ship, which, producing a bad smell, I ordered them to be thrown overboard on the morning of the day on which the two sharks were killed.

But the most amusing part of the transaction was, that a complaint was made against me by the authorities of the place, for having destroyed two of the " guardians of their harbor." By this, I suppose, they meant, that these large sharks, playing about the mouth of the harbor, prevented a great fry of smaller ones from entering. They certainly were entitled to be considered in something like the light of " Tritons among the minnows."

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