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Tritons and Mermaids in the 18th Century

sgtdjones 2021-10-26 16:20:00 

Tritons and Mermaids in the 18th Century

On Mermaids.
Mr. Urban, London, Jan. 15.1823

it was as big as the largest man . . . its skin was white, resembling that of a drowned person . . . it had the breasts of a full-chested woman; a flat nose; a large mouth; the chin adorned with a kind of beard, formed of fine shells; and over the whole body, tufts of similar white shells. It had the tail of a fish, and at the extremity of it a kind of feet.

For much of the eighteenth century, Western intellectuals chased after tritons and mermaids. Vaughn Scribner follows the hunt, revealing how humanity’s supposed aquatic ancestors became wondrous screens on which to project theories of geographical, racial, and taxonomical difference.

I BEG to trouble you with a few observations on Mr. Murray’s pa¬ per, p. 548, of your last Numoer re¬ specting the Mermaid, taken from the Hereford Journal.
Mr. Murray begins by telling us, that “on his arrival in London, he hastened to see the Mermaid,” but “ his mind had been made up on the subject .”
That such an impartial investiga¬ tor of natural history should dispossess himself, by ocular inspection, of an opinion thus previously riveted in his mind, is not at all probable; for, as Pope observes, “Convince a man against his will." He ’ll hold the same opinion still.”

In proof of the weight of prejudice under which Mr. Murray laboured, he proceeds with his narrative, by styling the animal a “compound or¬ ganic form,” before he has furnished us with the least argumentative deduc¬ tion of the fact, and unhesitatingly asserts that the upper part is that of the “ long armed baboon.” Indeed, he says he considers it the “Discordia rerum non bene junctarum,” because the fish part should have been quad¬ ruple the size it is, for such a super¬ structure.”What kind of “ nondescript ” we should then have had to investigate, I submit to the candid consideration of those persons who have inspected it; but I may be permitted to observe that the upper part, down to the termi¬ nation of the chest, is in exact proportion with the same parts in the human subject; and then the fish proportion only very gradually tapers smaller in that regular and distinct order, which we have been taught to believe, and which reason and science tell us must necessarily occur when we reflect that there are no abdominal ribs, no pelvic bones, no lower extremities to preserve a continuative distention of the body.

On May 6, 1736, the polymath Benjamin Franklin informed readers of his Pennsylvania Gazette of a “Sea Monster” recently spotted in Bermuda, “the upper part of whose Body was in the Shape and about the Bigness of a Boy of 12 Years old, with long black Hair; the lower Part resembled a Fish”. Apparently, the creature’s “human Likeness” inspired his captors to let it live. A 1769 issue of the Providence Gazette similarly reported that crew members of an English ship off the coast of Brest, France, watched as “a sea monster, like a man” circled their ship, at one point viewing “for some time the figure that was in our prow, which represented a beautiful woman”. The captain, the pilot and “the whole crew, consisting of two and thirty men” verified this tale

The Royal Society of London proved key in this endeavour, acting as both a repository and producer of legitimate scientific investigation. Sir Robert Sibbald, a respected Scottish physician and geographer, well understood the Society’s desire for ground-breaking research. On November 29, 1703 he wrote to Sir Hans Sloane, the president of the Society, to inform the London gentleman that Sibbald and his colleagues had been recording an account of Scotland’s amphibious creatures, along with accompanying copper-plate images, which he hoped to dedicate to the Royal Society. Realizing the Society’s interest in the most up-to-date studies, Sibbald told Sloane that he had “added several accounts and the figures of some Amphibious Aquatic Animals, and of some of mixed Kinds, as the Mermaids or Syrens seen sometimes in our Seas”.5 Here were two leading thinkers of the eighteenth century exchanging erudite missives on merpeople.

On July 5, 1716, Cotton Mather also penned a letter to the Royal Society of London. This was not odd, as the Boston naturalist often detailed his scientific findings. Yet this letter’s subject was somewhat curious — titled “a Triton”, the missive demonstrated Mather’s sincere belief in the existence of merpeople.Still, Mather was not totally convinced, at least until February 22, 1716, when “three honest and credible men, coming in a boat from Milford to Brainford (Connecticut)”, encountered a triton. Having heard this news at first hand, Mather could only exclaim, “now at last my credulity is entirely conquered, and I am compelled now to believe the existence of a triton”. As the creature fled the men, “they had a full view of him and saw his head, and face, and neck, and shoulders, and arms, and elbows, and breast, and back all of a human shape . . . [the] lower parts were those of a fish, and colored like a mackerel”. Though this “triton” escaped, it convinced Mather of merpeople’s existence.

The famous naturalist Carl Linnaeus also threw himself into investigating mermaids and tritons. Having read newspaper articles detailing mermaid sightings in Nyköping, Sweden, Linnaeus sent a letter to the Swedish Academy of Science in 1749 urging a hunt in which to “catch this animal alive or preserved in spirits”.Yet in his mind, the reward outweighed the risk, as the discovery of such a rare phenomenon “could result in one of the biggest discoveries that the Academy could possibly achieve and for which the whole world should thank the Academy”. Perhaps these creatures could reveal humankind’s origins? This ancient mystery must be solved.

By the mid-eighteenth century, a growing number of physicians not only believed in the existence of merpeople, but also began to wonder what sort of ramifications such creatures might have for understanding humanity’s origins and future.Two especially important articles — each approaching merpeople through unique scientific methodology — appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine between 1759 and 1775. The first piece, published in December 1759, accompanied a plate image of a “Syren, or Mermaid . . . said to have been shewn in the fair of St Germains [Paris]” in 1758. The author noted that this siren was “drawn from life . . . by the celebrated Sieur Gautier”. Jacques-Fabien Gautier, a French printer and member of the Dijon Academy, was widely recognized for his skill in printing accurate images of scientific subjects.


The gentleman's magazine. Volume 93 (Being the Sixteenth of a New Series. Part the First.), January - June 1823

As G. Robinson "The Beauties of Nature and Art Displayed in a Tour Through the World" (1764),

Carl Linnaeus' Amoenitates academicae, vol. VII (1789) —

Vaughn Scribner is associate professor of British American history at the University of Central Arkansas.
Merpeople: A Human History (2020).