The Monkey Mutiny of 1890

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
It’s like Planet of the Apes, but with crocodiles and snakes, on a tiny boat. So, you know, worse.

Dear readers, I hope you’ll forgive a lack of medically related anecdotes this week, in exchange for an absolute gem I found whilst perusing the Saturday 29th March, 1890 copy of the Warwick Examiner.

I was researching insanity in small English towns (prevalent, if you’re interested – no surprise there), and I came across a short account of the voyage of the Margaret, a barque leaving Durban, Africa, laden with zoological oddities bound for the city zoo of Boston, United States. Among regular cargo and the usual complement of sailors (and two stowaways, who may have regretting stealing aboard this particular vessel), the inventory read as follows:

  • 12 snakes
  • 400 parrots
  • 1 orangutan
  • 8 small monkeys
  • 2 crocodiles
  • 1 gorilla, whom for the purposes of this article I shall call ‘Scalper’ for reasons that will become clear in short order.
No wait. It’s like Snakes on a Plane, but with gorillas and monkeys. On a boat. Oh, I don’t know…

The ship was late enough in arriving in Boston harbor in 1890 following the voyage that it has been assumed by many to be lost. Upon debarkation, it might have been interesting to be a fly-on-the-wall when Captain Sargent, in charge of this peculiar shipment, explained why over 75% of the original cargo was missing. In an account by the Wiltshire herald:

“[the] animals gave him more trouble than the fearsome storms against which he had to fight.”

During any voyage, a mariner of sufficient experience may expect a storm or two, some gale or bluster that can cause damage to the cargo and ship. When your cargo is tools, foodstuffs or even luxury items, it’s all good. But when your cargo is a 450 lb escaped gorilla, it’s a different matter entirely.

The problems started when the rats, a common passenger on cargo ships, consumed every ounce of the grain intended for the rare parrots, causing all but four to starve to death. This resulted in a lot of happy rats, a very upset Captain, noting his rapidly diminished consignment, and a lot of dead exotic birds. Matters were made distinctly worse when during the high winds, the crocodiles and snakes escaped the hold and began marauding across the deck.

Something tells me that little Jenny is going to need a change of clothes once she realizes her pet is not stuffed.

Unequipped to deal this kind of intruder, this proved too much for the human crew, who fled in terror and barricaded themselves in the cabins. The fo’c’s’le (‘forecastle’ = front part of the ship where the crew sleep) was now hotly contested between the crocodiles, rats and snakes. According to the accounts:

“These reptiles, along with the rats, kept up continual warfare until the last crocodile killed the last snake…”

Remaining was the single victorious crocodile, who might have continued its reign of terror were it not dropped upon by shifting timber cargo, promptly killing it. This was much to the relief of the trapped sailors, eager to get back on deck to rescue the ship from the pummeling gales.

Their problems were not even close to being over, however.

During the gale, the crocodiles and snakes were not the only creatures released from bondage. The monkeys also made good their escape, fleeing into the rigging,

“… and stuck there, despite all attempts to dislodge them.”

Kept from the rigging by the cheeky monkeys, the sailors were unable to make repairs on the crossbeams and spars, which were swiftly were carried away in the gale. It’s not specified exactly how the monkeys kept the beleaguered crew-men at bay, but knowing monkeys, we can assume it was some form of, er, organic ammunition.

This guy. Trapped in a small cage for weeks. And he just decided he doesn’t like you.

Remember ‘Scalper’, the very large five-foot, four-hundred-and fifty pound gorilla? Undoubtedly less than thrilled at being kept in a wooden cage, he decided to join the party and broke the lid off his prison. Although still restrained by a chain, he had ‘considerable play’ on the deck and also managed to acquire a large iron bar. Scalper lost no time in establishing his dominion over the 10 feet of deck he held sway over with extreme prejudice:

“The … cook […] unwarily approaching, heard the bar whistling through the air and ducked, but not in time to save his head which was half scalped.”

If things couldn’t get worse for the poor chef, he was then grabbed by Scalper who proceeded to try to squeeze him to death. Scalper only released his victim upon being knocked senseless by the judicious use of the blunt edge of a hatchet by another member of crew. They must have liked the cooks fare, or perhaps no-one else knew how to prepare a dead parrot. Hey, waste not, want not, right?

This one can pull your head off. With his feet. And he also decided he doesn’t like you.

As for the other primates, accounts state that all but four of the monkeys were carried away in the gale. I find this part hard to believe, given the dexterity of the average primate, and I theorize instead that it was the result of some very frustrated sailors who had just about had enough of the monkey’s proverbial fecal matter (literally and figuratively) and took back the upper ship by force, passing the fate of the victims off as ‘accidents’.

The Margaret, now the location of a singularly unique and mobile zoological battlefield, finally limped into port on January 9th 1890, and an exhausted and thoroughly annoyed crew also disgorged, probably heading directly to the nearest bar for a well-earned drink. Captain Sargent was quoted as saying:

“…that between the gales and the nature of his cargo he had an experience he does not again wish to meet.”

And the survivors? Of the original shipment delivered, the zoo would ultimately only showcase a limited collection. The inhabitants were numbered at only three monkeys, four parrots, and of course, Scalper the gorilla. The fate of the orangutan is unknown. As is the stowaways.

I like to believe they made it.

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