Prophet of the Kraken
RICHARD FREEMAN recounts the career of Pierre Denys de Montfort, whose pioneering research into giant cephalopods saw him ostracised from the scientific mainstream
In 1820 a man died of starvation in a Parisian gutter. He was given a pauper’s burial, and the few who attended likely did so only to laugh at the fellow who believed in sea monsters. The man was the French naturalist and malacologist (an expert in molluscs) Pierre Denys de Montfort. He was also a scientific heretic, for he dared to research something that the high priests of science deemed to be an old wives’ tale: giant cephalopods. Had he only lived until 1857, he would have seen his ‘wild stories’ vindicated with the discovery of Arciteuthis, the giant squid. Born in 1764, de Montfort was fascinated by nature from an early age. After service in the army and a stint as assistant to the geologist Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, he became attached to the Jardin des Plantes, the main botanical garden in Paris. For a time, he was much sought after, being offered places on a number of expeditions and travelling to Egypt and Germany to study geology. His gift for languages did not go unnoticed, and he became attached to the Museum of Natural History as a translator. He narrowly missed receiving the chair in mineralogy.
He wrote an addendum devoted to molluscs for Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle générale et particulière – a feather in the young naturalist’s cap. During this time, he investigated the origins of ambergris and became interested in the idea of huge cephalopods. He interviewed American whalers who had settled in France about the evidence for such creatures. One man, Ben Johnson, told of a monstrous tentacle found in the mouth of a sperm whale. The tentacle was 35ft (11m) long and had been severed at both ends; de Montfort reckoned another 10-20ft (3-6m) of it had been lost. It was as thick as a mast, with suckers the size of hats. Another man, Reynolds, told of seeing what he thought was a red sea serpent lying next to a whale they had killed. It was found to be a massive, 45ft- (14m) long tentacle. In his Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques, de Montfort classifies two giant cephalopods, the colossal octopus and the kraken octopus, the sources for the latter probably referring to what we now know as the giant squid. He writes of a votive painting (long since lost) in the chapel of St Thomas in Brittany showing a titanic octopus attacking a ship. It was supposedly painted to commemorate a real event that occurred off the coast of Angola: a giant octopus had attacked the French ship, wrapping its arms about the rigging and causing the vessel to list dangerously. The crew attacked with cutlasses and managed to get the monster to relinquish its hold by hacking off some of the arms. The terrified sailors had prayed to Saint Thomas.
Such huge creatures had been mentioned by Louis Marie Joseph O’Hier, Comte de Grandpre, in his Voyage a la cote occidentale d’ Afrique (1786-1787). The natives told him that a giant octopus known as ‘Ambazombi’ would often attack their boats and canoes, dragging them to the bottom, and that they believed the monster to be an evil spirit. The name ‘Ambazombi’ may be linked to Nzambi, the creator god of the Bakongo people of Angola.
Danish captain Jean-Magnus Dens, a former employee of the Gothenburg Company who had retired to Dunkirk, told de Montfort a similar story. He had once been becalmed off the coast of West Africa and took advantage of the situation to scrape barnacles off the sides of the ship, lowering men on ropes for this purpose. As they worked, a huge kraken rose from the water and wrapped its tentacles around two of the men, dragging them under. Another tentacle coiled about a third sailor, who clung to the rigging. His shipmates managed to save him by hacking off the monstrous member, although the unfortunate man later died of shock. Captain Dens informed de Montfort that the severed portion was 25ft (8m) long and the whole tentacle some 35-40ft (11-12m). It tapered to a point and was covered with suckers. Dens believed that if the creature had attached all its arms onto the ship it would have capsized it. Another captain by the name of Anderson told of finding two huge tentacles, still connected by part of the mantle, on some rocks near Bergen, Norway. They were so thick he could barely put his arms about them, and were around 25ft (8m) long.
Delving into maritime disasters, de Montfort concluded that the loss of a number of ships could have been caused by attacks from giant cephalopods. One example was the disappearance of 10 ships in 1782. Six French vessels had been captured in the West Indies by Admiral Rodney during the Battle of the Saintes, and were being taken to port under the escort of four British ships. All 10 vessels vanished, and de Montfort postulated that an attack by a kraken was to blame. In fact, the ships had been lost in a hurricane, and this rather rash statement was to be the beginning of the end for de Montfort, who became a scientific pariah. He probably didn’t help matters when he jokingly suggested that the kraken’s arms were so vast they could bridge the Straits of Gibraltar (8.9 miles/14km).
Unable to find work in any of France’s scientific institutions, he retreated to the country and wrote books on bee keeping and linguistics. Returning penniless to Paris, he scratched a meagre living identifying shells for naturalists and collectors. He became a wretched figure and finally a destitute alcoholic. He was found dead of starvation in 1820, a pitiful end for a man once associated with the most august scientific institutes in Paris. Even though he created 25 genera still in use today, his career barely merits a footnote; somewhat gallingly, he was proved correct after his death when Danish zoologist Professor Johannes Japetus Smith Steenstrup published the first scientific description of the giant squid in 1857. To this day, de Montfort has been given little or no credit for his researches, despite having amassed the greatest number of accounts of giant cephalopods. Surely, his recognition by the scientific community is long overdue.
RICHARD FREEMAN is the zoological director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology.
The tentacle was thick as a mast, with suckers the size of hats