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

Fortean Times - - Contents - RICHARD FREE­MAN

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.