THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

01 October 2018

Strange fish: A distant cousin of the Beluga whale in the River Thames

We have always been both fascinated and saddened by whales finding their way into rivers or being stranded on strange beaches. The beluga whale in the Thames near Gravesend last week is the latest in a long line of chronicled incidents. They have been recorded in print since the sixteenth century, and in manuscript from even earlier. I am researching early modern printed ballads and pamphlets about these ‘strange fish’ that were paraded as exotic marvels, heralded as signs from God or feared as omens. It was only late in the seventeenth century that whales became natural rather than divine wonders. This is a timely moment to share one of my favourite pamphlets.

Photo 1

Strange News from the Deep, BL N.788 Public Domain

In 1677, a whale became stranded in a river near Colchester in Essex and tragically died. We know this because a pamphlet was printed, probably within days of the whale’s death, which exists today in only three copies. Strange News from the Deep: Being a Full Account of a Large Prodigious Whale, Lately Taken in the River Wivner, within Six Miles of Colchester was printed by one still unidentified “W.H.”. Of the two copies at the British Library, one has a fantastically large woodcut of Jonah being swallowed whole by a whale. This copy once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a physician, naturalist and collector whose collection became the foundation of the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum. The other British Library copy is part of another important collection, albeit one formed a generation later – that of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the botanist who sailed with Sir James Cook.

Photo 2

Strange News from the Deep, BL N.788

Public Domain

This rare pamphlet describes how a “strange whale” was seen swimming up “the Wivner-River”. Villagers watched as it floundered on the shallow sand banks; its tail “shovelled the sands so high” that they showered over the spectators’ heads and the thrashing of its body caused waves to swell out over the banks. She continued to struggle until the tide went out and left her stranded in the shallow water. In her desperation, the whale broke her tail and her blood dyed the river red. Eventually she died in the water, “being of so large a bulk that the river could not cover her”.

The anonymous author tries to explain why the whale became stranded. He refers to Pliny’s theory that their “unnatural wandrings” are caused by sickness. He then suggests the sheer strength of the tide could’ve hurled the young whale into the river mouth. He then resorts to the traditional beliefs that whales are brought to land as a sign of “insuing judgment” or are a “favourable warning given us by the Almighty”. This opinion is “perhaps the least authentick”.

P84Image taken from page 84 of Narrative of the Wreck of the “Favourite” on the Island of Desolation: detailing the adventures, sufferings and privations of J. Nunn, an historical account of the Island, and its whale and seal fisheries. Edited by W. B. Clarke, British Library Flickr Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11012011156/ 

Stranded whales are almost as mysterious today as they were in the early modern period. A recent theory is that the phenomenon may be caused by the same solar surges that affect the northern lights. Others suggest the melting of the Arctic sea ice, the beluga whale being an arctic animal. These whales have become ominous portents once more, only now they warn of climate change rather than divine wrath. Whether they are reported in seventeenth century pamphlets or on Twitter, their plight evokes the same dread, fascination and pity as it has for centuries.

Maddy Smith,

Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading and references:

Strange news from the deep: being a full account of a large prodigious whale, lately taken in the river Wivner, within six miles of Colchester. Declaring the strange manner of its coming up, and by what unusuall means it was seized upon by the neighbouring inhabitants. Also an account of the like prodigious accidents in general. Printed for W.H. in the year 1677. British Library N.788 and 1257.d.29.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/26/thames-beluga-whale-omen-changing-climate-gravesend

http://estc.bl.uk/R236823

http://estc.bl.uk/R42904