This is the tale of the phantom light
That fills the mariner’s heart, at night,
With dread as it gleams o’er his path on the bay,
Now by the shore, then far away,
Fierce as the flame in sunset skies,
Cold as the winter moon that lies
On the Baie des Chaleurs.
(A.W.H. Eaton, “The Phantom Light of the Baie des Chaleurs”, 1891)
When I was a kid, if you were interested in sober investigation of the anomalies of our universe packaged as entertainment, you could pretty much watch In Search Of, hosted by Leonard Nimoy, which unbeknownst to me at the time, was actually a spin-off of three one-hour television documentaries called In Search of Ancient Astronauts (based on Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, and narrated by Twilight Zone luminary Rod Serling). These days, the lineup when it comes to strange phenomena is extensive: Ancient Aliens, MonsterQuest, Mountain Monsters, Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Witness, Ghost Adventures, Fact or Faked, The Unexplained, Destination Truth, and America Unearthed are but a small sampling of the cornucopia of weirdness available for our viewing pleasure. Many attribute the resurgence of the strange as entertainment to the unexpected popularity of the X-Files (and subsequent explosion of television series that invoked complex mythologies), which was itself related to a growing public mistrust of large institutions and willingness to believe in grand conspiracies that characterized the 1990’s. In short, we all began to suspect that treachery was afoot. No specific treachery, you see, just a generalized notion that “The Truth is Out There”, but we were not privy to its specifics. We had started to enter the Age of Deligitimization represented by an atmosphere of disdain for traditional institutions and cynicism towards the production of knowledge that still persists. This has led to revolutions in the past, but it seems a sort of bland existential ennui has settled in, where we shrug our shoulders and confide that the truth is not so much “out there”, as “outré”. Having adopted the stance that the world is an unusual place, where do we go from here? Certainly the strange phenomena industry has never before known the current level of interest it enjoys across a variety of media (books, articles, television, movies, the internet), but what can be done with this kind of fascination, or should anything be done at all?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the field of anomalistics needs a snappy philosophy, something that provides a little more theoretical perspective beyond, “Hey, that’s unusual”. The methodological grab bag for investigators of strange phenomena runs the gamut of our modern sciences, theologies, and philosophies. Ask a hundred ghost hunters what they think ghosts are, and you’ll get a hundred answers. Cryptozoologists range from hardcore biologists to seasoned hunters. I’m not disparaging the plethora of perspectives that investigators bring to the table, rather observing that trotting out the detection of electromagnetic fields, the presence of orbs, electronic voice phenomena, folklore, and psychic experience to validate the same strange occurrence, is a bit like throwing out the baby to more closely examine the bathwater. This explains why the conclusions of most investigators of strange phenomena sound a bit like “well something happened, but we’re not precisely sure what”. The skeptical consequently conclude that nothing real actually happened. When you go to a doctor, they listen to your symptoms. In most cases they aren’t sure exactly what you have. They prescribe some medicine. Your symptoms go away. You are pronounced cured. Did the underlying cause of the symptoms go away? Perhaps you’ll being calling the doctor back in a few days. Philosopher Martin Heidegger would call this the difference between “being” and “appearance”. Heidegger scholar Roderick Munday summarized the difference, stating “Appearance describes a relationship between phenomena, which is always based on a referral of some kind or other, therefore it is contrary to phenomena that show themselves in their genuine Being. The ‘phenomenon’ of appearance also shows itself, but it’s Being is always a reference masking some other kind of Being. Appearance (as the appearance of something) does not mean something that shows itself, but rather something that announces itself. Announcing can be defined as a ‘showing itself by not showing itself,’ for example an illness announces itself in its symptoms, which are, so to speak, its calling card. So, in a sense, appearance is a not showing itself (Heidegger uses the term “not” here with the caveat that it is not to be understood as meaning a negation, but as indicating the presence of something unseen). Anything that never shows itself is also something that can never seem. This is why appearance is different from showing or seeming. All indications, presentations, symptoms and symbols have this basic formal structure of appearing”. Of course, this sort of existential analytic isn’t very helpful if you are face to face with a monster right this minute. Arguing that he is “announcing” an underlying, but as of yet undiscovered “being” is not necessarily going to prevent him from having you as a light snack. And if you’re abducted by aliens, I recommend you just go with it, rather than try to precipitate some sort of existential crisis. They might probe you out of spite. Just saying, quoting Heidegger is not an effective substitute for running away or, should the situation be especially dire, reloading. Aim first, philosophize later. As I prudently avoid situations where the preternatural is considering my nutritional value, I have the luxury of the long view, and a particular interest in how anomalies are interpreted across time (hence my obsessions tend to revolve around not just strange phenomena, but the historical evolution of folklore and mythology that surround them). Its seems a fertile ground to me to consider cases such as the infamous fireship of the Baie des Chaleurs, where for two hundred years, stories are told of luminous waters, burning boats, pirate depredations, and mythological monsters, not to mention British fleet actions, doomed brides, and an assortment of other horrific tales used to explain the recurrent oddities afoot in an arm of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, between Quebec and New Brunswick, which have collectively come to be known as the Chaleur Phantom. Are the many origin stories surrounding the phantom of the Baie de Chaleurs, more productively treated as instances of an underlying “state of being” unabashedly “announcing itself” across the years, relevant in that each accretion to the story is an appearance, a mere facet of an unmasked reality?
The Baie de Chaleurs, situated between northern New Brunswick and Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula has long been host to an apparition, said to resemble a burning ship. Reputedly named by explorer Jacques Cartier: “On June the 15th, Cartier took a southern course following the western coast of Newfoundland, and reached the Magdalen Islands; after having made a few other discoveries, he anchored in a bay which he called Baie des Chaleurs (Bay of Heat) on account of the great heat which was felt there (Routhier, 1904, p158). One can image that “The Bay of Heat” would be the perfect haunt for a burning boat. Numerous modern explanations have been offered, but remain unproven, including rotting vegetation, undersea releases of natural gas, or St. Elmo’s fire (luminous plasma created by coronal discharge, from say the mast of a ship at sea). Suffice it to say that something has been awry in the Baie de Chaleurs for two centuries or more. And the most common interpretation (snotty rationalists aside) of the phenomena is that a ghostly burning boat is stalking back and forth off the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Now a ghost ship is bad enough. A burning ghost ship is guaranteed to give one the willies. Like it’s not enough that you’re dead and haunting, that you need to be set on fire as well. Whoever makes these kinds of decision has a pretty sick sense of humor. The many witnesses over the past two centuries agree that she is a square-rigged sailing ship, but the ultimate origins of the specter are the subject of debate, ascribed to a variety of historical tragedies.
Among the legends of the Baie de Chaleurs the best known is that of the “Phantom, or the Burning Ship.” Very realistic and fearsome are the versions of this fiery visitant, which frequents the bay, — being its own peculiar spectre. The entire bay is her preserve, but it would appear that she is partial to the south side as she is more frequently seen there than elsewhere. The tale runs that once in the olden days, a pirate ship had been chased up the bay by a man-of-war, and taking fire had been burned to the water’s edge, all on board perishing. At certain times, usually before a storm she appears: a ship on fire, rigging and hull enveloped in a mass of flames. She has been seen by many persons at different times, for evidently she loves to re-visit her old haunts. From Perce to Dalhousie she appears, and always as a square-rigged ship. On one occasion a number of men were returning from Jaquet River to New Richmond, and when three-quarters of the way across saw suddenly the Burning Ship sailing up the bay. To avoid collision they turned out of her course, and gave her the “right of way,” and thus had a good view of her, and the sight was enough to frighten the stoutest heart among them, so weird was it. The ship was aflame, rigging, masts and hull. A man stood at the helm, and the sailors were running up and down, climbing the rigging, hither and thither. On the quarter-deck, clearly in view stood a beautiful woman, gazing straight ahead with extended arm, evidently giving orders, while above, beneath, and all around the ship was one seething mass of fire. She passed, and they resumed their course. At different points on the coast men have rowed out to investigate more closely, but always failed to reach her. One Christmas Eve, some years ago the Roman Catholic congregation of Grand Anse, on their way to mid-night mass saw the ship, a square- rigged, under full sail on the ice, all on fire, and there are people still living who vouch for the truth of this story. The same night at Petit Roche, the congregation also going to midnight mass saw her sail close into the shore and disappear. The old cure” said that he knew of a place on the coast of Florida, where a burning ship had sailed ashore and vanished. Another time she stopped at Ellis Cove, Gloucester County, and being seen by people a mile away, they hastened to assist what they supposed was a ship in distress. The sailors were plainly visible, engaged at their various duties. The watchers saw a boat lowered, men enter, and row shorewards; half-way to land all vanished. On still another occasion, a captain on his way to Stonehaven saw the burning ship. On reaching harbour he told what he had seen, — a ship in distress, which when hailed returned no answer, although the two vessels were so close that he had seen the officers in blue uniform, leaning over the rail. An old lady in Janeville also claimed to have seen the Phantom one night in a blaze of fire sailing up the bay. She saw decks crowded with grand ladies and gentlemen, and it seemed as though a ball was in progress, as the ladies were all dressed in gold lace, and merrily the dance went on — the figure “eight” in the old-time dance. The ship did not enter the Cove, but as far up the bay as she was visible the happy crowd held high carnival (MacWhirter, 1919, p148-150).
Perhaps she was a pirate ship, burned to the water line by a patrolling man-o-war, yet others have reported what appeared to be grand party taking place on her decks (strangely incompatible with the whole burning aspect). Pirates were a pretty unpleasant lot to begin with, so it stands to reason that they might lead a rather unpleasant afterlife. I’m fairly sure that 17th Century Canada was not host to many “party boats”, so the presence of grand ladies and gentleman dancing on the deck sounds a lot more like sour grapes over a neglected invitation, although an overabundance of grog might lend itself to the flammable aspects of the ghost. Yet oddly, sightings that noted a shipboard fete was not an isolated instance of a crazy old lady angry that she didn’t get invited to a party.
One of the legends most often told is that of the Phantom Ship, which sails the Baie des Chaleurs, there being many old people about Perce who declare that they have seen it. It is a square-rigged pirate brig, and a beautiful woman in the dress of old France is upon the quarter-deck. The brig is wrapped in a mass of flames, but whenever a boat puts out towards it, the ship vanishes. A few years ago it was seen by the habitants of Grande Anse as they were coming home from midnight mass. It appeared as a sheet of flames amid the ice floes. Again it appeared at Petite Roche. This time the decks were crowded with ladies and gentlemen in the costume of the seventeenth century. A ball seemed in progress and the merriment was at its height when the brig vanished into the mists. On another occasion a skipper tells of a black ship, with a single square sail spread, that followed alongside his barque all night, and vanished with the dawn (Call, 1927, p347).
Interestingly, the beautiful woman in white on the quarterdeck engendered another origin legend for the fireship of Baie des Chaleurs, involving the true love between a French officer and his fiancée. This charming young lady was loathe to leave the side of her intended and they decided to sail to the New World together when his duty called him to Canada, rather than spend a single moment apart. In our modern world, we tend not to include pirates among the major obstacles to true love. This was not so much true in the 17th Century. Pirates hate a good love story. Somebody usually ends up walking the plank.
Sometime during the seventeenth century a young French officer, distinguished for bravery and nobility of character, as well as of birth, was ordered to Canada. Not hesitating at the call of duty, his heart misgave him at the thought of separation from the lady of his love, a beautiful woman to whom he was soon to have been married. Years might pass ere they could see each other, and as the fair one pondered on the possibilities of his life in that far-away and wild country, her anguish was augmented by the thought that they might never meet again. Though she had been so delicately nurtured and shielded, she did not hesitate to face danger and hardship for his sake, but promised to accompany some friends sailing later for “La Nouvelle France,” there to be united to him, for better, for worse, in Quebec. In those times there were fierce marauders on the seas, and before “L’Esperance,” with the fair bride-elect among her passengers, had proceeded very far upon her voyage, she was captured by a Spanish pirate. The crew and passengers were put to death with the exception of the French lady, whose rare loveliness fascinated the chief of the buccaneers. Enraged at the obduracy of his captive, the pirate locked her in the cabin; but she, taking her life in her own hands, leaped from the window into the sea. Infuriated at the escape of his victim, the pirate continued on his course, hoping to secure prizes among merchantmen bound to or from Quebec. The next night after the suicide of the unfortunate fiancée, the ship was rounding Cape Canon, and approaching L’lle Perce, when, to the horror of all, a white and floating figure appeared upon the Rock. The wicked sailor and his men knew this in an instant as the wraith of the unhappy French woman. Crew and captain were panic stricken; a strange numbness crept over them, their limbs grew heavy and seemed almost powerless. The phantom still hovered over the rock waving its arms menacingly. The captain steered for Gaspe Bay; the vessel, sailing in a strangely labored manner, seemed to be settling in the water, while the lethargy of all the men increased in unaccountable manner. Slowly and more slowly the vessel moved; presently she seemed to stand still, and in an instant barque and crew became petrified, a solid mass of rock which still resembled a ship under sail. As Ship Rock it was known in olden times, and after a prodigious storm and earthquake it sank into the sea. The phantom still haunts Le Rocher Perce, keeping watch over good sailors, but luring evil ones to destruction on these capes and wild shores (Chase, 1909, p158-160).
There are more optimistic versions that don’t necessarily involve suicide, but still include the beautiful lady in white, her dashing officer, and some element of burning to death.
The best known legend of the Chaleur Bay is that of the phantom ship. It is generally seen at twilight or at night. The sea is calm, not a ripple on the waters, when suddenly huge waves rise from the bottom of the bay, and come tumbling towards the beach. Beyond these foam covered breakers there looms in the distance the ghostly form of a vessel, all sails set, steering straight for the shore and becoming more visible every minute. On her deck and in her rigging are sailors and soldiers garbed in the uniforms of olden days. On the quarter-deck stands the Captain with the white-robed figure of a woman on his arm. All is a mass of flames. The wind howls, the sea rages, and the burning ship sails madly on! A crash of thunder, a great noise, a few piercing cries, among them the scream of a woman, then silence and the sea is calm once again. This ship is reputed to have been seen at numerous points all along the Bay, though most frequently on the New Brunswick shore, and by authentic eye witnesses whose truthfulness is unquestionable (Smith, 1936, p68).
Interestingly there are some well documented historical precedents that could very well have been the source of the phantom fireship. It turns out, a nasty naval battle between French and British squadrons took place in the vicinity of La Baie des Chaleurs around 1700. Anytime a lot of people die somewhere, you have to assume that at least a percentage will be miffed. While the French reputedly made a good show of it, the battle ended when a French sloop, loaded with ammunition exploded rather spectacularly. Sounds like a recipe for a burning boat to me.
After the reduction of Quebec, the French Ministry attempted to succour Montreal, by equipping a considerable number of Store ships, which they sent out in the spring of 1700, under a strong convoy. This fleet, understanding on their arrival in the gulf, that the British squadron had sailed up the Saint Lawrence, took shelter in La Baie des Chaleurs. They were not long here, however, before they were disturbed; for Captain Byron, senior officer of His Brittannic Majesty’s ships at Louisburg, receiving intelligence of them from General Whitmore, he immediately proceeded with the Fame, Dorsetshire, Achilles, Scarborough and Repulse, in quest of them. Having taken one French ship, La Catharina, in Gaspe Bay, and another in Saint Simoi, near Caraquet, he proceeded to Restigouche, where he found the remainder, consisting of the Marchault of 32 guns, the Esperance of 30, the Bienfaisant, of 22, and the Marquis de Marloze of 18; besides twenty two schooners, sloops, and small privateers. When the British fleet appeared, the French ships proceeded up the Restigouche, and there anchored, under cover of the batteries I have already mentioned. These posts being badly served, were silenced after a short resistance, when an engagement immediately ensued between the ships. The French, forming the best line the channel would admit, fought very gallantly, until Monsieur Bourdo, the Captain of the Marchault, was killed. This, and the melancholy explosion of one of the Sloops, loaded with ammunition, put an end to the contest. Captain Byron then destroyed the town of Petit Rochelle; also the two batteries; and some small settlements on the south side of the River. All the enemy’s ships were either sunk, or taken, in the immediate action, except a few of the Store vessels, which in striving to escape, were captured near Port Daniel, by Captain Wallis, whom Lord Colville had sent, with the Prince of Orange, Rochester, Spartan, and two other armed vessels, to perform the duty, in the discharge of which, Captain Byron had anticipated him (Cooney, 1896, p287-288).
Descriptions of the fireship have bent and twisted over time. In some folklore it remains a fiery vessel, others a ball of fire, and frequently it is said to presage a terrible storm.
The bay has its legends, and there are tales that the old people are loath to tell, lest they be assailed with the ridicule of this scoffing and materialistic age. There is yet one uncanny thing which relies not on legend for its fame, but asserts itself by appearing from time to time to mortal eyes. It is the phantom light of La Baie de Chaleur. For the last one hundred years at least, or as far as the English residents have had the story orally transmitted from their grandfathers, this light has been seen in various parts of the bay from above Jacquet River as far down as Caraquet, and its advent has been accepted as the paarege of storm and tempest. Nobody knows what it is, for it has never approached within less than a mile or two from shore, and it has disappeared from the view of the few bold sceptics who have sought to reach it by the aid of boats. Sometimes it has the semblance of a burning vessel many miles away. More frequently it looks like a ball of fire, apparently close at hand. Now and then it darts like a meteor, and again glides along with a slow and dignified motion. Occasionally it mounts rapidly in the air, sails away and descends on a distant part of the bay. It is altogether mysterious and eccentric. One may watch for months and fail to get a glimpse lost during a storm and immediately after the event the light began its vagrant existence. It is one of the strange things that come in with the tide (Reynolds, 1901, p68-69).
Lest you think that the strangeness associated with the Baie des Chaleurs is reserved to a single phantom fireship, there is no shortage of nautical folklore about the general creepiness of the area.
The folk lore of the inhabitants of the Gaspe coast is distinctive in its features. The phosphorescent glow of the water is attributed to supernatural agency, and the moaning of the surf among the hollow caverns at the base of the sea wall, is thought to be the voice of the murderer, condemned to expiate his crime on the very spot that witnessed its commission; for it is well known that the Gaspe wreckers have not always contented themselves with robbery and pillage, but have sometimes sought concealment by making way with victims—convinced that the tomb reveals no secrets. It was on these shores that Walker’s fleet encountered that terrific August gale. Says the chronicle: On the 30th of July, 1711, Sir Hovenden Walker, in command of a formidable armada, consisting of men-of-war and transports carrying troops, sailed from Nantasket Roads for Quebec, for the purpose of capturing that post, and avenging the repulse of Sir William Phipps in 1690. Paradis, master on a Rochelle gunboat that had been captured by the British frigate Chester, was put on board the flagship, Edgar, as pilot, for he knew the St. Lawrence well. A dense fog settled down upon the fleet after it left Gaspe Bay; and at ten p. m. on August 22d, “we found ourselves” writes Admiral Walker, in his Journal, “upon the North Shore, amongst rocks and islands, at least fifteen leagues farther than the log gave, when the whole fleet had like to have been lost (Smith, 1884, p358).
French navigator Samuel Champlain and founder of the French colonies in Quebec, first explored the region of Baie des Chaluers between 1604-1608, and remarked on native stories regarding a horrible monster that inhabited an island in the bay, which they called the Gougou. I don’t mean to suggest a direct correspondence between the phantom fireship and native myths about giant man-eating monsters, merely wanted to mention that folks have been recording detailed accounts of strange occurrences on the Baie des Chaluers that predate the arrival of European colonists.
There is, moreover, a strange matter, worthy of being related, which several savages have assured me was true; namely, near the Bay of Chaleurs, towards the south, there is an island where a terrible monster resides, which the savages call Gougou, and which they told me had the form of a woman, though very frightful, and of such a size that they told me the tops of the masts of our vessel would not reach to her middle, so great do they picture him; and they say that she has often devoured and still continues to devour many savages; these he puts, when he can catch them, into a great pocket, and afterwards eats them; and those who had escaped the jaws of this wretched creature said that its pocket was so great that it could have put our vessel into it. This monster makes horrible noises in this island, which the savages call the Gougou; and when they speak of him, it is with the greatest possible fear, and several have assured me that they have seen him. Even the above-mentioned Prevert from St. Malo told me that, while going in search of mines, as mentioned in the previous chapter, he passed so near the dwelling-place of this frightful creature, that he and all those on board his vessel heard strange hissings from the noise it made, and that the savages with him told him it was the same creature, and that they were so afraid that they hid themselves wherever they could, for sear that it would come and carry them off. What makes me believe what they say is the fact that all the savages in general fear it, and tell such strange things about it that, if I were to record all they say, it would be regarded as a myth; but I hold that this is the dwelling-place of some devil that torments them in the above-mentioned manners. This is what I have learned about this Gougou (Champlain, 1878, p289-290).
Hearing the variety of conflicting fokloric and natural explanations for the fireship of Baie des Caleurs, one might be inclined to relegate all the accounts to the mythological dustpile. Nothing requires us to be so reductive. We quite literally have too much information, and rather than believe in everything, it is a natural human reaction to then believe in nothing or believe in the version that most closely matches our own prejudices. What if each version accounting for the fireship of Baie des Caleurs, is an “appearance” a la Heidegger, an announcement of “being” that underlies–while not the essence of the thing itself, it is telegraphing a message to us about another reality emerging into our own, interpreted and reinterpreted through the lens of time and culture. We tend to irrationally denigrate “interpretation” as if there was another option. Werner Heisenberg once said, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”. Of course, one still has to leave room for the possibility that you are actually seeing a burning ghost ship or island-striding monster. You don’t want to get caught with your pants down in the name of philosophy.
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Champlain, Samuel de, 1574-1635. Voyages of Samuel De Champlain. Boston: The Prince Society, 1878.
Chase, Eliza B. Transcontinental Sketches: Legends, Lyrics And Romances Gleaned On Vacation Tours In Northeastern And Middle Canada And Pacific States. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1909.
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