“Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating” – Carl von Clausewitz
Uncertainty is unpopular. It’s why we invented cool stuff like probability and statistics. I mean, if you’re going to be an expert in something, it sucks when your predictions turn out wrong, and it’s nice to have sufficiently complex mathematical concepts to conclusively demonstrate that nobody’s perfect. Folks tend to stop donating to oracles that are consistently off target. The oracles probably don’t care as they are high as a kite, but even a prophet has to make a profit, be it fiduciary or celestial. When you are a noted intellectual giant in a field of inquiry, repeated failures to show your smarts tend to make all those college loans seem like a frivolous expense.
Now, if Socrates said nothing else, we’d probably still know him from his most famous adage, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”. Well, that and the whole voluntarily drinking hemlock thing. Of course, this is not how humans behave. We tend to believe that the only true wisdom is in knowing that everybody else knows nothing. Those with philosophical inclinations tend to eschew saying “I don’t know”. Or maybe they don’t. I don’t know. Perhaps the fundamental ontological presumption of an effective anomalist is to look at any given strange phenomenon and first say, “I don’t know”, rather than proceeding straight to exorcising demons, declaring houses haunted, and discovering Atlantis. That’s why I’m particularly fond of the story of the S.S. Fort Salisbury’s encounter with the unknown. In 1902, a reliable second officer (with witnesses) described his bizarre encounter in the South Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Central West Africa in terms that would have made Joe Friday proud. Maybe he saw a sea serpent. Maybe it was a historically early encounter with an unidentified submarine object. May I be so bold as to suggest that the only true wisdom is in knowing when you are in the presence of the weird.
The steamship S.S. Fort Salisbury of the Bucknall Steamship Lines, whose second officer was one A.H. Raymer, regularly ran the route from the United Kingdom to Cape Town, South Africa to Algoa Bay, South Africa to East London, South Africa and back again. On a side note, the Fort Salisbury was named after the original British South Africa Company’s settlement in Zimbabwe (which would later become the Zimbabwean capital city of Harare), and the city itself was named after Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, a rather important figure in British politics, who depending on who you asked was described as either, “A patient, pragmatic practitioner, with a keen understanding of Britain’s historic interests”, or alternatively, “deeply neurotic, depressive, agitated, introverted, fearful of change and loss of control, and self-effacing but capable of extraordinary competitiveness”. It is said that his motto was, “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible”. As a devout pessimist, I sympathize with the world view of the 3rd Marquess, but as he was considered “deeply neurotic”, he probably could appreciate the irony of his namesake steamship’s strange encounter.
Charles Fort happened to be digging through back issues of The Zoologist and ran across the rather detailed account provided by A.H. Raymer, poked around for reasonable explanations, shrugged his shoulders, and wound up including it in his book Lo! as an example of high weirdness that leaves us filled with an uncanny sense of uncertainty, that which strikes fear in the hearts of skeptics and scientists.
According to the log of the steamship Fort Salisbury, the second officer, Mr. A. H. Raymer, had, Oct. 28, 1902, in Lat. 5°, 31′ S., and Long, 4″, 42′ W., been called, at 3:05 A.M., by the lookout, who reported that there was a huge, dark object, bearing lights in the sea ahead. Two lights were seen. The steamship passed a slowly sinking bulk, of an estimated length of five or six hundred feet. Mechanism of some kind—fins, the observers thought—was making a commotion in the water. “A scaled back” was slowly submerging. One thinks that seeing for such details as “a scaled back” could not have been very good, at three o’clock in the morning. So doubly damned is this datum that the attempt to explain it was in terms of the accursed Sea Serpent. Phosphorescence of the water is mentioned several times, but that seems to have nothing to do with two definite lights, like those of a vessel. The Captain of the Fort Salisbury was interviewed. “I can only say that he (Mr. Raymer) is very earnest on the subject, and has, together with the lookout and helmsman, seen something in the water, of a huge nature, as specified.” One thinks that this object may have been a large, terrestrial vessel that had been abandoned, and was sinking. I have looked over Lloyd’s List, for the period, finding no record, by which to explain (Fort, 1941, p101).
Fortunately, we can read the actual log of Second Officer A.H. Raymer, where he describes the puzzlement of himself, the helmsman, and the lookout when they spotted something truly monstrous, especially confusing in that its characteristics alternately seemed biological and technological.
Extract from the log of the second officer of the S.S. Fort Salisbury: October 28, 1902, 3:05 a.m.—Dark object, with long, luminous trailing wake, thrown in relief by a phosphorescent sea, seen ahead, a little on starboard bow. Look-out reported two masthead lights ahead. These two lights, almost as bright as a steamer’s lights, appeared to shine from two points in line on the upper surface of the dark mass. Concluded dark mass was a whale, and lights phosphorescent. On drawing nearer, dark mass and lights sank below the surface. Prepared to examine the wake in passing with binoculars. Passed about forty to fifty yards on port side of wake, and discovered it was the scaled back of some huge monster slowly disappearing below the surface. Darkness of the night prevented determining its exact nature, but scales of apparently 1 ft. diameter, and dotted in places with barnacle growth, were plainly discernible. The breadth of the body showing above water tapered from about 80 ft. close abaft, where the dark mass had appeared to about 5 ft. at the extreme end visible. Length roughly about 500 ft. to 600 ft. Concluded that the dark mass first seen must have been the creature’s head. The swirl caused by the monster’s progress could be distinctly heard, and a strong odor like that of a low-tide beach on a summer day pervaded the air. Twice along its length the disturbance of the water and a broadening of the surrounding belt of phosphorus indicated the presence of huge fins in motion below the surface. The wet, shiny back of the monster was dotted with twinkling phosphorescent lights, and was encircled with a band of white phosphorescent sea. Such are the bare facts of the passing of the Sea Serpent in latitude 5 deg. 81 min. S., longitude 4 deg. 42 min. W., as seen by myself, being officer of the watch, and by the helmsman and look-out man (Distant, 1903, p38-39).
Given it was 1902, and the most reasonable description that came to the minds of these salty mariners was “sea serpent”, and let’s face it, if you encountered a 600 foot, phosphorescent thing slowly submerging in the South Atlantic you might similarly lack a good reference point. Maybe sailors just naturally live with a higher degree of uncertainty, thus they don’t get all excited about it and jot the appropriate notes in their log. The rest of us want answers. We make our livings off being able to answer questions. The world we live in today is filled with definitive responses to pre-formulated questions. It was a sea serpent. It was a strange out–of-place technology. It was aliens. It was a whale covered in phosphorescent algae. It was an optical effect. It was a hallucination. Maybe the truth isn’t out there, for as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “We hear only those questions for which we are in a position to find answers”.
Fort, Charles, 1874-1932. Lo! New York: Ace Books, 1941.
Distant, W.L. ed. “Editorial Gleanings”. Zoologist: a Monthly Journal of Natural History 4:7. 1843- London, 1903