The Feejee Mermaid: Maritime Myths and Legends

May 2022

In this episode we continue looking at folklore, myths and legends relating to the sea by investigating the story of the Feejee Mermaid, an extraordinary tale of a ‘real’ mermaid that was discovered in Japan in 1822, purchased by a collector and displayed in London to the grotesque fascination of thousands of people. Dr Sam Willis speaks with Béatrice Laurent, Professor of Victorian Studies at the Université Bordeaux Montaigne in France. They discuss the reasons why people believe in mermaids in the nineteenth century and how the discovery of mermaids fitted in with religious and scientific thought at the time.

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    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation. I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. This week we are exploring the brilliant history of Mermaids and sirens and this is the second episode. In Episode One Eirwen Abborly- Watton explored how Mermaids and sirens, of figures of indeterminate gender, and the art and poetry of the late Victorian era, and how these figures may still be used as symbols for transgender and non binary communities today. Now in this episode, we’re looking at one particular example of a so called Mermaid that was actually discovered. This was the Fiji Mermaid that was found in Japan in 1822. Purchased by a collector and displayed in London to the grotesque fascination of 1000s of people, it’s one hell of a story. And to do it justice, you really need to know what the Fiji Mermaid looked like. So I urge you all to find the Mariners Mirror podcast on social media, and take a look yourself. You may be scared, you will almost certainly feel a little bit sick. But best leave it to someone who actually saw it in person. This is from the greatest showmen himself, PT Barnum. He saw it and he said that it was an ugly dried up black looking diminutive specimen about three feet long. Its mouth was open, its tail turned over, its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony. What on earth is going on I hear you all cry? Well, to find out more I spoke with the excellent Beatrice Laurent, Professor of Victorian Studies at the University of Bordeaux Montagnier in France. A pre-Raphaelite scholar, she has edited a volume of essays on William Morris’s News from Nowhere 2004 and written on La Peinture Anglaise as well as numerous book chapters and articles in refereed journals. In her books, Provence and the British imagination, Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britain, Cultural, literary and artistic explorations of a myth and water and women in the Victorian imagination, she explores the interaction between visual art and theoretical discourses. Her broader field of research deals with the conceptual overlap between art, literature, science and society, particularly in Victorian Britain. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoy talking with her. Here is Beatrice. Thank you very much indeed for joining me today.

    Well, thank you, Sam, for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here and your wonderful blog.

    I’ve always been fascinated by this history of Mermaids and the I suppose the first question that I’ve always wanted to ask is, why did people believe in Mermaids,

    I think they believed in them because they wanted to, because they, the Mermaids, in a way filled the horizons of expectations. They expected to to see Mermaids and to prove to themselves that they had been right or the way that they did exist. Moreover, there had been reports of Mermaids being seen everywhere in the globe, in distant countries, distant seas, and across a span of time that goes all the way back to antiquity. So it seems that people clung to these pieces of not real evidence, but at least reported stories, to believe that they existed. So, they were ready to admit that they existed. I think it’s something that all human beings do. You know, when we believe in something, we want to find evidence that we’ve been right all the way.

    Yes, it’s like everyone was primed. They were ready actually to see one of these extraordinary Mermaids. And then once these Mermaids started coming on the scene and being exhibited, how did they fit into the existing religious and scientific thought of the time, because, I mean, it’s quite clear to me that they didn’t fit into it, but they seem to kind of make it work somehow.

    Although they did. They did. First of all they had been exhibited from the late 18th century. In fact, there had been quite a few Mermaids exhibited, I think that five have been, yes, I read that at least five Mermaids had been on show when there’s an exhibition in London in the years 1775 till 1795. But that was before the famous Fiji Mermaid made her show in 1822. They were exhibited, because people wanted to see them, they had been trained to see all sorts of things in fairs and shows. But you’re right , in the scientific field, they raised considerable questions. Because, on the one hand, there were a fixed list of people such as Linnaeus, who wanted to fill the gaps, you know, in the great table of taxonomy. And Linnaeus himself had left a blank for the Mermaid, he believed that the Mermaid existed, so there was a big international inquiry to fill the gap and to find the species that would fit in the square in the table. On the other hand, there were people who wanted to stress the difference between human and animal species, and were not quite ready to embark on the Mermaid hypothesis, but there were people who were not so sure. And one of them, for example, who has written about him was Dr. Phillip, John Philip, who was a clergyman. But he also wrote scientific magazines in the early 19th century.

    It’s quite interesting for our listeners, I tell you what, let’s describe the Fiji Mermaid so that people have got a rough idea about what we’re talking about.

    Okay, so it was in fact, a mummified artefact. It was neither the upper part of a monkey or possibly two monkeys, because there were descriptions of it looking like an Orangutan and others mentioning a Baboon, Mandy jaw. And the lower half was that of a fish that looked like a Salmon. So there there were very precise descriptions. It was quite small, about maybe three feet high. And apparently it was much shorter where it was exhibited, because the idea was that it shrivelled when taken out of water and when it mummified, so it was quite small, and not very attractive, in fact.

    So that was my point. It’s unimaginably grotesque. For our listeners, make sure you listen, you check out Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Tick Tock because we will definitely show you pictures of this Mermaid. When it comes back to what I was thinking about earlier, so people know Mermaids exist, right? And they’ve surely got an idea of them. And I’m assuming I might be completely wrong, but I’m assuming a Mermaid was an attractive female.

    Yes.

    And what they’re given here is a shrivelled grotesque monster.

    Absolutely, yes. All right. The poet had turned the Mermaids into these beautiful female creatures, the temptress, you know, they’re the icons of feminine vanity and temptation and seduction. This is how she was described in poetry and in art. In fact, what I found also in some of my research was that there was a proliferation of Mermaids in Victorian art. The 19th century is really the period of the Mermaid in both in literature and in the arts. I think this ties nicely with her resurfacing as a real artefact.

    Yes, why would the Victorian be so interested in in human monsters, human animal crosses, whatever it might be? I’m thinking here of Frankenstein, particularly.

    . That’s not really the Victorian period, right before it’s the beginning of the 19th century. And that’s very exciting because that’s a period where scientists disagreed considerably. So there were all sorts of debates. Because what we now consider as orthodox science didn’t really exist it, it was information in progress. And there were many discordant voices. Some people still believed in this sort of horizontal chain of beings, with the idea that species evolved, and that there was a process of transmutation from one species to the other. And therefore, the Mermaid seemed to be the missing link between the aquatic animals and the mammal species. This was one of the reasons why it was fascinating, people were looking for the missing links. And they were also fascinated by the new species that had been discovered, thanks to explorers and scientists across the globe. And I’m thinking about a fascinating book by Harriet Redfield with the Platypus and the Mermaid. In fact, the Platypus was hardly more or hardly less of a wonder than the Mermaid itself with its sort of, you know, the duck, beak and the sort of very weird animal. So people thought, well, if the Platypus exists, why shouldn’t a Mermaid exist, both of them are very weird creatures of troll. The other reason was early on thought and palaeontology because people were discovering excavated bones of dinosaurs. And they thought, well, if these fantastic animals existed, and then died, maybe Mermaids existed and then died. They must have existed in a remote past, maybe there are still a few surviving specimens. So that was some of the ideas that lingered among the common imagination. So people were ready to just see the the specimens for themselves and make up their own mind and either to reinforce their own their own hypothesis or maybe to undermine that of their opponents. So everybody was interested, whether it was to sustain their own ideas or to debunk ideas that they didn’t agree with.

    The link with palaeontology is really interesting, because it’s all to do with perfection, isn’t it? So the palaeontologists to finding evidence of imperfection, they’re finding evidence of huge monsters that once existed, but now did not exist, therefore proving that God’s plan was not necessarily as accurate as they all thought. And I liked the idea whether this kind of links together this, the Mermaid was almost more proof of imperfection, because it was ugly and shrivelled. It wasn’t this kind of amazing, beautiful example of feminine beauty.

    Absolutely. So to explain that, in fact, I can see two ways of thinking about it. Either she was the missing link that went back to an earlier age and this can be faulted in a way the evolutionist or the evolutionary way of reading things, which in fact, superposed in here, I’m quoting an idea that has been really well explained by Gillian Beer, which superposed the ontology of the ontogeny and phylogeny that is, the way many scientists, including Darwin, looked at evolution was that species evolved pretty much in the large scale as a human being evolved on an individual scale. And, for example, a human foetus grows in aquatic environment. It’s imperfect. It has salt limbs, and doesn’t look very engaging until it is formed into a full adult human specimen of perfection. That’s one of the way of seeing things. And the mermaid in a way was a species in the making is. She was feminine imperfection, she showed a liminal state of what would become female perfection at a later stage. That was one way of looking at things. The other way was more linked to the later Darwin, once the tree and metaphor replaced the chain mid fall. So they in this vision, which was vertical rather than horizontal, the evolution went from a common ancestor and then branched out into various species. And the Mermaid could have been one of these branches that didn’t flourish. You know, that was just one species that existed and then stopped because it was imperfect, and left room for more adapted and better fitted species to grow and develop.

    That was fascinating. I love the idea of the tree that we talked about, the relationship between women and water more generally, because you know, in the Victorian period, the Mermaid by no means is the only example of women being associated with the the watery involvment shall I say.

    Absolutely. That’s the point I tried to make in one of my latest books. And I think it served everybody’s purpose really to make in a way the woman a watery creature. So the Mermaid fits into this discourse, which was a cultural myth. But of course, as we know, culture is made through systems of working myth, this is a very Bartesian way of looking at things. But I believe that in what Bart wrote, I think, he was very clever. So if we looked at this into worked systems of signs, the Mermaid is part of a whole conceptual cluster that equates women with water. And she’s one amongst many watery women. And in my book, for example, talk about Andine and Sabrina, Musidora, Ophelia, and the siren and many other sort of liquid women which are associated to the water element. Here again, this has to do with what we said earlier about ontogeny and phylogeny. Because if on in the geological formation of the earth, water was created before the land, it means that the water woman was pre existing. She and in a way, she was a liminal form of humanity, she she was an imperfect specimen that had to wait until she moved out on solid ground to become a fully human. She’s associated also with this unfinished state of humanity. For example, I’m thinking about Kingsley’s Water Babies, you know, so the sea is not only linked to the ideas of fecundity, and maternity, which makes sense in the Kingsley’s tale, but also with the primaeval element, and also with the unpredictability of the female temperament, but also with the maybe violence of the seas in the ocean as well. So it is very poorly formed as a myth. And I think it serves many Victorian assumptions about femininity.

    Yes, let’s get back to the embodiment of this discovery. Who found the Fiji Mermaid.

    That’s a fascinating story. So the person who found at least the one that was exhibited in 1822 in London was Captain Edis and he had apparently bought it from a Japanese fisherman or Japanese sailor. This Captain was apparently an American sea captain called Sunil Barity, and he bought it for a considerable amount of money, a huge sum at that time .And in order to be able to purchase this Mermaid, he had to sell the ship. Now the problem was that

    they did sell his ship.

    Yes he bought it for the sum of 6000 Spanish dollars, a huge sum of money. The problem was that the ship didn’t wholly belong to him, he only owned a part of the ship. And that’s when the whole story becomes totally amusing. Because well, he purchased this Mermaid, and then decided to take it to Europe. He went first to Africa and stopped in South Africa. And that’s where it was first exhibited in Cape Town. And then when it arrived in London, and as was the custom at the time, and still is, when you bring in something from a foreign country, it has to go through customs. So it was left in the customs office for quite a while. And people were not sure

    who’s got the form for the moment.

    They didn’t really know what to do with it, because nobody had the expertise in that sort of artefact. So they decide to ask the authority and the time they asked the people at the museum and I can’t remember what anyway, the authority couldn’t come and inspect the specimen. So he sent his help to have a look at the Mermaid. And the man said, no, this is not an authentic Mermaid you know, it’s a fake. And that’s how we got it out of customs. Because people said,

    it’s not a Mermaid,

    it’s not just an exhibition, it’s an artefact. It’s a piece of art. So I love that.

    And yet it gets to London, where everyone believes that it is a Mermaid.

    Yes, so the the officer who saw it and said, no, it’s an old Mermaid was asked not to talk too much about it. In a way you didn’t see the point. You know, there were all sorts of weird things being exhibited. So if that amused people, why not, he didn’t take it seriously at all. But then the many people who went to see it actually believed it was true, even scientists, so it was exhibited at the end of the summer of 1822. It was only exposed as a fake by the end of the year, so we had a few months of real celebrity where a lot of people came to the coffee house where it was exhibited. And funnily enough, the end of the show came, because Captain Edus had made a lot of money with his forgery, and somebody heard about that. That was the man who originally owned the ship that had been sold, and the guy said, well, how come you know the guy is making so much money on my back out of the ship stolen from me. So he sued Edus and that’s when the Mermaid was exposed as fake in December of 1822.

    All right, that’s a fantastic story. I mean, the whole thing is a fantastic story, but I didn’t know that this guy sold his boat. I wonder how he got back from Japan as well. It also makes me wonder, I mean, I do so hugely enjoy going to exhibitions in London, but it does make me slightly lament this, this period of the past where people would genuinely display something that was untrue and claim it was true. That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s a real shame.

    No, no, no, even Damien Hirst wouldn’t claim anything like that, you know, he exhibits things but it’s art and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

    No, that’s the whole point. That’s the whole point. It’s the kind of the conscious, you know, pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and it all being okay. And everyone, either being entirely credulous or not minding someone having a bit of a tease. It seems like it was all a bit more lighthearted back then.

    Yes it certainly was a lot more lighthearted aside, but I think people genuinely didn’t really know what to make of it. They weren’t sure one way or the other. So just in case, you know, better not to assert it

    Well, listen it’s a wonderful story. And thank you very much indeed for sharing it with me today.

    one way or the other.

    Well, thank you very much Sam. Thank you, and have a great day.

    Thank you all so much for listening. Please check out the Mariners Mirror podcast on YouTube. Don’t just listen to the podcast. See what amazing videos we’ve been creating. There’s some truly magnificent and innovative stuff. There are not least quite brilliant new films on the world’s best ship models filmed with the latest camera equipment. Now this podcast comes from both Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research. So do please take the time to check out everything that both of those wonderful institutions have been up to. You can find the Lloyd’s Register Foundations History Centre and archive at hec.lr foundation.org.uk. And the Society for Nautical Research@snr.org.uk where you can join up to enjoy all of the numerous perks of membership, including full copies of the printed Mariners Mirror journal every year, online access to over a century’s worth of maritime historical scholarship, online seminars, and you can even come to dinner on board HMS Victory. What a treat.

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