Have you ever heard about the “Shark Papers” and how these papers earned that name? This little event in Jamaica’s past, involving a ship called the “Nancy” from the United States, and the ship’s identifying papers (eventually called the Shark Papers) found in a shark, may sound like it came straight from the pages of a well-read collection of science fiction short stories, and not something that actually happened. But, my dear readers, this little story really did occur.
It was the 1790s, Britain was at war with France (as well as with Spain and the Netherlands). During the eighteenth century, the Caribbean figured prominently in the international rivalries among these European nations, with the Caribbean being referred to as the “cockpit of Europe” (Senior 2003, pg. 2002). According to Kenneth Morgan (2007, pg. 48): “Over half of the eighteenth century comprised war years when the French, Spanish, and English navies fought for command of sea lanes to the Caribbean.”
The ship “Nancy,” under the command of Captain Thomas Briggs, set sail from Baltimore, Maryland to the Dutch West Indian island of Curacoa on July 3, 1799. This wasn’t the first time the ship was making this trip: the “Nancy” was part of a Baltimore-based firm that regularly traded between Baltimore, Curacao and Haiti, and was thus laden with the usual German goods by its firm Messrs. Deverhagen, Groverman and Company, all German men who eventually became naturalised citizens of the United States (Institute of Jamaica 1891).The goods were for sale in Curacoa and, on the return leg of the trip, a stop would be made at Haiti to purchase coffee.
Now, as the story goes, on her way to Curacoa, the “Nancy” got into some trouble in bad weather and Captain Briggs had to put in at Aruba, some 50 miles away from Curacoa, “which port offered a retreat to ships of all nations and supplied them with arms and ammunition in time of war” (Institute of Jamaica 1891, pg 298). As neutral ground, Aruba also provided a port to clear goods intended for prohibited ports, aka smuggling. Briggs then left Aruba and headed for Curacao, and, on its way to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the “Nancy” once again came upon bad weather and Briggs was forced to make his way to Ile-a-Vache, a small island off the south of Haiti, to try and repair the ship. The “Nancy” never made it to Haiti though. On August 28, 1799, the British cutter, H.M.S. Sparrow, commanded by Hugh Wylie, met upon the “Nancy” and, suspecting the ship to be carrying contraband, captured the ship, captain and crew and took them into Port Royal to face the Vice-Admiralty court in Kingston. The “Nancy” was sealed and its documents collected.
Or so they thought.
On September 9, 1799, Commander Wylie brought a suit for salvage to the Vice-Admiralty court against “a certain Brig or Vessel called the ‘Nancy,’ The Guns, Tackle, Furniture, Ammunition, and Apparel, and the Goods, Wares, Merchandize, Specie, and effects on board her, taken and seized as the property of some person or persons being enemies of our Sovereign Lord the King and good and lawful prize on the high seas and within the jurisdiction of the Court” (Institute of Jamaica 1891, pg. 298). In response Briggs filed a claim for a dismissal of the suit with costs, as there was no evidence of any kind that linked him to smuggling. And the court almost believed him.
Then a ship called the “Ferret” arrived in Kingston with information that turned the case onto its head!
On September 14, 1799, Lieutenant Fitton of the “Ferret” dramatically produced in front of the Vice-Admiralty court, a set of documents he had found inside a shark he had caught off the coast of Haiti that turned out to be the true identity papers for the “Nancy.” It seems Briggs, in a fit of panic, had thrown the “Nancy’s” papers overboard when the ship was captured by Commander Wylie, only to be swallowed by a shark, which was later captured by Lieutenant Fitton.
These papers – together with others of an incriminating nature found on the “Nancy” some time after her capture, concealed in the captain’s cabin “so hard drove in that it was with difficulty they could be taken out” and in a cask of salt pork – led to the condemnation of the brig and her cargo on the 25th of November 1795. (Institute of Jamaica 1891, pg. 298)
The Shark Papers, as they came to be known, can be viewed at the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ), if anyone is interested in seeing them. They were kept by the Vice-Admiralty Court Archives until 1890, when they were transferred to and put on display at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ).
Question: Have any of you ever viewed the Shark Papers? I haven’t so it’s definitely on my to do list!
Until next time…
Institute of Jamaica (1891). Journal of the Institute of Jamaica Vol. 1 (November 1891 – December 1893). Kingston: Institute of Jamaica.
Morgan, Kenneth (2007). Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Senior, Olive (2003), Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.