The Canadian-built Mary Celeste was intact when it was found deserted on Dec. 5, 1872, off the Portugal-owned Azores Islands. She had departed from New York City less than a month earlier. But fate of the seven crew members, the captain, his wife and their child remains a mystery nearly a century and a half later.
The first question was why did they abandon ship? The Mary Celeste was still seaworthy but its life boat was missing. Its cargo, denatured alcohol (ethanol with additives to make it poisonous and discourage drinking) was left behind, as well as the belongings of the crew and captain.
This is a truly Canadian mystery story. Not only was the Mary Celeste built in Nova Scotia in 1861 but the crew of a Canadian brigantine named Dei Gratia found her drifting 11 years later.
There are many theories on why the ship was abandoned but none of them have been confirmed. They included such possible reasons as piracy, a mutiny by the crew and even a conspiracy for insurance or salvage fraud. At the salvage hearings in Gibraltar, the court’s officers considered these possibilities, as well as piracy by the Dei Gratia crew or others. Given the lack of evidence, the various speculative theories may have contributed to a low salvage award.
The Mary Celeste returned to the sea under new owners until 1885, when it was believed to be deliberately wrecked off Haiti’s coast. Again, it was speculated to be part of an attempted insurance fraud. That was the end of the ship but not the theories surrounding its demise.
An interesting one offered by veteran sea captain David Williams, suggested that a “seaquake” directly under the ship may have loosened stays around the grain-alcohol barrels, resulting in the explosive liquid spilling into the bilge.
The Canadian-built ship is long gone but its mystery lives on.