Shark Tales: the oldest shark attack, the shark attack survivor who became a lord mayor, and the shark that solved a crime

Shark attack. The very phrase brings a particular fear. At a silent, malevolent force dragging us to our death. Once calm, azure water frothing and turning crimson. Yet these creatures, older than the dinosaurs and unchanged in over 400 million years, also bring fascination. The seas have been there’s about as long as there has been life on land. So as long as humans have ventured to the sea there have been sharks.

Inspired by The Daily Jaws here are three stories of our relationship with sharks: the oldest shark attack, the shark attack survivor who became a lord mayor and the shark that helped solve a crime.

The First Shark Attack

Three thousand years ago in what would one day be called Japan, a young man died. His death was violent. He had fractured ribs, lost one hand and both feet, and one of his legs was severed clean off. He was buried with some care and with his leg.

Around 1920 his skeleton was excavated and became known as ​​Tsukumo №24. He was part of the Jōmon period of prehistoric Japan, a time of hunter-gatherers and fishermen. In total, his bones had 790 different marks on them across the whole of the skeleton. Tsukumo №24 represented a mystery to archaeologists. Clearly, his last moments had been horrific but what had caused them? What kind of prehistoric weaponry could have left these marks? Japan is home to bears and wolves, could they have been responsible?

A paper published earlier this year may have found the answer. Through detailed imaging of the skeleton of Tsukumo №24 scientists were stunned at how deep into the bone his injuries went. They were V-shaped and showed lines or striations. This is typical for shark bites. The researchers surmised that Tsukumo №24 had been killed by a great white or tiger shark which had had enough time to start feeding.

Tsukumo №24 now represents the world’s oldest shark attack. It’s likely his death was quick, probably through rapid blood loss after his leg was bitten off. Whilst the shark or sharks had started feeding his body and leg were salvaged either through the tide or the intervention of other people. The result was that his body was able to have a ceremonial burial. No one present would have known what this would one day represent.

The Lord Mayor of London, the Artist, and the Shark

Brook Watson was born in Plymouth, Devon on 7th February 1735. In 1741 he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, a merchant, in Boston, Massachusetts after his parents died. By the time he was a teenager, Watson had been signed up as a crew member on one of his uncle’s ships.

In 1749 the ship anchored in the harbour of Havana, Cuba. The 14-year-old Watson decided to go for a swim. Whilst the crew prepared a boat to escort their captain ashore Watson stripped and cooled off in the Caribbean. It was then he was attacked. His right leg was grabbed by a shark which stripped the flesh from his calf. He was released but the shark returned and took his foot clean off. By the time the shark came back for a third attack his crewmates had launched their boat and were able to fight off the assailant and haul Watson to safety.

Watson’s naval career was over. His right leg was amputated below the knee and, after 3 months of recuperation, he was discharged. After first returning to America he made his way back to London and was Member of Parliament for the City of London from 1784 to 1793. In 1796 he became Lord Mayor of London. He would later join the Bank of England before being created a baronet. Watson requested that his new coat of arms featured his missing right foot.

At some point, Watson met the American artist John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) whom he befriended and commissioned. In 1778 Copley painted ‘Watson and the Shark’ capturing the moment of Watson’s rescue; his crewmates grabbing him from the jaws of a shark. The shark is not particularly anatomically correct; it appears to have lips and bellows of air coming from its nostrils. The painting was exhibited in London’s Royal Academy. Watson himself is believed to have penned a description to accompany the painting:

“after suffering an amputation of the limb, a little below the knee, the youth received a perfect cure in about three months”

In the end, Copley painted three versions. The 1778 version is currently on display in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. A second version is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, while a third, smaller, 1782 version is in the Detroit Institute of Art.

The Shark That Helped Solve A Crime

Hugh Whylie was in trouble. It’s 28th August 1799 and Whylie is a commander in the British Navy leading the ship Sparrow in the Caribbean. It’s a time of simmering tensions with the Dutch, especially within the tropical theatre Whylie calls home. He has just intercepted the ship Nancy, captained by Thomas Briggs on suspicion of smuggling. The Nancy has been veering around, porting at Aruba and Haiti. Briggs blames bad weather. Whylie suspects smuggling.

As Whylie’s men board Nancy Briggs comes up on deck and presents his papers. The Nancy is Dutch-owned and her journey is legitimate so his story says. Everything seems in order. But Whylie is not sure. He arrests Briggs and seizes The Nancy. He must have known how delicate the situation was. Briggs was American. The War of Independence had only finished 16 years earlier. Diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the United States of America were only 14 years old. It did not look good for British naval officers to be arresting Americans in the Caribbean. And if he’s intercepted a legitimate Dutch ship this could be an act of war.

Whylie filed a suit against Briggs in Kingston, Jamaica. Briggs immediately countersues for lost revenue. The pressure is on for Whylie. Other than his gut feeling and the fact that The Nancy had been veering off course he has nothing. Briggs has his story about bad weather, which there had been, and his seemingly immaculate papers. This could be a costly mistake by Whylie and after two days he must have been worried about his future.

Then, something incredible happened. Crewmen on the British ship Ferret caught a large shark off the coast of Haiti. Cutting into the shark they made a bizarre discovery in its stomach: a bundle of papers tied with string. Anyone who has seen the film Jaws will remember the scene where Hooper cuts into a tiger shark to see if there are human remains and comments on how slow a shark’s digestion is. The papers are in such good condition the writing on them is still legible. The captain of The Ferret Michael Fitton summons Whylie. Whylie expects breakfast and is bemused to be shown papers drying out on Fitton’s desk.

Remarkably, they contain letters and papers which belong to The Nancy and show that her Dutch ownership is a cover and that Briggs really was captaining a smuggling operation. Having seen The Sparrow coming Briggs had ordered the papers to be thrown overboard where a passing shark had fancied them for a snack.

Briggs presents the ‘shark papers’ in court. They are the deciding factor in the case. Briggs is found guilty of both smuggling and piracy. He describes it as an “active and unnatural piece of cruelty” to be “damned and condemned by a bloody sharkfish”. The shark papers remain on display in the National Library of Jamaica.

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