J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Another Watson, Another Shark

Around here, “Watson and the Shark” is the John Singleton Copley painting of Brook Watson’s rescue from a shark in Havana. The Museum of Fine Arts has one of several copies Copley made for Watson.

At English Historical Fiction Authors, Mimi Matthews recently wrote about another shark and another Watson:

On January 1, 1787, some fishermen spied a shark in the [Thames] river and, with much difficulty, captured the creature and drew it into their boat. The shark was alive, but, as [author George Henry] Birch states, “apparently sickly.” The cause of his illness was soon discovered. Upon taking him ashore and cutting him open, the fishermen found within his body a silver watch, chain, and “cornelian” seal. A 1787 edition of the Northampton Mercury reports that they also found:

“…some Pieces of Gold Lace, which were conjectured to have belonged to some young Gentleman, who was swallowed by that voracious Fish.”

On further examination, it was found that the watch was engraved with the maker’s name and number: Henry Watson, London, No. 1369. Mr. Watson lived in Shoreditch and, when applied to for information regarding that particular watch, the Northampton Mercury reports that Mr. Watson revealed that he had:

“…sold the Watch two Years ago to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, as a Present for his Son on going out on his first Voyage (as what is called a Guinea-Pig) on board the ship Polly, Capt. Vane, bound to Coast and Bay.”
In a storm off Falmouth, the Annual Register for 1787 finished the story, “Master Thompson fell overboard, and was no more seen.” But his father bought the shark as a memorial; one newspaper even said that “he calls [the fish] his son’s executor.”

The term “guinea pig” appears as British maritime slang as early as 1767, and a generation later was specified to mean a midshipman in the East India service.

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