Two tales of the sea - The mermaid story

LONG, LONG AGO, there was a time – a long time – when people believed they would find a utopia on earth. A piece of heaven. A garden, an island, a spot of perfection where all would be well. They believed that God's perfect plan was symmetrical, and they knew that the worlds of the northern hemisphere would be mirrored in the southern worlds beyond the equator.

Such beliefs set fires in their souls, rang a beat in their hearts that sent the blood coursing through their veins until their imaginations swelled, their hopes billowed like sails. Their eyes steadily fixed on the outlines of a dream, they willed themselves to attempt the impossible. The Great Age of Discovery had propelled northern hemisphere men towards the southern oceans. Some had travelled under the guise of explorers, others as merchants. They included pirates and runaways, the hopeful, the maimed, the seers, the blind. But, sacred or profane, saint or sinner, they breathed the same prayer at the break of each dawn: 'Steer our course to the promised land, O Lord. Guide us to the arcadia of our dreams.'

Samuel Fallours was such a man. When the plundering he'd made from soldiering was put to an abrupt and unceremonious end, he decided he'd turn assistantto a clergyman. Setting his sights on the unknown lands of which he'd only heard whispers, Fallours put his talents as a draughtsman to the services of colonialism, the profits of subjugation, and the glory of the Lord. Eventually the barnacle-encrusted boat in which he and his pastor island-hopped all the way down the coastline of Indonesia made its way to the Banda Sea. Trailed by the currents of unfathomable waters, the boat eventually disintegrated into its own dream and, wearied from travelling, the two men set up a kind of wishful mission on the shoreline of Ambon.

In the time he stole from supporting his clergyman, Samuel Fallours scrupulously attended to itemising and describing the details of the region. He was well aware of the hunger for knowledge of those shores, and he knew that such hunger paid. His beautiful watercolours of marine life were treasures for which Britain would send spies to the Netherlands, in order to sleuth out their details. Page after page of his diary entries were later copied and transformed into hand-coloured engravings, then in 1719 they appeared in the form of a book by Louis Renard, publisher and British spy.

The images are remarkable for their clear, luminescent colour, the delicacy of form, the attention to detail, and the scientific clarity with which they were described. The documentation includes descriptions of 416 fish, forty crustaceans and one dugong, and an important part of the booty of discovery which was later transferred to the collections of Governors Coyett and van der Stel in the Netherlands.

Perhaps the most remarkable inclusion in this collection of drawings and notations is Fallours' description of the capture of a mermaid somewhere off the coast of Borneo during the Dutch exploration of the Pacific. The description serves as a caption for the delicate little watercolour of the specimen that accompanied the tract.

Monster representing a Siren caught on the coast of Borne or Boeren in the province of Ambon. It was 59 inches long, and of eel-like proportion. It lived on shore in a tub for four days and seven hours. It occasionally uttered cries like those of a mouse. It did not wish to eat, even though small fishes, molluscs, crabs, crayfish, etc. were offered. After its death a few feces, similar to those of a cat, were found in the tub.

The image of the siren – or mermaid – is even more disarming than the text. Drawn above an exquisitely refined rendering of an elegant lobster, she appears perhaps less seductive than we might expect from someone whom legend describes as capable of luring centuries of innocent seamen to a watery grave. However, she seems to evoke a gritty determination – her eyes sparkle, her eyebrows bristle, her somewhat dumpy little arms are outstretched, ready to give and receive. Her little cleft chin seems resolute, and above it her simple mouth offers neither seduction nor reprimand. Altogether the unremarkable features of her face suggest a spirit of enterprise and matter-of-fact capability. Her hair caps and frames this somewhat stoic little visage, but falls far short of the floating, seductive tendrils in more fanciful illustrations. It is in the regions beyond her dumpy waistline that she evokes anything at all of the sinuous sensuousness that proved so alluring to sailors and scientists alike; here her body appears to move with the suppleness of an eel. The green scales glisten and shimmer. The fins are perfectly fluted, and edged with a glorious carmine. The symmetrical tail offers a precise parting that brings the undulations of her nether torso to a sublime half-crown. At the other end her loins are girt with a flurry of finny artifice, above which is a belt of glowing yellow cockles. No wonder her disposition appears so phlegmatic; the means she has developed for survival in her watery world is magnificent. Imagine the wonder she must have aroused for the sailors on that ship, anchored off the coast of Borneo. Sun-battered months and sea-faring miles from the familiarities of their homes, the men would stand transfixed. Here she was, antipodean woman, with all the promises of otherness and mystery intact. Here she lay, abandoned and gasping on their deck, torn from the element she had made her own.

But what does one do when the shadows of one's dreams become reality? All too often it is too much of a burden to bear. For dreams to remain seductive, their liminal nature must be preserved. A fish-woman gasping for life on a burning deck is a far cry away from the shadows that darted before the prow in the emerald waters. The fish-maiden had to be minded, once captured. What to do?

The siren who had slipped into the sailors' nightly dreams, who had caught the corner of their sight as they daily searched the horizon for signs of land, who arose from the depths and vanished into the incandescence of the sun on water, had seemed to be beyond the possibility of ownership. Playful, evasive, joyous in her realm, her lack of need for anything they could offer was infuriating.

But now that they had her, what to do, what to do? A tub was brought from the bilges, a common tin tub in which she was laid. She was carried from the dripping nets on the steamy decks and deposited without ceremony. For four days and seven hours she was studied and measured and observed and documented, then taunted and poked and prodded, after wonderment had turned sour.

During those slow four days and nights the sailors came to realise the truth. For months at a time over the long years at sea they had striven to know the Pacific and its shorelines. Both had proved elusive. Yet here, now, in front of them lay the evidence that a woman, small, strange, but a woman nevertheless, had done what they had all been trying to do for so long. Here lay a woman who had so surrendered herself to this new hemisphere, this new terrain, this new cosmology, that she had completely re-adapted her body, her style, her way of life so that she was one with this place. And clearly she and her sisters had been doing it for a long time before the mariners had set sail.

The official records state that she was offered small fish, molluscs, crabs, crayfish, but that she would not eat. They say she occasionally uttered cries like those of a mouse. And surely there were many small acts performed on her out of jealousy, spite, then hatred during those four days and seven hours of hell?

During the time of her capture, and throughout the time of her incarceration, her many sisters never left the vicinity. All along the lonely sullen shoreline of Ambon the tepid air was swelled by a million tiny cries as her sisters called back to her: 'We are here. We are here. We hear you. We are with you.' The off-shore waters were constantly a-ruffle with their nervous turnings and tumblings, weaving and wavings so that the seas bubbled with their wrath and the air was filled with their grief.

She died in the tub. Vanished. But not quite.

At dawn on the fifth day the unkempt, deranged and listless sailors woke uneasily from sleep on the shoreline around their captive. One by one they approached to witness the impossible; the siren had evaporated. Gone. Dissolved.

Except that, in her place, she had left tiny traces of what she had become for them…a few faeces, similar to those of a cat, were found in the tub. The little antipodean siren-woman who had proved so elusive, so desirable, so haunting for so many centuries was reduced to so many pellets of cat-shit, once they'd gotten hold of her. Here the official account ends. But old tales from the shorelines of Ambon, and carried by canoes to other shorelines across the Pacific, tell of another ending.

Once the sailors' unbelieving eyes had wearied from surveying the rusting, crumbling bath, they looked shipwards to be presented with yet another wonder. In the slowly growing light of early dawn, from the shoreline to the ship-bow, the entire ocean bobbed and twinkled with the cast-off tails of a million mermaids. And beyond to the new sun, the ocean was paved with a path of glistening, glinting discarded tales, sensuous and slinky, carmine and yellow and blue and green.

The sailors panicked. There were too many. They were too beautiful. And their beauty was poised to fester and rot and stink and engulf and infect and inflame as soon as that new sun reached its zenith.

So the ship set sail from the coastlines of Ambon that morning with a silent crew, turned towards the home journey to the Netherlands, and hugged the earth's curve northwards with a terror that clung like infection of another kind.

Even with the most finely tuned scepticism intact, I doubt whether any of this is fable. But the story does, of course, present serious difficulty for scientists, scholars, explorers, historians and theorists. Like legends and desires, such tales have a tendency to evaporate when scrutinised too closely.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review