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17 September 2008, JellyBean @ 6:40 am

We have all heard the biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. Sometime later the repentant Jonah is spat up, very much alive, to continue God’s commandments. I am not going to discuss that particular case here, but we will take a look at a more modern ‘Jonah’. Legend has it that his name was James Bartley and this is the story often associated with him:

In February, 1891, the “Star of the East”, a whaling ship from Liverpool, England was hunting whales in the South Atlantic near the Falkland Islands. A whale was sighted and two boats sent to kill it. The first boat successfully harpooned the whale, but the whale swam away, dragging the boat for about five miles. Later, the harpooner in the accompanying boat also succeeded in harpooning the whale. Both boats were towed about three miles by the whale, then it “sounded” or went below the surface, then later came back to the surface but in it’s death throes, capsized one of the whaling boats. All but two crew members were rescued by the other boat and presumed lost at sea.


A few hours later, the now dead whale was lashed to the side of the ship and the crew began the task of cutting it up. When they came to the stomach, they hoisted onto the deck and were shocked to see something moving around inside. They quickly cut the stomach open and found one of the missing sailors, 35 year old James Bartley, inside alive, but unconscious.. He was soon revived, but for two weeks was delirious. By the end of the third week he had recovered sufficiently to go about his duties again.

The sailor remembered the beginning of his ordeal and being lifted into the air then dropping into the water. After that he said he heard a horrible rushing sound, which he thought might have been the beating of the water by the whale’s tail, and then he was enveloped in a terrible darkness and found himself slipping along a smooth passage that seemed to carry him forward. He finally realized he had been swallowed by the whale, and although he tried to be brave, he passed out and didn’t remember anything beyond that.

Back in England, Bartley was taken to a London hospital. His skin had been bleached and wrinkled to the appearance of old parchment by the gastric juices of the whale’s stomach, and never looked normal again although he enjoyed good health.

Edward B. Davis, a professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, was fascinated by the story, particularly how it was inked so often to the story of Jonah, and conducted research into it. His research was published in ‘The American Scientific Affiliation’, published in 1991.

Davis spent his time searching through old newspapers, looked at diaries and other documents and even spent time in England tracking down sources. He discovered that there was indeed a ship named ‘Star of the East’ and that the name of the captain was indeed J.B. Killam. Could the story be true?

Further research into the story uncovered the fact that James Bartley was not mentioned as being part of the crew on the particular voyage entioned. Neither could he find any report of him at the London hospital he was supposedly treated at.

When looking at the scientific facts, he discovered that the only whale that could have ‘swallowed’ him whole would have been a sperm whale. Most reports that mention the species report it being a Rorqual/Minke Whale. A man could never fit down its throat!

The most damaging piece of evidence was a letter written by the captain’s wife. The contents of the letter were published by Mrs Killam’s friend in 1907 where she states emphatically: “There is not one word of truth to the whale story. I was with my husband all the years he was in the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was with her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.”

On the flip side, according to Stranger Than Science (a book notorious for being unreliable in its facts) the unnamed doctor aboard The Star of the East wrote a record of the event at the time it happened, which was signed by all members of the ship’s crew.

This would certainly be worth finding, if it exists.

A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories by Edward B. Davis

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