A portion of a letter from Robert Watson, aboard the HMS Acasta, to his wife.
Bermuda, January 1814.
My Dearest Polly,
Wish me joy Love- for we have just fleeced a flock of high arsed lobsterbacks so completely they may freeze this winter for want of a coat! Were they not such high and mighty lobcock buggers I might even feel sorry for them. But I should start the tale at the beginning.
The Frenchman that is the surgeons mate, I have wrote of him before, had got some small skates from some fishfag here. He made them into Jenny Hanivers, that he then pickled for a time in some of the doctors sprits- to make them so they would not rott, and then he dried them out well.
When Apple the Carpenter seen them he come up with a plan by which a number of us could profit and -Lord Almighty Polly- we would have shamed the best actors at Plymouth theater we done so good at it! You might think Apple should hold hisself above such a caper- but he is a good fellow from Hackney who come up by his own talent and wit and he has never played all high and mighty just because he is a warrent officer.
So early of a morning me and Apple go into a pot house where a gaggle of Lobsters from the Diadem is on liberty. We go in and look around the place looking oh so worried and Apple goes over to the Lobsters and says that we are looking for a certain fellow- and he describes Jacob Booke right down to his stockings- and have they seen him? No they aint seen but what has he took French leave? they say No, no much worse says Apple- much worse says I- so who did he murder? they ask. A personal matter says Apple and if they were to see him we would pay them to catch him up- but no officers to know- just hold him and send for the Acasta's carpenter. Now they are really wondering- have a drink with us and tell us what he has done they say- Apple says no we must search more. I say to Apple what can it hurt we have looked everywhere and he acts reluctant but then says maybe just a dram. So we set with them and they keep asking and we keep telling them we must not say, but Apple acts like the spirits has loosed his tongue and finally he says they would never believe the story anyhow. How can we know unless we is told it? they say. Finally Apple looks at me real serious and I say these coves seem like trustworthy fellows and he pulls them in real close and looks all around the place even though we are all the people in the room except the barkeep.
We was making the crossing to Halifax he tells them and we come into a blow and split the Foremast. We fished the mast but the blow kept on and off for days and we did not trust it to hold. So one night it kicks up worse, not the worst he ever seen by a long shot, but bad enough. Me and him go up on deck to see how the fished mast holds and we are talking to the officer of the watch when we hear a peculiar sound- almost like a crying baby- from up toward the bow. And the officer of the watch says that he has heard that for some time now and he thinks one of the cats is caught out on the bow somehow and if we are taking a light forward to check the mast to take Booke and have him find the cat and take it below.
So forward we go- Booke with us- but the rain and spray making it hard to see anything when all of a sudden a little cry comes from right to larboard of us and looking with the light we find a strange little creature holding to a cable- a creature like none of us had ever seen before.
Oh Polly you could have drove a nail into the arse of any one of those Lobsters so intent was they on Apple's story. What is it like? one of them asks. Like a fish but not a fish says Apple. So we hold the lantern closer and it blinks- fishes got no eyelids- and it looks up at us like a little person- and it opens its mouth and makes a little burble. And Booke holds out his hand to it and it latches onto his hand with its little flippers. And as we are looking at it in Booke's hand we hear that same sound and there is another one right close. In all we find half a dozen of them hanging onto lines and rails. Some of them seem close to losing the number of their mess. They seem harmless, so we gather them all up - we take them below to my cabin -says Apple- and put them in a tub half filled. Most of them look almost done in, but one of them hangs on the edge and looks at us pleading like and keeps burblin "Mawher". Saints between us and evil ! says a red haired Lobster- me and Apple look at him like we do not know what he means. Mother- it says Mother in Irish - he tells his mates. Oh Polly the youngest Lobster looks like he might break and run - it is all I can stand not to bust up.
So we agree to not tell nobody - says Apple - cause if they portent doom there is nothing can be done anyway and if they grant wishes we does not want to share. But by the next watch they are dead - every one of them.
So the next day -says Apple- I take one of them and show it to our surgeon, because he is a man of science, and he almost turns a flip. Do you know what this is? he shouts. No sir it washed up on the bow in the night Apple says. This is a Sea Bishop- a young one- it is a creature of ledged- scholars in the past have written of them but I know of none seen for more than a hundred years says our surgeon. Is it valuable? Apple says. Valuable! Why it is beyond price! says the surgeon- Natural philosophers the world over will praise you -I must get it into some spirits- and off he goes with the little dead fish man without even a by your leave or thank you.
So the three of us agree not to tell a soul about the others, except we bring the surgeons mate in on it, because he can get some spirits to pickle the rest and because he is not learned, but he knows some learned types that he sometimes sells odd fish and shells to.
So we pickle them for a bit and then dry them because they are easier to hide like that. We agree that when we get back home we sell them and divide it even. And just this morning Booke gets liberty and just to make sure I check their hidy hole- says Apple- and sure enough he has pinched them and we are afraid he means to desert- and he might sell them for a fraction of their worth. I was going to become an innkeep with my quarter says I all sad like. A kings ransom gone just like that! says Apple.
We had best keep looking says I. Yes says Apple I just hope he aint slipped away yet. So we take our leave and they promise us to hold Booke if they find him and send for Apple.
So when we get out we give Booke a nod, he has been waiting across the street, and he waits a good while and then slips into the pot house. The rest was told to us by Booke
He goes in and orders hisself a dram. Thats the fellow- says one of the Lobsters- because they have been drinking too much to be quiet. Brother tar have a drink with us they say. Shove off he tells them. There is no need to be a tarter, bother says another, we are all friends here, come drink with us. They are all looking at him like foxes at a fat hen he says. So he says maybe one if you are buying. You look troubled brother they tell him all kindly like and he says yes that he is a pressed man and had been much abused aboard his ship and he goes through a long tale of the wrongs done him by his officers and shipmates.
That is enough to make a good fellow take French leave they say to him- oh they feel so sorry for him! That is just what he intends he tells them all confiding like. He is acting like the sprits has loosed his tongue just like Apple done. How will you escape from an island such as this? they ask him. I have a plan he tells them. He says he has a brother in America at Norfolk that he means to go to. There are Americans to be exchanged soon and one of the crew doing the exchange is a chum and he can slip me among the prisoners but there are officers that must be bought off he tells them.
How will you do that? they ask him. I have something of great value he says, but I must sell it first. And what is that? they ask all innocent like. And so he reaches in his bag and pulls out one of the Jenny Hanivers- he has them all wrapped in rags like they are fine China teacups- and when he uncovers it he says the Lobster sergeants eyes almost pop out of his head. Sea Bishop! says one and the other all give him a nasty look. How did you know? asks Booke. Oh I have heard tales of them says the lobster.
I have five, says Booke and they are worth at least a hundred pounds each to a learned man, but they are of no use to me here. All I want is to be free of that cursed ship and be free in America he says. They look at each other all hungry like and the sergeant says maybe we can help you brother. What can you do? says Booke. Maybe we can buy them from you? says the Lobster sergeant. We can not give you so much, but perhaps enough to get you free and started good and easy in America. Booke acts reluctant, but they play all kind and finally he says, well they are of no value to me here. And the sergeant says, wait here, and he leaves with three others and two stay with Booke. The sergeant is gone so long that Booke says he starts to worry But finally he returns and they dicker on the price. Booke says that he is only willing to part with four because we wants to sell the fifth to set hisself up royal in America, and while they is talking over the price for the four he sees one of the lobsters steal the fifth out from his bag. This shows you how a damn lobster will treat a poor tar. So they agree to a price- coin money and Booke bargains hard- but he gets it and shoves off back to us.
And how much was this price you are asking? Fifteen pounds Polly! Fifteen pounds! and a quarter of it mine! Where them Lobsters got that kind of coin money I have no notion, but it is no longer weighing them down! And that is not the end yet- so the Lobsters had planned to keep their Jenny Hanivers a secret and sell them when they got home, but one of them cannot keep the secret and shows one to a tar aboard the Diadem The tar knows it for what it is right off and tells him so. So now they know they was took, which could be bad if me or Apple or Booke runs into them again- but on the other side liberty men from the Diadem bought us drinks over it. Seems the Lobster sergeant was a hard case and not well liked.
A Jenny Haniver is created from the body of a dead skate or ray which is modified, dried and often varnished. These preserved carcasses can be made to resemble mermaids, dragons, angels, demons, and other mythical creatures. Sailors and fishermen have created the curious gaffs for centuries. Jenny Hanivers became very popular in the mid-16th century, when sailors around the Antwerp docks began selling the novelties to tourists. The practice was so common in the Belgian city that it may have influenced the name; it is widely believed that "Jenny Haniver" is a corruption of the French phrase jeune d'Anvers (or "young person of Antwerp"). British sailors anglicized the name to "Jenny Haviner".
The first published explanation of Jenny Hanivers was written by Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner in 1558. Gesner cautioned that these mermaids and demons were nothing more than dead, disfigured rays. Nonetheless, Jenny Hanivers remained popular up until the 19th century.