Sometimes a person is initiated into a whole new world past what they knew and it really crawls into their head. Much of the early life of the man known as George Drevar is murky, but it is known that he was born in Scotland and first went to sea in 1848. By 1855, Drevar was a second mate and subsequently had his first experience of a shipwreck when he was stranded for six months on the island of Agalega in the Mauritius group. He then went on to command several ships before becoming the captain of the Pauline, an American-built barque of 587 tons, in 1871. It was during his time on the Pauline that he and his crew would have a very strange incident at sea concerning a mysterious monster, which would subsequently spiral into obsession and one of the oddest court cases in Great Britain’s history.
In July of 1875, the Pauline was off the coast of Cape Sao Roque, Brazil, when they observed several sperm whales swimming at the surface. Upon closer inspection, it soon became clear that one of the whales was apparently in a state of great distress, and that around its body was wrapped a monstrous sea serpent. The awed and astonished crew looked on as the whale struggled in a life or death battle, trying to shake off the mysterious beast even as it continued to coil around it and try to drag it down. This fierce battle lasted for around 15 minutes before the sea monster managed to drag the whale down into the murky depths to an uncertain fate. The same apparent sea serpent would then be purportedly seen the following day, and was described as being enormous, with 40 feet of its body visible, and it was seen yet again later that day again. One account of the scene was given by a Rev. E. L. Penny, M. A., Chaplain to H. M. S. London, at Zanzibar, who had heard the story in Zanzibar from Drevar, and who would say of it:
Captain Drevar, of the barque Pauline, bound with coals for her Majesty’s naval stores at Zanzibar, when in lat. 5 deg. 13 min. S., long. 35 deg. W., on July 8 last, observed three very large sperm whales, and one of them was gripped round the body, with two turns, by what appeared to be a huge serpent. Its back was of a darkish brown and its belly white, with an immense head and mouth, the latter always open; the head and tail had a length beyond the coils about 30 ft. ; its girth was about 8 ft. or 9 ft . . .On July 13 this or another sea-serpent was again seen, about 200 yards off the stern of the vessel, shooting itself along the surface, 40 ft of its body being out of the water at a time. Again on the same day, it was seen once more, with its body standing quite perpendicular out of the water to the height of 60 ft. This time it seemed as if determined to attack the vessel and the crew and officers armed themselves for self-defense. Captain Drevar is a singularly able and observant man, and those of his crew and officers with whom I conversed were singularly intelligent; not did any of their descriptions vary from one to another in the least – there were no discrepancies.
This spectacular report was printed in several newspapers at the time, and it was verified by the second officer of the Pauline, a man called Landells, who gave his own account of the events as follows:
There were several whales altogether, perhaps four or five. They were all large ones, and the largest one was victim in this case. The animal was completely in the toils [sic] of the tremendous serpent. It had two complete turns round the body of the whale in the thickest part, and had it completely in its (the serpent’s) power. The whale was in an agony either of pain or terror, perhaps both, and was continually throwing itself half out of water. Judging the whale forty feet in circumference, we estimate the serpent to be 150 feet long. Our theory is that this animal swallows the whale just as boa constrictor does a buffalo; and is actually the more reasonable idea, supposing they were equally dubious. I must finish by saying that we think it not improbable that this is the ‘great leviathan’ spoken of by Job.
As the news caught the public attention by storm Drevar himself was oddly quiet on the matter, until he finally came forward with his own firsthand account of it all. He would write:
On July 8, 1875, in lat. 5° 13 N [sic, it should be south], long. 35 W., Cape San Roque north-east coast of Brazils, bearing W.S.W., distance about 20 miles, at 11 A.M., the weather fine and clear, wind and sea moderate, about one-half mile to windward, we observed some black spots on the water, and a whitish pillar, about 30 feet high, above them. The sea was also splashing up fountain-like several hundred yards around them. At first glance I thought they were breakers, and the pillar a pinnacle rock bleached with the sun; but the pillar fell with a splash, and rose and fell frequently. Good glasses showed me that it was a monster sea snake coiled twice around the body of a large sperm whale, the head and tail part of the snake, each about 30 feet long forming a lever, crushing its victim to death with each revolution, and appearing, as each portion alternatively rose in the air, like the arms of some gigantic windmill, and about the same speed as it would do in a fresh breeze.
They both sank about every two minutes, remaining that time under water, and then coming to the surface, both still revolving. The struggle of the whale, and two other whales near at hand lashing the water frantic with excitement, made the sea in their vicinity like a boiling cauldron, and the confused noise was distinctly heard. The struggle lasted about fifteen minutes and finished with the tail portion of the whale elevated straight into the air, waving backwards and forwards, and the tail furiously lashing the water in the last death struggle as it disappeared from our view, and, sinking down head foremost, no doubt was soon gorged at the monster’s leisure, and the huge mouthful may at this moment be in the process of digestion, and the monster of monsters in a dormant state. Two of the largest sperm whales I have seen came slowly towards of vessel, their bodies were more than usually elevated out of the water. They were not blowing or making a noise, but seemed quite paralysed from the fearful sight; indeed a cold shiver passed through my frame on witnessing the last agonising struggle of the poor whale, which seemed as helpless in the coils of the serpent as a small bird in the talons of a hawk. Allowing for the two turns around the whale, I think the snake was about 160 feet long and seven or eight feet in the girth. In colour and shape it was like a conger eel. The First and Second Mates and half of the Crew were observers, and I intend, with them, to appear before some authority and testify on the oath the above statement is true.
I am aware that few believe in the existence of the great sea serpent. People think that it should be oftener seen by the numerous vessels always on the ocean; but the north coast of Brazil, noted for its monster reptiles, is also particularly adapted to the growth of sea monsters. It is in mid-torrid zone; the temperature of the water and air seldom below 81 deg; the shore for a thousand miles is bordered by a coral wall or Receife, and numerous banks or reefs lie a considerable distance off the land . . . It may also be allowed that the serpent retains some portion of cunning mentioned in the Scriptures; at least, he shows wit enough not to leave a secure home and go meandering about the ocean like other fish, to be captured and tortured for men’s pleasure or profit. No doubt San Roque is a good feeding ground, it being a landmark for whales leaving the south for the North Atlantic and the warm currents suitable for breeding.
After this, Drevar insisted that his version of events was the correct one, and routinely pointed out inaccuracies in other second hand accounts that were also doing the rounds at the time, many of them with conflicting information on the size of the creature, the location of the Pauline at the time, and how the events played out. At the same time there were those who were criticizing the account as nothing more than a tall tale, and accused Drevar of making it all up, or at the very least misidentifying what he saw. Drevar would say:
You may rely on my report as strictly true, and in no way exaggerated. I called the second officer out of his bed to witness the conflict, and he remarked at the time that had the occurrence been further off he would have concluded that it was a sword-fish and a thrasher [sic, presumably a thresher shark is meant] fighting a whale, which he thought he saw on his first voyage to sea. Several shipmasters told me that they had seen the same conflict near the locality that I saw it, but had not been close enough to see the coils; they thought it was two separate fish fighting the whale, but were satisfied that it might have been the head and tail portion of a huge serpent about the whale.
In the meantime, Drevar was insisting that what he had seen was a sea serpent and not some other known sea animal as a lot of people were suggesting. He by all accounts became totally obsessed with it, continual lashing out at anyone who told a different version of events than his or anyone who doubted his reliability, what he saw, or his own interpretation of it all. Indeed, he was completely obsessed with sea serpents by this time, and viewed them with an almost religious fervor. This passionate defense of his belief in sea serpents would lead him into hot water further down the line, when in 1881 he wrote a rambling series of vehement, venomous letters to several prominent figures who had doubted his account, including the Commissioner of the wreck commission, Henry Cadogan Rothery, as well as the head of maritime affairs at the Board of Trade, Thomas Gray, and the colonial secretary, the Earl of Kimberley, in which he threatened physical violence and even murder.
At the time, Drevar had taken commend of a different vessel, the Norfolk, which he had unfortunately wrecked at Hartwell Reef, off Boa Vista, in the Cape Verde Islands, and during the inquest into the circumstances surrounding the wreck things would get very weird, indeed. Drevar claimed that he had captured several specimens of sea serpent that had been lost in the wreck, and that in his pursuit of sea serpents he was “doing the Almighty’s work in making his wonders known.” Even stronger than his contempt of the court for trying to take away his captain’s license was his anger at the ridicule he was receiving for his belief in sea monsters, and so he went about harassing the commission with a series of ranting threatening letters, in particular to Rothery, which talked of murder and were serious enough that he was arrested and taken to court over them.
During the strange trial Drevar would display some very bizarre behavior. He would not only threaten to shoot Rothery while Rothery was sitting there in court and then himself, but he also waved around what he claimed was a small, immature sea serpent preserved in a jar, which he claimed had been caught in the “act of swallowing a fish.” It was likely just a sea snake but there is no way to know because he wouldn’t let anyone touch it under threat of killing them. By all accounts he was a complete raving nutjob, going on and on about sea serpents and lashing out at anyone who disagreed with him, and this did him no favors when he was sentenced to three months in prison on charges of libel and threatening behavior. There he would be dubbed the “Sea Serpent Monomaniac” by the prison doctor and he continued to pester anyone within earshot about sea serpents. By now he was clearly very mentally unhinged, but he was nevertheless released after his time was served.
After prison, he almost landed there again when he sent letters with thinly veiled threats to the president of the Board of Trade, Sir Joseph Chamberlain, but luckily for him this time no charges were filed. He continued to write passionately about sea serpents and in 1887 Drevar and his wife Caroline Ann emigrated to Australia, where he would spend the remainder of his days babbling about sea monsters. We are left to wonder just what he really saw out there and why it consumed his life so much. Did he truly see something that cannot be explained or was it just something mundane mixed with delusion and mental illness? We may never know.