The English Fisherman Who was Swallowed by a Whale and Survived-Fiction!

 

 

 

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Summary of Rumor:
An English commercial fisherman in the early part of the 20th Century is  thrown from his whaling ship and presumed lost at sea.  Later, he is discovered alive inside a whale that is harpooned by the whaling ship.  He is taken back to England where after receiving medical treatment he lives out his life, although his skin is blemished by the gastric juices of the whale.

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The Truth:  

The story dates back to the late 19th century and involves a whaling ship named the 'Star of the East', operating off the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. 
According to most accounts, a whale was sighted, the harpoon boats were launched, and the whale was successfully speared. 
In the violence that followed, however, one of the smaller boats capsized, throwing two crew members into the sea. 
One of them drowned and the other, said to be a man named James Bartley, disappeared. 
The whale was eventually subdued and its carcass hoisted onto the ship where the crew started carving it up for blubber.

After a couple of days of work, they got down to the stomach, where some workers noticed something large inside, 'doubled up', and showing signs of life. 
They cut the stomach open and there lay James Bartley, unconscious and somewhat digested, but alive. 
They doused him with sea water, put him in the captain's cabin and after a couple of weeks of recovery, he was back on the job.

Most accounts of the story also include a detailed description of what Bartley experienced and felt during his whale of a journey. 
He is quoted as saying that he remembered flying through the air when the whale struck the boat with its tail and then suddenly being in darkness and slipping along a smooth passage of some sort. 
He then came into a larger area marked by a slimy substance that seemed to shrink from his touch. 
He finally realized that he was in the whale. 
He said that he could breathe, but that it was very hot in there. 
At some point he lost consciousness and the next thing he remembered was being cared for by the crew.

Some versions of the story say his skin was permanently affected by the gastric juices in the whale, and that he had a bleached white appearance for the remainder of his life. 
Other versions describe his skin as having been left with a bluish color.

There have been a few other, similar stories, but researchers suspect that they all have the same origin. 
The story of James Bartley is therefore of greatest interest, since there are so many accounts of it and they include enough information to allow some good digging to be done.

The definitive research into this story has been done by Edward B. Davis, a professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. 
He was curious to try to document the story since it was so often repeated in Christian literature and had even found its way into several Bible commentaries. 
His research is summarized in an article in 'The American Scientific Affiliation', published in 1991.

Davis not only scoured newspaper files, original documents and libraries, but spent time in England tracking down some of the sources. 
He verified, for example, that there really had been a vessel named the 'Star of the East' and that its captain was a man named J.B. Killam. 
He followed the trail of the great British engineer, Sir Francis Fox, who was so struck with the Bartley story that he included a chapter on it in his autobiography, published in 1924.

The result of Davis's research was that he could not find any credible evidence to support the James Bartley story. 
In fact, he found evidence which made the story seem more questionable. 
He checked out a report that Bartley had been treated at a London hospital for the effects of the whale's gastric juices on his skin, but could not find any substantiation for it. 
When he read through the documents about the particular voyage during which the alleged whale incident happened, James Bartley was not listed as a crew member.

More damaging to the story was a letter written by the wife of the captain of the 'Star of the East,' Mrs John Killam. 
The contents of her letter were published in 1907 in 'The Expository Times' by a reader who had corresponded with Mrs Killam about the whale story. 
She said, "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."

The story has been widely repeated by a number of conservative Christian writers, including Bernard Ramm, Harry Rimmer and the creationist Henry Morris; and also in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Jonah and the IVP Bible Dictionary.

One of the alleged sources of the James Bartley story was a newspaper report published in Great Yarmouth, on the east coast of England. 
Davis visited the port and found an article that gave an account of the story, but it offered nothing to help support the facts of it. 
He also found a whale story dated 1891 the same year as most of the James Bartley accounts. 
According to the story, a 30-foot rorqual whale caused a stir when it came close to the shore off the town of Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth. It ran against the town's pier and beached itself while being chased by several boats.

The whale became a local celebrity and was known as 'the Gorleston Whale'. 
The carcass was hoisted, became an exhibit for a couple of days, and then a taxidermist stuffed it and it was displayed in the London Westminster Aquarium. 
According to Davis, two of the clippings he found about the Gorleston Whale, including one written within days of the event, reported that the story had 'inspired a number of exaggerated tales.'

Has there ever been another human being besides Jonah who has survived being swallowed by a sea creature? 
We can't say, and it is not our purpose to challenge the scriptural story.. Stories such as the one about James Bartley, however, have not measured up to a standard of reliable evidence.

Thanks to Edward B. Davis for agreeing to this use of his research material, and for checking the accuracy of this report. 
Click this link for the full story of Edward Davis's research into the whale story.

Updated 7/24/05

For more information:   

A real example of the story as it has been circulated:

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 delerious. 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 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.