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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
In fact, he found evidence which made the story seem more
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
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
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
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
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
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