James Bartley: The Sailor Who Got Swallowed by a Whale And Survived

Jan 13, 2023 0 comments

In 1891, a sensational story appeared in the St. Louis Globe Democrat of Saint Louis, Missouri. According to the news report, a young sailor named James Bartley got swallowed by a sperm whale, and when the whale was killed the following day and his belly cut open, out popped Bartley, blind and scathed by the corrosive gastric juice, but otherwise alive. It was such a fascinating tale that several newspapers repeated it and the story became quite popular.

Jonah being swallowed by a whale. Oil painting by Pieter Lastman  (1583–1633)

The events supposedly took place in February 1891, some two hundred miles east of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. A British whaling ship named Star of the East was on the lookout, when a huge sperm whale was spotted about three miles away. The ship lowered two small boats, and a race began between the two whaleboats and the whale. James BartIey was in the first longboat to reach the side of the whale. The harpooner leaned over and drove his weapon deep into the whale’s vitals. The stricken beast began to thrash about in the foamy waters in agony. Bartley and the other oarsmen rowed frantically to get out of reach of the struggling animal, but its lashing upended the boat, throwing the men into the frigid waters.

The second longboat arrived and picked up the survivors. But two men were found missing, and one of them was the young apprentice, James Bartley.

That night, the ship waited. Just before sunset, the carcass of the whale rose to the surface only a few hundred yards from the ship. The crew fastened a line to the whale and winched it to the ship’s side. The men immediately began cutting open the whale and peeled the blubber off its back. Late that night, when the crewmen tried to remove the stomach, they noticed movement inside the large sack. Believing some large sea animal was trapped inside, they sliced open the stomach and instead discovered that it was the missing sailor Bartley.

Bartley was allegedly inside the whale’s belly for 15 hours. Its digestive juice had permanently bleached his skin a deathly white, he lost his hair and was nearly blind. For two weeks he was delirious, and it was a month before he could talk about his ordeal.

Bartley lived for 18 more years, before dying at 39. On his tombstone in the churchyard at Gloucester is a brief account of his experience at sea and a footnote, which says: James Bartley -1870-1909 - A Modem Jonah.

True or hoax?

Could a man really survive for fifteen hours inside a sperm whale’s stomach? The answer is no. While there have been a handful of instances where sailors and divers had fallen into the mouth of a whale (to be spitted out), nobody had passed through the esophagus and into the stomach. It is physically impossible, because a whale’s throat—even a blue whale—is very narrow, about the size of a human fist, and can only stretch to about 15 inches in diameter to accommodate a bigger meal. Even if a person did manage to survive the swallowing and slipped into the stomach, he would find himself in a hostile environment. Sperm whales have four stomach chambers, like a cow, full of digestive enzymes. Besides, there is no air inside the stomach, which would make survival an impossibility.

Despite the glaring flaws in the narrative, the media and the public swallowed the story and the tale appeared in many newspapers over the next hundred years. It was even mentioned by George Orwell, Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes and even Arthur C. Clarke.

Recent investigation by historian Edward B. Davis revealed that there was no whaler named the Star of the East. Although there was a British ship by that name it was nowhere near the Falklands at the time the incident allegedly occurred, and there was no James Bartley on its crew manifest. Davis also unearthed transcriptions of a letter written by the wife of the captain of the Star of the East, Mrs John Killam, in which she flatly denied the whale story. She said: “There is not one word of truth in 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 in her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.”

Getting swallowed by a whale and surviving inside the creature’s belly is indeed a great story, and a familiar one. In the Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), made famous by Walt Disney's 1940 film adaptation of the novel, Pinocchio’s father Geppetto gets swallowed by a large whale and lives inside the stomach for several years surviving on scraps eaten by the whale. Later, Pinocchio gets swallowed by the whale himself, and together with his father, they escape with help of a tuna.

Another lovely story is Rudyard Kipling's, “How the Whale Got it's Throat”. It tells the story of a shipwreck mariner who was swallowed by a whale along with his raft. Once inside, the mariner jumped about so much that the whale got hiccups and agreed to release him. Just before coming out, the mariner jammed the raft on the throat of the whale so that it couldn’t eat people anymore. Forever after, the whale could only eat small fishes.



# Swallowed by a Whale, www.ycaol.com/swallowed.htm
# Did a 19th-century sailor get swallowed by a sperm whale and survive?, Australian Geographic
# Could a human survive swallowing by a whale?, The Naked Scientist
# A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


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