In Albemarle Sound off the northern coast of North Carolina there is an island which was the first English colony in North America. This is Roanoke, where a small group of settlers financed by Sir Walter Raleigh had tried to establish themselves in 1585. The local natives had had other ideas, and the beleaguered settlers were ‘rescued’ by Francis Drake, who had been engaged in one of his buccaneering expeditions in the Caribbean.
In 1587 another hardy group of would-be settlers was sent from England under Mr. John White. Quite soon he was recalled to England, mainly to gather more supplies for the new colony established on Roanoke, but his return was interrupted by the first of the great Spanish Armadas. White, along with Drake, Frobisher etc. had to deal with the invincible Spanish fleet, and White was not able to get to Roanoke before 1590.
Unfortunately he found the settlement empty. Not a soul remained. Roanoke entered legend as ‘The Lost Colony’ in Thomas Harriott’s Report published in 1588. White was not a bad artist, and his paintings of the local Native Americans provoked a great deal of interest in Britain.
The Marie Celeste is perhaps an even greater mystery. It has even been fictionally reviewed by, among others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes). The Anglo-American owned brigantine was discovered on 4 December 1872 in the Atlantic, apparently abandoned, though one lifeboat was missing. Not a single member of the seven-man crew was on board.
The weather was as near perfect as the Atlantic Ocean can provide, and the crew and captain were known to be experienced sailors. The ship herself was perfectly seaworthy condition, under full sail, and on a course for the Straits of Gibraltar. The brigantine had only been at sea for 30 days, and six months-worth of food, water and provisions were safely on board. Most peculiar of all, her valuable cargo was untouched, so conjectures of piracy and murder had to be discounted.
No-one ever saw any member of the crew again, and no wreckage was found. The newspapers found it ‘the greatest maritime mystery of all time’. Inevitably conspiracy theories have not been wanting ever since. Alcoholic fumes (from the cargo?), underwater earthquakes, powerful water spouts, sea monsters – even the phenomenon of ‘the Bermuda Triangle’ have been put forward as solutions to the mystery. But the brigantine had not sailed anywhere near the Bermuda Triangle.
On the more supernatural side, it is true that sailors had talked of the Marie Celeste being ‘cursed’ for years before her disappearance, and three of her commanders had died on board. Modern detectives would be unable to investigate further for the brigantine was wrecked (intentionally) off the coast of Haiti in 1885, during an attempt to commit an insurance fraud.