In February 1891 a whaling ship by the name of Star of the East was in action in the South Atlantic, near the Falkland Islands. Whilst harpooning a large sperm whale, two of the sailors were knocked overboard. One of them was rescued from the high seas, the other disappeared.
However, the whale was finally brought alongside and hauled onto the deck of the ship. When cut open, they found the unconscious body of one of the men, James Bartley, in the whale’s stomach.
After being revived by the crew, Bartley was in a very poor condition. His skin had been bleached white by the whale’s gastric juices, and the man was near to being out of his mind from the ordeal.
Several weeks went by, and gradually Bartley returned to health, but never lost his wrinkled and discoloured skin, which was permanently white.
No doubt many of you have heard this tale from the pulpit, or read it in books and magazines. But although the story first appeared in the Great Yarmouth Mercury in October 1891, and was fully investigated, only to find that no such man as James Bartley ever existed in the ship’s crew, the tale has persisted in print ever since. Later, the widow of the ship’s captain resolutely denied the entire story as pure fabrication.
This story was heralded as a superb witness to the truth of the Biblical account of Jonah, and that is why it has persisted. But Bible-believing Christians don’t need to have the story of Jonah bolstered up by such tales. We read that “God prepared a great fish”, and therefore, being the Creator of all species of life, He was well able to equip a particular fish, (it doesn’t say a whale) to perform a very particular function in the life of a disobedient prophet. The Lord Jesus spoke of Jonah and his adventure within the fish, and we really need no further authority to assist us in believing the account. The book of Jonah isone of the most wonderful in the Old Testament, and has teaching of great depth and intensity. It stands in its own right.
I am once again indebted to Kathryn Lindskoog for her research into the fabulous and fictitious “whale of a tale” that has persisted for over a century. It is good to clear out of our “cupboards” all such hoaxes and inventions once the truth has been revealed.
[As an after-thought, if ever you hear about a 19th century Russian scientific conference at which the members, during dinner, were served with steaks cut from a mammoth found in the frozen tundra wastes of Siberia, treat it with the same reserve. It didn’t happen! And this ends the two episodes on hoaxes.]