This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Nineteenth-century man regarded the sea with fear and loathing. The sea was the realm of the unknown – an abyss, a primeval void in which sinister creatures lived and from which evil emanated. Knowledge of the sea was limited to what could be pulled from its shallow depths and what might be safely ascertained along its shoreline. Beyond that, our fervid imaginings were unchecked by reality. As French cultural historian Alain Corbin has noted, “the ocean, that watery monsters’ den, was a damned world in whose darkness the accursed creatures devoured one another.”
This “deep sense of repulsion” embedded itself in western culture. Herman Melville’s 1851 classic Moby Dick transfixed readers with its tale of a vindictive white sperm whale. Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea took up the theme in 1866: huge poulpes – octopi – wrapped their tentacles around innocent landlubbers. Not to be outdone, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1871) took us beneath the waves with Captain Nemo in his futuristic submarine Nautilus to visit the submerged city of Atlantis and to watch more menacing poulpes attack vessels and devour men. Modern science has not entirely banished this malevolent image of the sea. Remember those rows of glistening shark teeth in Peter Benchley’s Jaws?
Bermuda was hardly immune to these lurid speculations. After all, the colony’s identity rested on its “still-vex’d” existence as a spot of coral surrounded by inhospitable seas. The Tempest, ambergris, cedar sloops and whaling: all pitted man against an unpredictable sea. The island’s earliest tourist attractions played on the mysteries of the deep. The collapsed roof of a cave on Harrington Sound allowed the curious to gawk at fish and turtles as they swam up from the murky depths. By the 1830s, the cave had become the “devil’s hole.” “This dreadful name,” an 1876 visitor’s guide to Bermuda observed, conjured “strange tales…of the voracity of these finny monsters.” The American poet Julia Dorr peered into Devil’s Hole in 1886 and reported that “fish, strange creatures called groupers, with great sluggish bodies and horribly human faces, came crowding up to be fed, and stare at us hungrily with their awful eyes”. Late in that century, local boatmen began taking visitors out to the reefs, where they might use “water-glasses” – glass-bottomed boxes – to spy on the watery depths. On a calm day, the intrepid might sail out and clamber onto North Rock. Beyond such adventures, the contents and rhythms of the sea around Bermuda remained largely a mystery.
In the 1850s, that veil began to lift. On both sides of the Atlantic, a vogue for natural history took hold. The Victorian mind developed a passion for probing and cataloguing the wonders of nature. Man learned to observe, collect, catalogue and display nature. Technology obliged. Crude underwater breathing apparatus and even clumsy submarines allowed man to see what went on under the waves. Through observation and collection, it was argued, man could educate himself about his earthly circumstances. Such curiosity was accentuated when Charles Darwin’s 1859 The Origin of the Species threw the cat amongst the pigeons by suggesting that man was in fact in an evolving relationship with all creatures great and small. The sea thus began to lose its mystery. And what if the sea could now be brought to man – captured, contained and put on display?
Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888)
The father of the modern aquarium was the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888). In many ways he was a typical mid-Victorian naturalist, incessantly curious about the world about him but poorly equipped to comprehend it. His early career in business and education carried him peripatetically to Newfoundland, Quebec, Alabama and Jamaica. En route, he catalogued and sketched local flora and fauna, preserved bugs and birds and began writing handbooks for fellow naturalists.
Self-taught, devoutly Christian and powerfully strong-willed, Gosse discovered the sea in the 1850s, when recurrent headaches brought on by overwork drove him out of London. Gosse headed for the Devon coast, where he wandered the beaches and inspected marine life in the tidal pools. It struck him that these pools were little microcosms of the sea itself, full of anemones, fish and marine vegetation living and dying before his eyes. What, he wondered, if the tidal pool or some other section of the ocean and its inhabitants could be recreated away from the seashore “to make us acquainted with the strange creatures if the sea, without diving to gaze on them”? This was an age-old ambition: the Romans had clumsily tried to preserve sea life in aqua vivarium. Gosse would now apply Victorian technology to what he more simply dubbed an aquarium.
The fish house at London Zoo.
Gosse convinced the London Zoo in Regent’s Park to let him construct a “fish house”. Delicate new technologies had to be developed to sustain the greenhouse-like building. Pumps to circulate and aerate the water were crucial. Water temperature had to be strictly monitored. Sunlight playing upon the tanks had to be vigilantly rationed – too much light produced green algae. Plant life in the tanks had to be cultivated to replicate the natural conditions of the sea. When it opened in 1853, the “Fish House” was an instant success. Victorians flocked to gaze upon the sea in the midst of the city. Other European cities quickly copied London. Paris opened its Jardin d’Acclimatation in 1860, Hamburg followed in 1864 and in 1874 Naples christened the Stazione Zoologica. The vogue quickly swam the Atlantic with aquaria opening at the Smithsonian in Washington in 1857 and in Boston in 1859. Victorians were so enamoured with what they saw in the public “fish houses” that a mania for domestic aquaria swept through the Victorian living room. Described by German natural scientist Emil Rossmäler as “oceans on the table,” these amateur ecosystems seldom survived due to poor aeration and inadequate nutrition. Not to be denied their aquatic delights, Victorians began dumping imported Japanese goldfish into their garden ponds.
From the outset, aquariums found themselves at cross purposes. Gosse and his ilk saw their creations as educational and scientific facilities. The Stazione Zoologica in Naples was indeed part public aquarium and part marine research station. In his proselytizing 1856 publication The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea, Gosse argued that by gazing on fish in tanks man would be drawn closer to God. Anticipating his later opposition to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Gosse declared that the fish and anemones in his tanks projected “the wonders of an Almighty Hand.” Others reached crasser conclusions. Fish in tanks were a real crowd pleaser. Aquaria became tourist attractions. Seeing the success of Gosse’s Fish House in London, the American showman P.T. Barnum in 1861 brought two white whales caught in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to New York, where they were put on display in Central Park until, predictably, they died. Barnum then opened an aquarium on Ann Street in south Manhattan.
By the end of the 19th century, the aquarium had become a fixture in Europe and America. Amsterdam opened its aquarium in 1882, New York in 1896. But Barnum had already revealed an abiding tension in the world of aquaria. Were aquaria to be private institutions, build for profit and sensation, or were they to be public institutions, dedicated to education and investigation as well as entertainment? New York and Boston, for instance, opted for municipally-funded aquaria, New York prominently installing its aquarium in Clinton’s Castle in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan Island. Like biospheres and wetlands today, aquaria become the focus of academic and amateur naturalist enthusiasm; in 1902 the New York Zoological Society was given control over the New York Aquarium. Elsewhere, the emphasis remained on profit; P.T. Barnum pulled in credulous crowds with an assortment of concocted curiosities like his famous Fejee Mermaid, a half-fish, half-woman skeletal oddity.
Perhaps because it found itself surrounded by fish, Bermuda did not remain isolated from the aquarium revolution. “For, after all, the chief attraction of Bermuda is in her iridescent waters and what lies beneath them,” wrote the poet Julia Dorr in 1886, despite her aversion to groupers. When P.T. Barnum opened his fish house on Ann Street, he dispatched an assistant to Bermuda during the Civil War to collect “exotic” fish and to bring them to New York. Despite the fact that his assistant was mistaken for a Southern spy and temporarily arrested, Barnum got his fish and proved that tropical fish could be transported and sustained in the artificially-maintained waters of an aquarium.
Barnum’s hucksterism was soon replaced by serious scientific interest in Bermuda’s watery world. At the same time, American naturalists and academics arrived in the colony eager to investigate the oddity of a tropical coral island so close to, yet zoologically so far from, America. In 1894, for instance, the great Swiss-American naturalist Alexander Agassiz, curator of the Harvard Museum, arrived in Bermuda to comb its reefs and the sea life around them. A few years later, Professor Addison Verrill of Yale visited and then published his 1902 encyclopedia of the island’s natural history, The Bermuda Islands.
Occasional scientific visits soon became more systematic. In June 1897, Professor Charles Bristol of New York University arrived with colleagues from Harvard and the United States Fish Commission to establish a summer biological station on White’s Island. Bermuda, Bristol wrote in Science magazine, “seems to afford a tropical fauna in abundance”. They collected sponges, marine worms and fish, which they stored in four tanks on White’s Island. Once fish had been “seasoned” in the tanks, they were shipped on the weekly Quebec Steamship Line steamer to New York, where they supplemented the newly-opened New York Aquarium’s tropical fish displays.
Agar’s Island in Hamilton Harbour was the first home of the Bermuda Aquarium, which opened its doors to thousands of tourists in 1910 with Louis Mowbray as its curator.
The summer expeditions to Bermuda grew in popularity. Harvard President Charles William Elliot even began frequenting Bermuda. One of his faculty, zoologist Edward Marks, enthused about the “fascinating kaleidoscopic effects of the sea” around Bermuda. In 1903, the Americans moved their annual encampment to the Frascati Hotel on Flatts Inlet, which afforded easy access to the deep sea and to the tranquil waters of Harrington Sound.
As if to respond to the foreigners’ fascination with their island, local naturalists formed the Bermuda Natural History Society in 1901 with the dual purpose of promoting study of their island’s natural history and of building a natural history museum and aquarium. Spearheaded by local merchant Goodwin Gosling, the Society began agitating for the construction of an aquarium. In July 1902, they petitioned the Assembly for support. They found ready allies. American academics had become habituated to their summer sojourns at Flatts; The New York Times annually reported their departure for sunny Bermuda. The Carnegie Foundation provided funds. Bermuda aficionados lent their support. Mark Twain, long addicted to Bermuda’s relaxing charms, would speak at a fund raiser at Hamilton’s Colonial Opera House in support of the idea. (Twain showed further interest in the colony’s marine potential by calling the club he formed for a coterie of admiring little girls his “Angelfish Club” and had Tiffany’s craft angelfish pins for its members.)
Bermuda’s fledgling tourism industry gave the aquarium its biggest push. The colony’s winter warmth had attracted wealthy North Americans for decades, but by the turn-of-the-century tourism in Bermuda was becoming an “industry”. And tourists needed things to do. As Governor Geary warned the Assembly in 1902: “There is at present a deplorable lack of means of recreation and amusement not only to the annual visitors but also for the settled inhabitants of the islands.”
The colonial politicians took the hint and in 1904 passed The Biological Station Act, which voted monies for a government-sponsored biological station at Flatts and an aquarium on Agar’s Island in Hamilton Harbour. Rented from the War Department, the island contained old powder magazines that might be converted into fish tanks. Colonial coffers were, however, limited and little progress was made on the biological station. On Agar’s, work fitfully proceeded on the aquarium.
There was a problem: the biological station act stipulated that the aquarium be managed by a “curator.” Easier said than done. At the end of each summer, the American academics boarded the steamer and returned to their classrooms. What was needed was a qualified naturalist who would oversee the aquarium on a year-round basis. But who in a tiny colony was up to the challenge? Enter Louis Leon Arthur Mowbray, a Bermuda-born, self-taught marine biologist who would soon carve himself a reputation as one of the world’s best ichthyologists (the fancy title applied to zoologists who study fish).
Louis Mowbray with sextant in hand, probably from the 1930s. Image courtesy of Bermuda, Aquarium Museum & Zoo.
Louis Mowbray had spent much of his youth mucking around in boats. He was born in St. George’s in 1877 at a time when tall ships still inched through the Town Cut and delivered cargoes and sea lore to the town’s wharves. His father William, a Southern veteran of the Civil War, had come to Bermuda from his native Louisiana in 1870. He became a teacher at the grammar school and married Mary Ann Brown, a local merchant’s daughter. Louis, their only child, was home schooled by his father. The lad displayed boundless curiosity.
In a late-life memoir, Mowbray freely admitted that he was a “devilish” child. Even a bout of typhoid could not suppress his energy. He teamed up with Willie Meyer, son of St. George’s shipping agent Capt. William E. Meyer, for whom he would later briefly work. Together, they played cowboys and Indians on the town’s docks and gawked at the exotic vessels at quayside. The sea magnetically drew Mowbray. Like Phillip Gosse on the Devon coast, he began collecting marine specimens in the tidal basins, storing them in bottles. He bought books that helped him unlock the mysteries of the shoreline. When a seaman on a Dutch brigantine built him a canvas canoe, he sallied forth around St. George’s harbour. ‘Headstrong and adventurous’ best described young Mowbray.
The sea beyond the Town Cut drew Mowbray inexorably. He watched the pilot skiffs head out to sea in search of incoming merchantmen; here was adventure and profit on the high seas. The prospect “thrilled” him, he later wrote. So one night, much to his father’s anger, he stole away and joined a pilot boat. Over the next four years, he would often row 40-50 miles out to sea eager to be the first to snatch a Bermuda-bound ship. Mowbray proved “an excellent steersman … because I loved it and put my all into it”. The sea was getting into his veins.
Early in the new century, Mowbray tried a new vocation – photography. Tourists were beginning to frequent Bermuda and they craved visual mementoes of their stay in “the isles of rest.” Learning that John A. Frith (1835-1907), a pioneering St. George’s photographer was planning on retiring, Mowbray rushed to New York to apprentice with that city’s premier photographers and then came home to take over Frith’s studio. He produced postcards for the tourists and took Bermudians’ portraits. And, in the back room of his studio, he displayed his collection of marine curios and his growing natural history library.
Mowbray’s renown as a naturalist grew; local fishermen began bringing him curious specimens from their nets. In 1906, while exploring Castle Island, Mowbray came across what he believed was a new species of Bermuda bird – a “new form of petrel” he would call it in one of his first naturalist publications – which many years later would be revealed to be the long-thought-extinct cahow. This association of Mowbray with the diversity of Bermuda’s natural history attracted Professor Bristol and his academic colleagues to his photographer’s shop and its backroom specimens.
In 1904, Bristol asked Mowbray to join the staff at Flatts to assist in the summer’s research; his role appears to have been to organise the station’s daily expeditions out to the reefs. It was a striking appointment: a bumptious, self-taught local was being asked to join the ranks of America’s best and brightest zoologists. The appointment underscored the abiding core of Mowbray’s personality: boundless curiosity, dogged industry and obsessive attention to detail. “I have always had that feeling in anything I have done,” he would later write, “that it must be the best, never mind the money…give the best.”
And then the sea called again. One day in August 1905, a strange vessel arrived in St. George’s. Its long, thin hull and rakish lines set it apart from the plodding, heavy-set merchant ships that usually frequented St. George. This was a torpedo boat, the latest gambit in the naval arms race that would eventually lead to the First World War. Designed by America’s preeminent naval architect, Lewis Nixon, the “Gregory” was one of ten torpedo boats built in New Jersey by Nixon for the Russian Navy.
A nimble torpedo boat was seen as a military antidote to the battleship; speed and stealth would conquer girth and firepower. Nixon’s boats forsook steam power for gasoline engines and capable of a breathtaking 21 knots. The Russians, stinging from their drubbing by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima Straits, were desperate to obtain some of Nixon’s wizardry. To demonstrate the superiority of his product, Nixon decided to personally deliver one of the boats to Sevastopol in the Russian Crimea. To do so, he would dash across the Atlantic and make the “Gregory” the first gasoline-powered vessel to sail west-to-east across that ocean. When he reached Bermuda to take on fuel, Nixon decided he needed more crew. Dockside chatter led him to Mowbray’s photo shop. The next morning at 8:00 am Louis Mowbray was again on the high seas, bound for the Azores, Algiers and eventually Sevastopol. Mowbray lingered in Russia, studying at the biological station in the Crimean city.
The Russian adventure seemed to get the wanderlust out of young Mowbray’s system at last. He returned to Bermuda, never reopened the photo shop and began to devote his energy exclusively to the study of fish. He was hired to assist Dr. Tarlton Bean of Chicago’s prestigious Field Museum in his Bermuda marine life investigations. Then, in 1907, Mowbray acted on two big opportunities. He married Hilda Higinbothom of St. George; two sons, Louis Junior and Territt, would follow. And the Bermuda Natural History Society, on Professor Bean’s recommendation, hired Mowbray as the curator of the Agar’s Island aquarium. The newlyweds moved to Agar’s Island and Mowbray got to work converting the powder magazines into aquarium tanks.
He worked quickly. By 1909, the New York Zoological Bulletin reported that the Bermuda aquarium was “about half complete”. Twelve tanks containing octopi, fish and anemones were already on display. The lighting of the tanks was “perfect” and the aeration of the water first class. The Bulletin compared Agar’s to the famed Trocadero Aquarium in Paris.
In 1914, Universal Pictures used Agar’s to film Neptune’s Daughter, a film in which Annette Kellerman – the curvaceous Australian swimmer-turned-actress – played the role of a mermaid in a specially-built tank.
That same year, Mowbray began delivering tropical fish from Bermuda to New York. Most importantly, the tourists began coming. In 1910, 6,000 visitors viewed Mowbray’s tanks; 50 cents bought a Bermuda tourist a trip on the little steamer Flora to the island and admission to the aquarium. Hollywood soon noticed Bermuda’s new attraction. In 1914, Universal Pictures used Agar’s to film Neptune’s Daughter, a film in which Annette Kellerman – the curvaceous Australian swimmer-turned-actress – played the role of a mermaid in a specially-built tank. This was the first film in which a woman had sported a modern one-piece bathing suit. Disaster nearly befell the film when the filming tank burst, spilling the flippered Kellerman out onto the ground. The First World War would not be kind to the Bermuda Aquarium. The tourists disappeared, the colonial government slashed its budget and the US Navy requisitioned the island as a petrol dump for its submarine chasers. To make matters worse, Mowbray had departed in 1911, when the publicly-funded Boston aquarium made him its curator.
Bermuda, it seemed, had let the opportunity of a world-class aquarium supervised by an ambitious and home-grown curator swim through its fingers. Would the tanks on Agar’s Island ever welcome fish again? Would Louis Mowbray ever return to his native shores?