In 1820 a man died of starvation in a cold Parisian gutter. He was given a pauper’s burial and the few who attended did so only to snicker at the feeble-minded fool that believed in sea monsters. The man was the French zoologist Pierre Denys de Montfort. Had he lived until 1857 he would have seen his ‘wild stories’ vindicated. Pierre Denys de Montfort was a malacologist, an expert in mollusks. He was also a scientific heretic, for he dared to research something that the high priests of science deemed to be an old wives’ tale, giant cephalopods.
He was born in 1764 and was fascinated by nature from an early age. Sadly, he was of a generation that lost many scientists to history due to the French Revolution, and a republic that stupidly, in the words of public prosecutor Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville - “Did not need scientists”. He faired better than most. After serving in the army for a while, and after a stint as assistant to the geologist Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, he became attached to the Jardin des Plantes, the main botanical garden in Paris. For a time he was a much sort after scientist, being offered places on a number of expeditions. He trawled to Egypt and Germany to study geology. His gift for languages did not go un-noticed, and he became attached to the Museum of Natural History as a translator. He narrowly missed receiving the chair in mineralogy.
He wrote an addendum for Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle générale et particulière. Comte de Buffon had been the director of Jardin des Plantes and this was a feather in the young naturalist’s cap. Suites a Buffon was devoted to mollusks. During this time, he investigated the origins of ambergris (the indigestible beaks and claws of cephalopods vomited up by sperm whales like gigantic owl pellets) and became interested in the idea of huge cephalopods. He interviewed American whalers who had settled in France about the evidence for such creatures.
One such man, Ben Johnson, told of a monstrous tentacle found in the mouth of a sperm whale they had killed. The tentacle was 35 feet long and had been severed at both ends, De Montfort reckoned another 10-20 feet of it had been lost. It was as thick as a mast with suckers the size of hats.
Another man, Reynolds, told of seeing what he thought was a red sea serpent laying next to a whale they had killed. It was discovered to be a massive tentacle 45 feet long with suckers as large as plates.
Writing in his Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques, de Montfort classifies two giant cephalopods, the colossal octopus and the kraken octopus, the latter referring to gigantic squid.
He writes of a votive painting (now long lost) in the chapel of St Thomas in Brittany. The painting showed a titanic octopus attacking a ship. It was supposedly based on real events that occurred to a ship from that port whilst anchored off Angola. A giant octopus has supposedly attacked the ship, wrapping its arms about the rigging and causing the ship to list dangerously. The crew attacked with cutlasses and managed to get the monster to relinquish its hold by hacking off some of the arms. The painting was made to commemorate the events, the scared sailors having prayed to Saint Thomas.
Such huge creatures had been mentioned by Louis Marie Joseph O’Hier, Comte de Grandpre in his book Voyage a la cote occidentale d’ Afrique written between 1786 and 1787. The natives told him that a giant octopus known as Ambazombi would often attack their boats and canoes dragging them to the bottom. They believed the monster to be an evil spirit. The name Ambazombi may be linked to Nizambi, the supreme god of the Bakongo people of Angola.
Captain Jean-Magnus Dens, a Danish man and former employee of the Gothenburg Company now retired to Dunkirk, told a similar story to him. He had once been becalmed off the coast of West Africa, and took advantage of the situation to scrape barnacles off the side of the ship. Men were lowered by ropes whilst sitting on planks. As they worked, a huge cephalopod rose from the water and wrapped tentacles around two of the men dragging them under. Another arm coiled about a third man who clung to the rigging. His shipmates managed to save him by hacking off the monster’s writhing member. The unfortunate man later died of shock. The Captain informed de Montford that the portion severed was 25 feet long, and the whole arm had been 35 to 40 feet long. It tapered to a point and was covered with suckers. The Captain felt that if the monster had attached all its arms onto the ship it would have capsized it.
Another captain by the name of Anderson told de Montfort of finding two huge tentacles, still connected by part of the mantle, on some rocks near Bergen, Norway. They were so thick he could barely put his arms about them, and were around 25 feet long.
Delving into maritime disasters,de Montfort thought that many disappearances of ships could have been caused by attacks from giant cephalopods. One in particular was the disappearance of ten ships in 1782. Six French ships had been captured in the West Indies by British Admiral George Rodney during the Battle of the Saintes, and were being taken to port under the escort of four British ships. All ten vessels vanished and de Montfort postulated that an attack by a kraken was to blame. In fact, the ships had been lost in a hurricane. This rash and rather gullible statement was to be the beginning of the end for de Montfort, who became a scientific pariah. He had not helped matters when he jokingly suggested that the kraken’s arms were so vast they could bridge the Straits of Gibraltar (8.9 miles). Some humourless zoologists had taken him seriously. From then on, his name was mud in scientific circles.
Out of work in scientific agencies, he retreated to the country and wrote books on bee keeping and linguistics. Returning penniless to Paris, he scratched the most meager of livings identifying shells for naturalists and collectors. He became a wretched, ragged figure and finally a destitute alcoholic. He was found dead of starvation in 1820, a pitiful end for a man once associated with the most august scientific institutes in Paris. Pierre Denys de Montfort has been largely forgotten. Despite having created 25 genera still in use today, de Montfort’s career barely merits a footnote whilst his better off contemporaries such as Georges Cuvier are still celebrated today.
Gallingly, after his death, de Montfort was proved correct when parts of gigantic squid began to fall into the hands of scientists. Danish zoologist Professor Johannes Japetus Smith Steenstrup published the first scientific description of the giant squid.
To this day de Montfort has been given little, or no, credit despite having amassed the greatest amount of accounts, and carrying out the most research into giant cephalopods. It is time for that to change and for the scientific community to recognise him for the ground-breaking and dedicated researcher he was, and to realise that the same pigheaded arrogance and prejudice still rides high in the world of science this very day.