The Shark Attack that Shook the 1700s

How a few gruesome minutes in Havana Harbor changed the life of a fourteen-year-old orphan, upended the art world, and transformed the way humans think about sharks.

The Shark Attack that Shook the 1700s

The men on the boat saw the shark first. It was swimming about 200 yards from the shore, where the boat was anchored, and it was bearing down on a fourteen-year-old boy.

There wasn’t enough time to warn Brook Watson. The shark bit into his calf and dragged him underwater. The sailors paddled out to the spot where it had happened, hoping Watson would break the surface. He didn’t. It took two minutes for them to spot his body 100 yards away, and they rushed toward him, but the shark took him again before they arrived.

One of the sailors grabbed a harpoon and moved to the boat’s bow. Watson reappeared after another two minutes, his foot gone below the ankle, blood streaming into the water. The shark wasn’t far behind, moving in for a third time, twisting through the water, opening its mouth wide. On the boat, the sailor raised his harpoon.

The shark went in for the kill. The sailor plunged the spear into the water.

That moment, suspended in time, is immortal.

That true story was told in a letter, which was printed by the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser nearly thirty years after the attack, which took place in 1749. Watson, by then a successful merchant, likely sent it himself. The fateful moment was also recreated in oil on canvas, six by seven-and-a-half feet, and premiered to raves at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts.

“Watson and the Shark,” by John Singleton Copley, took the attack and committed it to canvas. The painting shows an incapacitated Watson, his body shockingly white, his blonde hair undulating in the tide, helpless as the shark approaches. His rescue boat is nearby, pushing through the water of Cuba’s Havana Harbor. One of the nine sailors aboard prepares to strike the shark with a spear.

John Singleton Copley's "Watson and the Shark," 1778. Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” 1778. Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

“This Picture is extremely well conceived in all its Parts, and appears to be the Result of mature Reflection,” wrote The Public Advertiser on April 28, 1778. “In short, it is a Perfect Picture of its Kind.”

The good reviews were heartening to Copley, an American painter who had moved to London largely to prove himself in the thriving British art world. He hoped that “Watson and the Shark” — a significant deviation from the portraiture he was known for — would punch his ticket to the top tier of artists, says Charles Brock, the associate curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Copley was already a prodigy. “Watson and the Shark” was his bid to increase his renown.

It did. Even though some criticisms were lodged against the painting when it premiered (The General Evening Post wrote: “The boat, however, does not seem sufficiently agitated by the water, in consequence of such a disaster, and the head of the fish is made out in a very obscure manner”), within ten months Copley had ascended from associate at the Royal Academy of the Arts to a full member. He had been in London for just five years; “Watson and the Shark” announced his arrival.

“He’s strutting his stuff in that painting,” says Louis Masur, an American studies and history professor at Rutgers who, in 1994, wrote about the painting for The New England Quarterly. Masur, who does not have a background in art, was inspired to research the piece after a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where both he and his young son saw it on display and were blown away by its enormity.

Discussion of the painting hasn’t ceased. The late medical historian Gordon Bendersky called the piece “the original ‘Jaws’ attack” centuries after its debut. Art historians continue to revisit the painting’s complicated mesh of techniques and ideas, debating Copley’s techniques and intentions — why, for instance, was a black sailor placed in the center of the painting, completing a triangle with Watson and the shark? Was it a statement on slavery?

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They’ve mentioned that Watson’s body, splayed in the water like a classical figure, is a nod to Copley’s reverence for artistic history, and perhaps points to the idea of Christian resurrection. They’ve noted the city of Havana in the background, which Copley likely based on existing illustrations.

They’ve discussed how the work was a watershed moment for the genre of history painting, which had previously stuck to only the most far-ranging historical or mythological moments, and now had dipped into, as Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in his In The Zenith of European Power, 1830-1870, “sensational contemporary reportage.”

And they’ve talked about the shark, because Copley, a Bostonian who left for London on the eve of the American Revolution, had likely never seen one.

So it became a monster. The painting presents a bizarre version of the animal, its body twisting impossibly, arching toward Watson, an “aberration of reality, but effective as artistic expression.”

That’s according to George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research. He uses the painting in lectures to illustrate the perception of the animal over time.

That perception — of a monster, a killing machine — hasn’t really changed. In the mid-1600s, there was A West-Indian Ballad, a poem purportedly based on a real event. In it, an impatient sailor jumps off his moored boat and begins swimming to his love, who is waiting for him on the shore.

It’s a sweet sort of suspense, until, from nowhere:

“Then through the white surf did she haste/ To clasp her lovely swain/ When, ah! a shark bit through his waist/ His heart’s blood dy’d the main!/ He shriek’d! his half sprang from the wave/ Streaming with purple gore/ And soon he found a living grave/ And ah! was seen no more.”

In 1776, around the time Watson commissioned Copley to dramatize his close call, a naturalist named Thomas Pennant wrote this about the white shark, in his British Zoology:

“They are the dread of sailors in all hot climates, where they constantly attend the ships in expectation of what may drop overboard; a man that has that misfortune perishes without redemption: they have been seen to dart at him, like gudgeons to a worm.”

He continued: “Swimmers often perish by them; sometimes they lose an arm or leg, and sometimes are bit quite asunder, serving but for two morsels for this ravenous animal.”

In 1852, Samuel Maunder wrote that the white shark’s mouth is “sufficiently wide to enable it to receive the thigh, or even the body of a man,” and is “killed by harpooning, which, owing to (its) strength, is often a long and difficult operation.”

The shark in “Watson and the Shark” is more frightening, even — while Copley’s portrayal is in line with the animal’s treatment in the popular culture of hundreds of years ago, he also misses just enough points of shark anatomy to turn it into a sea monster.

For instance, Burgess says, the underside of the shark’s head is drawn faithfully, but its snout is too long. Its head arches at an unnatural angle. Historians agree that Watson was likely attacked by a tiger shark, which was common in Havana Harbor. But the painting doesn’t necessarily depict a tiger shark. According to Burgess, the painting renders something closer to a requiem shark, or a “generic shark.”

A study Copley completed to prepare for painting "Watson and the Shark." (Copyright Detroit Institute of Arts)
A study Copley completed to prepare for painting “Watson and the Shark.” (Copyright Detroit Institute of Arts)

Nothing is perfect. For all the master artists to whom Copley pays tribute in Watson and the Shark, the part he gets wrong is the shark, and that imbues the work with something unknowable, turning a dramatic event into something abjectly horrifying.

Copley painted three versions of “Watson and the Shark.” One hangs at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Another is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The original version is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in a small octagonal room dedicated to Copley. Three of the eight walls are doorways; paintings hang on the other five. Four of those are Copley’s portraits, smaller canvases with men and women standing center frame, leaning over a chair or propped up against a pillar.

“Watson and the Shark,” large and imposing, dominates the room. Visitors will stand in front of it, and a docent, who always seems to linger in Copley’s room, will engage them. He’ll tell them that this event actually happened, that the boy was truly attacked by a shark. Then, after they’ve surrendered themselves to the moment, he’ll tell them that everything else in that room seems pretty tame by comparison.

The moment, in real life, continued. The shark bore down on Watson a third time. Some sailors prepared to haul Watson into the boat. Another readied his harpoon. Watson dangled in the water.

The shark wouldn’t get a third bite — the harpoon drove it away. The boy was brought onto the boat.

By now, Watson was bleeding profusely. His right foot was lost. The shark had chewed through his tibial arteries, and had taken him underwater twice, dragging him hundreds of yards each time, as Bendersky wrote in his 2002 paper, published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. The shark had nearly drowned the fourteen-year-old. The sailors on the boat, Bendersky wrote, likely wouldn’t have been familiar with how to use a tourniquet, so Watson would have kept bleeding.

Surgery could not be done at sea, so the boat set course for land, a few hundred yards away. Watson’s wound, severe already, had spent minutes mingling with salt water.

On land, a surgeon decided to amputate Watson’s leg below the knee. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the chances of dying from an amputation ranged from fifty to 100 percent, Bendersky wrote.

The surgeon made the cut. Watson’s life hung in the balance.

According to Bendersky, the combination of the shark bites, the near-drowning and the attendant risks of amputation and post-op infection would have put Watson’s chances of dying at ninety-nine percent or greater.

He made a full recovery in three months.

The event defined the English-born Watson’s life. Before the attack, he had been orphaned and sent to Boston, where he lived with a relative named Levens, according to the National Gallery’s catalogue, American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. Levens was a merchant; Watson tagged along, and in 1749 found himself swimming in Havana Harbor while Levens’s ship was docked.

After the attack, Watson was fitted with a wooden leg and learned to use it. He became a merchant and eventually moved back to England for his career. As the tensions between the British colonies and England grew, Watson combined his work with government business. His leg became ammunition for some snide writings: John Wilkes, a political adversary, once wrote, “Modest Watson on his wooden leg / That leg on which such wondrous art is shown / It almost seems to serve him as his own.” When Watson became a baronet in 1803, he included in his coat of arms a foot severed at the ankle.

Watson met Copley through mutual friends and relatives. At some point in the 1770s, he commissioned the artist to depict the 1749 ordeal.

“Clearly, he saw this story as an opportunity to do something beyond anything that he had done before,” Masur says of Copley.

The painter took on the commission. He zeroed in on the most dramatic point of the attack. The moment became immortal.

It lives on in three museums and in the debates of the art world, but its impact goes further. The shark in that painting gathers its primal force from writings hundreds of years before, from the seventeenth-century A West-Indian Ballad to the eighteenth-century writings of Pennant, who called the white shark’s mouth a “dreadful apparatus.”

When Copley painted his shark, it was a monster, and as the decades went by, that feeling endured. Maunder, writing in the mid-1800s, mentioned, “no fish can swim with such velocity as the Shark, nor is any so constantly engage in that exercise: he outstrips the swiftest ships, and plays round them, without exhibiting a symptom of strong exertion or uneasy apprehension.”

The mythology builds. Move forward another hundred years, to 1958, and watch Spencer Tracy fight off a shiver of sharks in the film adaptation of “The Old Man and the Sea,” which Burgess watched when he was young, before his four-decade career studying sharks took shape. Watch Tracy fashion a crude harpoon with a stick and knife. Watch him slam it through the surface of the water.

Now move ahead to 1975, when “Jaws” again shapes the popular perception of sharks, creating the modern summer blockbuster in the process. Brock, the curator, notes how goofy the animatronic model for Jaws looks in behind-the-scenes photos. The artistry of the shark — how it can so convincingly move through and pop out of the water, how in those moments it makes such a strong case for its own realism — creates the fear. The drama of “Watson and the Shark,” in which Copley creates a warped offshoot of a real animal, has the same effect.

“He created some kind of bizarre, monstrous thing,” says Masur. “It created an image of a shark in (the people’s) mind’s eye.”

Follow Masur to the early 1990s, to the halls of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he and his four-year-old son turn a corner, find themselves face-to-face with the shark that took Watson’s leg, and let their mouths drop open.