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A Youth rescued from A Shark

Date: 1779
Overall: 380 x 438 mm, 20 g
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds
Object Name: Engraving
Object No: 00036375
Place Manufactured:London
Related Place:La Habana,

User Terms

    This etching is after the 1778 painting by John Singleton Copley titled Watson and the Shark. It depicts nine men in a boat who have come to the aid of a shark attack victim swimming in Havana Harbour. Standing at the bow of the boat, a man is about to lance the open mouthed shark, while two men reach overboard for the victim.

    In the margin at the base of the image is a narrative of the event, written in both English and French:

    This representation is founded on the following Fact: a Youth bathing in the Harbour of the Havannah, was twice seized by a Shark, from which, (though with the Loss of the Flesh & Foot, torn from the Right Leg,) He disentangled himself, & was by the assistance of a Boat's crew, sav'd from the Jaws of the voracious Animal: for in the Moment it was attempting to seize it's Prey, (a Third Time,) a Sailor with a Boat Hook, drow it from it's pursuit.
    SignificanceThis engraving is believed to depict the earliest fully documented shark attack upon a human - young Brook Watson who was serving on an American merchant ship. It is an important record of the public perceptions of sharks in the second half of the 18th century.
    HistoryThe word 'shark' is analogous with 'attack' - as one of nature’s oldest and most feared creatures, the shark has a long history of being portrayed as a ferocious man-eating monster. From 18th century images like this engraving, to the 1975 Steven Spielberg movie Jaws, the portrayal of sharks has raised people’s fears of them to epidemic proportions around the world.

    This engraving depicts the real events of the shark attack and rescue of a young boy in Havana Harbour, Cuba. In 1749, 14 year old British born Brook Watson - who was serving as a crew member on an American merchant ship - was swimming alone in the harbour when he was attacked multiple times by a shark. A nearby boat came to Watson's aid and fought off the shark. Watson survived, but had his foot amputated below the knee.

    Despite the shark attack, Watson continued his mercantile career. He married in 1760, became Lord Mayor of London in 1796, and was made a Baron in 1803. However it was for his shark attack that he was best known. Watson even designed his coat of arms with reference to the attack: Neptune and a shield featuring Watson's severed leg, and the Latin motto Scuto Divino ('Under God's Protection').

    It is believed that Watson commissioned John Singleton Copley, who he had previously befriended, to paint Watson and the Shark. Finished and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778, the painting caused a sensation. Upon Watson's death in 1807, the painting was bequeathed to Christ's Hospital - a school in Sussex - with the hope that it would be a useful lesson to the children. Copley went on to paint two other versions of the attack.

    The painting is both romantic and naïve - the gory leg is hidden beneath the water showing little blood, and the uncharacteristic (but none the less ferocious looking) shark is depicted with forward-facing eyes and lips, and unusually rounded pectoral fins. It is probable that Copley had never seen a real shark.

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