Let me state, here and now, that this is not a fact, but a "factoid": something which "everybody knows", but is nevertheless false. If mermaids were really sea cows, they wouldn't be attribruted to the western coasts of the British Isles and northern Europe, or to Greece, where belief in them is (was) strongest. They would be treated as strange beings dwelling in distant parts - like the unicorn, which was based on garbled accounts of the Indian rhinoceros. But there is one thing both merfolk and sea cows have in common: they are creatures of the inshore shallows. One place you would never expect them would be the open Atlantic Ocean, with water more than a mile deep.
In the sixteenth century, Spain forbade any foreigner to trade with its American colonies. Nevertheless, in 1567, the Englishman, John Hawkins led an expedition for just that purpose. It ended disastrously, when it was surprised, and attacked by the Spanish fleet. As for the crews, their individual fates were many and varied. One of them returned home vowing implacable enmity against the Spanish Crown; his name was Francis Drake. Some were forced to settle in Mexico under Spanish rule. Incredibly, three of them managed, by unknown means, to reach Nova Scotia, of all places. (This will be the subject of a later post in a later blog, so stay tuned.) And in 1571, seven of them, including one Job Hortop, were transported to Spain as prisoners with the treasure fleet.
Once in Spain, they would be charged, not with illegal commerce, but with heresy. They were destined, two to be burned alive, and the rest to be chained as galley slaves, in which situation several eventually died. But on the voyage over, everyone behaved as gentlemen. They gave the admiral, Don Juan de Velasco de Varre their word that they would behave themselves, and they were given the run of the ship. Their leader, Captain Robert Barrett, shared the pilot's cabin, and he and Hortop saved the vessel from being wrecked at Cape Canaveral. After that, to quote Unwin:
The only noteworthy event was the sighting of a merman. He appeared, Hortop declared, in the sea off Bermuda, and 'shewed himselfe three times to us from the middle upwards, in which parts hee was proportioned like a man, of the complection of a Mulato, or tawny Indian'. Don Juan was as impressed by the apparition as Hortop, and recorded a description of the monster for the benefit of the King when he returned home."The only noteworthy event ..." I like it. It's like saying, "Our crossing of the steppe was uneventful, except that we saw a unicorn." But you must remember that this was a period when new lands and new wonders were being reported every year, and the limits of possibilities were as yet undefined. A sixteenth century audience would not have been as astounded by a merman as we are, and Hortop's adventures were dramatic enough without the need to throw in a paragraph about a merman.
But what was it? I think we can rule out a manatee. Theoretically, reports of manatees passing through innumerable hands might morph into a legend of merfolk, but no-one who saw one up close could possibly make the mistake. Also, a manatee would not be able to raise itself in such a manner even once, let alone three times, even if it wanted to. And there is also the location: not at Bermuda, but off Bermuda. The admiral would have no reason to risk his ships among the treacherous corals of "the still vexed Bermuthes". Also, there are no manatees in Bermuda. They live in the shallows, feeding on sea grasses close inshore, and although one of their food species, known as manatee grass, exists in Bermuda, it is left untouched, because they cannot possibly cross the wide stretch of ocean. Bermuda is an archipelago of coral-fringed summits of an undersea volcanic caldera. There is no continental shelf. Away from shore, the water falls off very rapidly and is really, really deep. The "merman" must have been displaying his upper portions well over a mile above the sea bottom.
So what was it? I can't think of any other sea creature which fits the bill. Can you?
Addenda: Albert Rosales has produced a detailed (263 KB) PDF report on many very strange "merfolk" reports from around the world, some of them in the 1990s. If only one of them is correct, the implications are enormous. Loren Coleman have provided a smaller HTM list.
Reference: Rayner Unwin (1960), The Defeat of John Hawkins. A biography of his third slaving voyage. Allen & Unwin, London. The above quote from taken from p 255 of the 1961 Readers Union edition. The sources he cited were:
Conway, G.R.G. (ed), The Rare Travailes of Job Hortop, Being a Facsimile Reprint of the First Edition (Mexico, 1928), and
Volume 6 of Hakluyt, R., The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (London, 1927).
I do not know whether or not he sighted Don Juan's report to the King.