One of William Hope Hodgson’s most important creations was the infamous Sargasso Sea. In his fiction, it is a graveyard of ships which have become marooned within the choking seaweed and prey to huge monsters who call it home. But what was the Sargasso Sea?
It may surprise many to learn that the Sargasso Sea is an actual place within the Atlantic Ocean.
Located roughly 70 degrees west to 40 degrees west and from 20 degrees north to 35 degrees north, the Sargasso Sea comprises nearly 700 statute miles of width and 2,000 statute miles long. It is the only sea that has no land shores. It is instead a gyre (a large system of rotating ocean currents) which is surrounded on the north by the North Atlantic Current; on the east by the Canary Current; on the south by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current; and on the west by the Gulf Stream. These currents deposit various marine plants and refuse into the gyre.
The primary plant in the Sargasso Sea is seaweed from the genus “Sargassum”. This seaweed floats on the surface of the water in large sections and is unique in that it reproduces freely in the water, not requiring land. The area is prone to calm winds which could often strand sailing ships even though the seaweed is described as not being particularly obstructive to ships. Several varieties of life exist in the Sargasso Sea and it is an important part of the migration patterns of the European and American eels. It is also a habitat for shrimp, crab, and fish which have adapted specifically to the floating algae (although, disappointingly, not of monstrous shape).
Christopher Columbus is credited for discovering the Sargasso Sea as he was the first to document its finding. Supposedly, his crew expressed the common fear of becoming stuck in the weeds but a later expedition by others found that the seaweed grouped in patches, not continuous, insurpassable blocks.
The location of the Sargasso Sea places it within the infamous ‘Bermuda Triangle’ and has garnered some of its own mysterious lore over the years. In 1840, the “Rosalie” sailed through the Sargasso Sea and was later found derelict. In 1857, the bark “James B. Chester” was found deserted in the Sargasso Sea with chairs kicked over and a stale meal on the mess table. In 1881, the schooner “Ellen Austin” allegedly found a derelict schooner and placed a crew aboard to sail it into port. But, two days later, the schooner was sighted sailing erratically and was found to be deserted once again. No sign of either crew was found. Other derelicts have been found even within the last 60 years.
In Hodgson’s life, he would have undoubtedly encountered the Sargasso Sea during his time as a Merchant Marine. Certainly he would have heard the legends about the ‘graveyard of the sea’ and the many stories concerning ships that had become trapped in the weeds with no winds to pull them out to open ocean. In his mind, Hodgson created a unique landscape that allowed him to fill it with terrifying monsters and horrifying islands. Despite the modern ‘debunking’ of the Sargasso Sea’s legends, it remains as powerful a landscape today as when Hodgson first set down his imaginative stories on paper.