The Fish That Almost Changed History

The Fish That Almost Changed History

Almost everyone is familiar with the story of Pocahontas, the vivacious, audacious, Native American teenager who rescued Captain John Smith when his head already lay on the executioner's block. Placing her head between his head and the warriors' clubs poised to bash out his brains, she brought about a last—minute reprieve. Pocahontas's father, Chief Powhatan, moved by her act of courage, spared the captain's life and arranged a truce between his tribe and the Jamestown colonists.

This event—turned—legend has been the basic ingredient for many films and literary works, although the details of the actual incident may have differed from those described above. However, this romantic bit of early American history would not have occurred if an earlier alarming incident in Captain Smith's life had turned out as unpleasantly as it might have. The occasion was his unfortunate encounter with a dangerous fish known as the stingray.

Stingrays are common in shallow tropical to temperate, fresh or marine waters throughout the world. They have been known and feared for many centuries. Pliny the Elder, in the first century a.d., wrote that "its spine wold pierce armour like an arrow, and, driven into its root, wold cause a tree to wither. To the strength of iron it adds the venom of poison."

Although Pliny's description is not entirely accurate (unless stingrays have tamed down considerably since his day), the stingray accounts for most of the injuries caused by venomous fish, about 750 per year in the United States alone. Despite Pliny's claim that the stingray "lurks in ambush and pierces fish as they pass," it is nonaggressive and spends most of its time half—buried in sand, where it finds such favorite foods as mollusks, worms, and crustaceans. Because the stingray lives in places frequented by bathers, beachcombers, and fishermen, victims are usually wounded when they inadvertently step on a buried fish. Obviously not amused at being aroused or stepped on, the stingray immediately lashes its whiplike tail in all directions, randomly piercing anything soft and accessible—such as a human leg.

The flat, disklike body of the stingray comes in three shapes: round, kite, or diamond. Approximately as wide as they are long, stingrays range in size from 12 inches to 14 feet, and weigh from 1.5 to 750 pounds, depending on which of the 100—plus species a person may encounter. The slender tail is at least as long as the rest of its body. On the upper side of the tail is the stingray's weapon: a sharp, stiff poison spine, or dart. A venomous secretion flows in grooves to the underside of the spine, which is fringed with thin barbs that point backward.

When the stingray stabs, it not only injects poison but also cuts and tears the flesh. Even a tiny puncture from a stingray's spine has been known to make an adult victim lose consciousness. The effect of the poison is immediate, and inflammation spreads around the wound almost as soon as the spine has penetrated. The venom produced by the stingray affects the cardiovascular system and causes a loss of blood pressure along with an increase in heart rate.

Although rare, fatalities do occur. One such incident happened off the Bahamas. A scuba diver was foolhardy enough to pick up a two—foot stingray and bring it close to his body. The tail immediately began a frenzied lashing; piercing the diver's chest, the spine entered his heart and he died instantly. This case delivers a message quite appropriate for most objects of nature: look at it—don't touch it and don't pick it up!

In 1601, six years before Pocahontas saved him from Native American war clubs, Captain John Smith almost suffered an agonizing, unhistoric death when he was stabbed by a stingray. His ship had just run aground on a shoal in Chesapeake Bay. While the crew set things to right, the captain amused himself by wading in the shallow waters and stabbing fish with his sword. A small stingray drove its spine into the captain's wrist as he tried to retrieve his sword. Instantly ill he barely made it to shore, where he collapsed.

In his General Historie of Virginia, Captain Smith described in third person his harrowing adventure. The captured stingray had

a most poisoned sting . . . which she stucke into the wrist of his arme near an inch and a half; no blood nor wound was seene, but a little blewe spot, but the torment was instantly so extreeme, that in foure houres had so swollen his hand, arme and shulder (that the crew) prepared his grave on an island near the mouth of the river. . . . But ere night his tormenting paine was so well aswaged that he eate of the fishe to his supper.

To his companions this was indeed miraculous. He had been in such agony they had even considered putting him out of his misery.

American history was back on track, and Captain John Smith stayed around to earn his paragraph in the chronicles of our country.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning