The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins. — H. L. Mencken

Adventures of Baron Munchausen - R. E. Raspe

The Baron's Father and the Sea-Horse

Munchausen Distinguishes Himself at the Siege of Gibraltar

I told you last night how I fled to Italy with my Turkish treasure. When I arriver at Brindisi I should have been by rights the richest private gentleman in all Europe, but beggars of all kinds, gamblers and rogues, took care that I should be relieved of most of my property in a few weeks, and the rest was taken from me by brigands, who stripped me of everything I possessed. Fortunately for me, in the woollen garment I wore next my skin was a secret pocket, containing a handful of pearls and other precious stones, which escaped the covetous eyes of the brigands. When I reached Rome, I sold my remnant of treasure to a jeweler for one hundred thousand gold pieces, and I must say that he had by far the best of the bargain. I then divided the money among my five servants, and dismissed them from my service, retaining for myself only a small sum for travelling expenses.

"Among the treasures I was robbed of by the brigands (which, however, they cast away as worthless, and I regained) was the famous sling with which King David slew Goliath. My father owned this sling before me, and it did him good service once in England, as you shall hear by the following tale.

[Illustration] from Baron Munchausen by R. E. Raspe

"He was walking one day along the coast at Dover, thinking of his projected journey to Germany, and wondering winch ship he should go by, when he was suddenly attacked by a raging sea-horse. My father groped in his pockets, and finding no other weapon than the sling, took it out, stooped for a couple of pebbles, of which there were plenty at his feet, and slung them both so dexterously at the animal that each stone put out an eye. My father now mounted the horse, which lost its ferocity together with its sight, and rode to the saddler's, using the sling as a bridle. There he purchased a saddle, and placed it on the horse, and rode through the sea to Calais in about an hour and ten minutes. It did not swim, but galloped along the sea-bottom with incredible speed, scattering millions of curiously shaped fish before it.

"At Calais my father sold the sea-horse to the host of the Three Cups for the small sum of two thousand dollars, and the speculative inn-keeper exhibits it to the present day, making far more profit than by his inn.

"The sea-horse is not (as commonly believed) a marine monster, but closely resembles the ordinary animal, except that it has web-feet, and fins instead of mane and tail. My father had a picture of himself riding the sea-horse across the channel painted by a celebrated artist in Paris. You may possibly have seen the picture, for it hangs in my bedchamber.

[Illustration] from Baron Munchausen by R. E. Raspe

"To return to myself, I determined to expend my small stock of money on a voyage to Gibraltar, there to visit my old friend, General Elliot. He received me with joy, and took me for a stroll along the ramparts to examine the state of the garrison and the operations of the enemy. I had brought with me an excellent telescope, which I had purchased in Rome from an English captain who was in straits for money. Looking through it, I perceived that the enemy were about to discharge a thirty-six pounder at the very spot where we were standing. I rushed toward our nearest cannon, a forty-eight pounder, and placed it exactly facing that of the enemy. I watched carefully till I saw the Spanish gunner apply a match to the touch-hole, and then I too gave the word 'Fire.'

"Both reports rang out at the same instant, and the two cannon-balls met half-way with amazing force. Ours, being the heavier, caused the enemy's ball to recoil with such violence as to kill the man who had discharged it; it then passed through the masts of three ships which lay in a line behind each other, and flew across the Straits of Gibraltar some miles into Africa. Our own ball, after repelling the other, proceeded on its way, dismounted the very cannon which had just been employed against us, and forced it into the hold of the ship, where it fell with so much force as to break its way through the bottom. The ship immediately filled and sank, with about a thousand Spanish sailors and a considerable number of soldiers on board, who were all drowned.

"For this service General Elliot offered me a commission, which I politely declined. But my name was mentioned in the military journal, and all the soldiers were ordered to present arms whenever I passed.

[Illustration] from Baron Munchausen by R. E. Raspe

It has never before been revealed who was the real saviour of Gibraltar, and I trust to, your discretion to let the following veracious account go no further.

"Some six or eight weeks later, as I was sitting at breakfast with General Elliot, a bomb-shell suddenly crashed through the window and fell on the table. I took it up before it burst, pulled out the fuse, and walked with the shell in my hand to the top of the rock. Near the enemy's camp I perceived a crowd of people, and by the aid of my telescope I discovered that a gallows had been erected, and two English officers, who had gone into the hostile camp as spies, had been taken prisoners and were about to be hanged.

"'Wait a bit!' I cried, 'I have a word to say in this matter,' and, as it was too far to throw the stone with my hand, I took David's sling from my pocket, put a new fuse into the shell, which I then hurled from the sling into the midst of the crowd. The shell burst as it fell and destroyed every one save the two prisoners, who had just been strung in the air. One of the pieces of the shell flew with such force against the foot of the gibbet, that it fell down on top of the hangman and killed him. The two English officers fell half strangled to the ground, but the one retained his presence of mind sufficiently to release himself and his comrade from their hempen cravats. Then both sat up and looked round them: everybody in their vicinity was dead, but from the camp rushed crowds of people uttering cries for vengeance. The Englishmen had naturally no desire to await this infuriated mob, but rushed at full speed to the sea-coast, seized a Spanish boat with two men in it, and made them row to one of our ships which was lying near.

"This was the only time I ever made use of the sling, and being then very old it was quite destroyed. The greater part flew away with the shell, and the little piece which remained in my hand now lies in the family archives, together with other interesting relics. The next time you honor me with a visit, I shall be very happy to show them to you."