Earlier this week, this headline started floating through my Facebook feed: “”We must stay vigilant”: Ghost ship adrift for a year and crewed by CANNIBAL rats heading for Britain.”
The story of the Lyubov Orlova is long and complex, filled with twists and turns. Named after a Russian theatre star, the boat was built in 1976 and later fitted to undertake extreme tours. In 2010, the boat was seized in St. John’s for unpaid debts. For the next few years it languished in St. John’s harbour (where it likely became home to all the cannibal rats mentioned above). Finally, the boat was sold for scrap and everyone here breathed a sigh of relief. The boat left St. John’s for the Dominican Republic, pulled by an American tug. The story seemed to be finished, over. The boat was gone.
Or so we thought.
Within a few days, the Lyubov Orlova and tug encountered stormy weather and – gasp! – the boat snapped loose from its tow line. And in that moment, it was transformed from scrap boat destined for the junk heap, into ghost ship, terror of the Atlantic waves.
Transport Canada got involved, but once it ensured that the boat was safely out of Canadian waters and out of the way of oil rigs and shipping routes, it left the Orlova alone. Not our responsibility.
And so, since then, it’s continued to float aimlessly around the Atlantic.
And, if you believe the recent hype, as it’s been drifting its way around the Atlantic, it’s slowly become infested with ever more carnivorous rats, who, out of desperation are engaging in a Darwinian race for survival. These cannibal rats, with their sharp teeth and red eyes, are now ready to unleash their fleshy desires on an unsuspecting European populace, innocent victims of a scourge of Newfoundland origin, sitting ducks waiting to be picked off, one by one.
It’s a great story. It has all the elements: blood. cannibals. savagery. the high seas. ghosts and hauntings. It’s even got an apocalyptic flair. Zombie rats take over the world! It’s almost as good as Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, and indeed, I wonder what Dav Pilkey would make of this (can you tell I’ve had 7 year olds in the house?)
The only problem is that it’s not true.
I know. It’s a sad thing. I was looking forward to seeing nightly news footage of Canadian cannibal rats running rampant through the streets of London. Just think of the ratings possibilities!
But actually we have no idea where the Lyubov Orlova is or where it will go next. We also have no idea if it’s actually infested with rats. And the cannibal rats? Well, apparently rats are social creatures who are highly unlikely to resort to cannibalism.
But I do wonder if one could read this story through colonial eyes. From what I can tell, the story “broke” in the Daily Mail, that esteemed news rag filled with information about Hollywood’s best bikini bodies, Prince Harry’s shenanigans and Kate Middleton’s post-partum fashion sense. Around the same time, it got picked up by other British-based news agencies. And then, between 12-24 hours later, North American media were on the case.
The story assumes different proportions when viewed from the perspective of those soon to be overcome by the horror of the cannibal rats than it does from the perspective of those who gladly got rid of said rats.
What if the rats were really disgruntled colonists, come to seek their revenge on the motherland? After all, England’s colonies were, if texts from the active imperialist period were to be believed, filled with savages and with the dregs of British society. Impoverished farmers. Criminals sent away to penal colonies. Dirty, dark slaves toiling away in the heat. And heathen Indians. It was, no doubt, a toxic mess best kept far away from Mother England’s shores. Best to keep singing Rule Britannia.
But now, here were those rats – St. John’s born and bred – ready to enact their revenge. In the English imaginary, perhaps they aren’t rats at all…perhaps they are rodent metaphors for the toxic zombie colonists…Colonists unhappy with the scourge of British imperialism and ready to take over, ready to consume the flesh of the colonizers, zombie colonists ready to contaminate Britain, undead colonists of contagion.
Perhaps it’s not Britannia that rules the waves, but the cannibal rats in the silent ghost ship…
Another reading, which draws on the boat’s Eastern European origins, casts contagion differently: here we might imagine it instead as the dangerous influx of Russian propaganda in advance of the Sochi Olympics. This version of the story is haunted by the spectre of the Cold War…. Consider this gem from The Mirror’s reportage: “The 300ft vessel, built 40 years ago in the Soviet Union, has nothing aboard but packs of disease-ridden rodents who are forced to prey on one another to survive.” That reference to the ship’s 1976 birth situates it right smack dab in the middle of the Cold War. Since then, the Soviet Union collapsed and everyone rejoiced (or so the accepted western narrative claims), but now there’s Putin’s rhetoric on the Eastern horizon and his cannibal rats on the western horizon.
In the face of these apocalyptic visions, there’s only one logical response:
But seriously, the narrative of the ghost ship overrun by cannibals does deserve a far deeper examination. It’s hilarious. But there’s also lots going on under the surface. Any takers?