'Matilda Briggs', said Holmes, 'was... a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.'

- A. Conan Doyle (The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire)


The Giant Rat of Sumatra

From: THE FORTEAN EXPLORER, An On-line Column by Ronald Rosenblatt


Surely the most tantalizing creature mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes memoirs is the Giant Rat of Sumatra, which somehow managed to infest the unhappy ship Matilda Briggs in so terrible a fashion as to leave behind a tale "for which the world is not yet prepared," or at least was not prepared for at the time of the case of the Sussex Vampire (who turned out to be only the mischievous Master Jacky and not, unfortunately for those of zoological bent, a South American bat of unpleasant dietary habits known as Desmodus rotundus.) Now we may fruitfully speculate on the identity of this mysterious rodent, the Giant Rat, and we may, in fact, offer a speculative suggestion as to its true name and nature.

There can be no question that giant tropical rats do, in fact, exist. The African giant rat (Cricetomys gambianus) is found in Tropical Africa, where it is highly esteemed as food, and often reaches a length of nearly three feet from nose-tip to tail-tip. These giant rats are often accompanied by a highly unusual parasite, a "weird, wingless cockroach," (Hemimerus talpoides) nearly one inch in length. This creature will be found described on page 218 of Desmond Morris' The Mammals (Harper & Row, 1965). We may also mention in passing the Indian giant squirrel (Ratufa indica) another rodent that reaches a length of three feet. Thus, there is nothing in the least preposterous about a giant Sumatran rat. We must briefly consider as well whether the Giant Rat of Sumatra may have been merely an unusually big specimen of the common ship rat (Rattus rattus), since these creatures, though it is not well known, often grow to truly impressive size, as large as a rabbit or a cat. Such a creature might easily grow up on the wharves of a Sumatran seaport before slipping aboard the unsuspecting Matilda Briggs to wreak its terrible crimes. Such a creature might easily have carried the bubonic plague aboard the ship, and if the Matilda Briggs had then docked at London or other European seaports, Holmes might have been very wise in keeping the story a secret, as the panic resultant from such news might have been very great indeed.

However, there is another possibility in this question which to the author's knowledge has never been suggested before. There lives on the island of Sumatra, as well as in Southern Asia and on the island of Borneo, a very curious animal called a "Moon Rat". This animal's scientific name is Echinosorex gymnurus. While it is not in fact a rat, being more closely related to the hedgehogs, its appearance is very rat-like, with long sharp snout and whisker, hairy body and long naked tail. This creature reaches a body length of sixteen inches with an eight inch tail, or a total length of twenty-four inches, or two feet. Surely this is giant enough for anyone's taste. Could this animal be the very creature we seek? A giant "rat" indigenous to Sumatra does indeed answer our needs. Most interesting is the following statement about the Sumatran Moon Rat by Desmond Morris: "Anal glands secrete a musky substance that gives these animals their highly characteristic smell. This is so distinctive that it has even been made the subject of native legends." (Page 80, The Mammals.) Might this perhaps be the key that unlocks why the world was not yet prepared for the story of the Sumatran rat? Was it merely Victorian prudishness that forced Holmes to keep silent on the Matilda Briggs affair? Was some native deviltry or voodoo involved in the case? No doubt we shall know the answers to these questions someday.

Source: http://www.strangemag.com

 

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