An Episode of Legal History

by Michael Gilkes


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During the 1940s there was a population at King Edward Point of about a dozen: the magistrate Mr Fleuret and his wife, a policeman whose name escapes me, Bob Grierson the customs officer, and two wireless operators with wives and children. They all had pleasant houses and besides these the Point had a post office, a customs office and a jail. One always wondered why there needed to be a jail, but there was a feeling that it was its presence rather than its use which served the greatest purpose. Certainly no local folklore described people being incarcerated in it. One understood that it was a materials storage facility rather than being for the imprisonment of humans.

It is perhaps appropriate here to discuss the question of alcohol and South Georgia, with particular reference to the whaling community. There was no need for a local currency because practically all trading, especially the provision of new clothing, was done through the whaling companies’ accounts and places such as the ‘slop chests’ of the various stations. It was from these that almost all everyday necessities and replacements were obtained and debited to the purchaser against their earnings by the home company.

One of my early experiences when fitting out to join Saluta in Leith, Scotland, was to be invited to suggest how much alcohol I would like to take with me. It was made clear that only certain limited designated staff were allowed alcoholic supplies. These included, obviously, the Manager, the captains of ships, chief engineers as well as the most important people in any whaling expedition, the gunners who recruited and controlled the catcher crews.

I had absolutely no inkling of how much liquor I wanted to take, being an abstemious young doctor. I replied, ‘Could I have one of brandy, whisky and gin.’ This having been greeted with a rather surprised look, I was equally surprised to find in my cabin on board Saluta a case of each of these substances.

The story of how I made use of the very heavily juniperised Coates Plymouth Gin (the standard Royal Navy drink) by heavy dilution with Board of Trade lifeboat supplies’ lime juice and its later deployment in the acquisition of a pair of canaries in Tenerife is perhaps best left to be the subject of another discourse.

Suffice it to say that the currency to get things done in the whaling community related to alcohol. It was the accepted means of remunerating extracurricular and out-of-the-ordinary activities. Tied to this was the very widespread culture of the brewing of various alcoholic products from a wide variety of substances, including sugar, starch and potatoes, and on one occasion, with sadly fatal consequences, black shoe polish. To this was added a fairly constant inflow of 90% puro-alcohol brought down on ships which had bunkered in Spanish and West Indian ports. This, of course, accounts for the need for there to be customs regulations and a full-time customs officer.

In the late autumn of 1946 Neil Rankin, the distinguished ornithologist, arrived on board the Southern Venturer, bringing a converted RNLI lifeboat and two Shetlanders so that he could organise expeditions, particularly to study the albatrosses at the Bay of Isles and around the coast of South Georgia.

Knowing of the particular economics of the island, he had brought with him a not inconsiderable supply of spirits. Soon after coming ashore we engaged in conversation, and he enquired whether I as the doctor might have a convenient and secure storage space for these supplies. In my innocence, and not having at that time realised that all official alcohol supplies were kept in an enormous pit under the bed in the station manager’s Villa – in this case Captain Anton Torgerson – I happily replied that the hospital attic had lots of space (including, as I discovered on arrival, bottles containing eight pounds of solid cocaine), and I would be very happy for his supplies to be stored there under the watchful eye of myself and my diakon. Rankin seemed to feel that this was an appropriate solution, and I have to say that in my ignorance it did not cross my mind that I should have discussed it with the manager. I am clear that I had not at that time become aware of the immense significance of alcohol to the whaling community, and of course to the whole of the merchant navy.

This is still a subject that is not easy to talk or write about because national susceptibilities tend to be stirred by any suggestion that any particular nation had a monopoly or special interest in the distilling of illegal liquor.

However, there we were. I had many happy expeditions with Neil Rankin and was the fortunate beneficiary of a wide range of exposure to phenomena of natural history, penguins, birds and seals, occasioning the observation of how little the average whaler might see of the wonders of South Georgia even after a number of years of working ‘at the whaling’. His sale to me of some surplus photographic equipment enabled a rather better photographic record than that achievable with my Kodak Brownie and I was able to reciprocate in some small degree by arranging for him to develop his glass plates and negatives in the X-ray developing tanks of my hospital, obviating their deterioration during the return to the UK through the tropics.

Imagine my disconcertment when, probably in January 1947, Rankin came to me in some disquiet, saying that some of the stock of liquor in the hospital attic appeared to have vanished. I am not sure that he might even had had some suspicions as to my own integrity. My predecessor had, after over-wintering, to be returned to Montevideo, in the custody of two husky whalers, having partaken of too much of his own supplies of alcohol and possibly, I did suspect, that stock of solid cocaine.

The reason for the cocaine being there was that at the end of every season, from long pre-War, standard ships and catcher stores were unloaded into the hospital at season’s end as part of the refurbishment for the next season when new supplies would be provided. The old stock just steadily accumulated unseen.

My wonderful, trustworthy and totally-knowledgeable-of-the-world’s-ways diakon Kjell Haddeland (who, incidentally, became Chief mental Health Officer for Oslo) was much more in touch with all the events of the station than I. He very quickly lighted on the destination of the missing liquor down in the accommodation barracks. It was, in fact, only after a day or so that he unearthed a comatose figure, with alongside it a bottle of Red Hackle whisky (which was, of course, Rankin’s particular brand), and in the circumstances there was virtually no doubt about the criminality of the whole situation.

This naturally led to further investigations and discussion with my humane and effective manager Torgerson, from whom I took some upbraiding for not realising that Rankin’s liquor should have been passed straight on to the manager’s care. It was clear that the matter should be dealt with by the legal processes available on the island.

The outcome was that, in I think February 1947, a trial was held in a room of the accommodation block, Bay View, at Leith Harbour. The magistrate, police officer and customs officer came up from Grytviken and criminal proceedings commenced against the malefactor, whose nationality it is perhaps best not to disclose.

I was required to give evidence as to how these matters appeared to have come about and what I knew of them. A sadness of this event was that this was the day for a long-planned trip to the Bay of Isles for the collection of penguins to return with the factory ship for the Edinburgh Zoo. This I had to forgo and it took me 35 years to get there, but that is yet another story.

The trial was conducted in a completely formal and proper fashion. I do not recall the details but it is likely that somewhere in the archives of the Falkland Islands Government there is a transcript which could be sought out and published. The malefactor was adjudged guilty and sentenced to one month in jail in Grytviken. The sentence was duly carried out, and I believe that most of the month was spent in adequately decorating the prison building.

It is sad to recall that in the holocaust of destruction of buildings on King Edwards Point, the post office on the quayside where so many distinguished explorers had been present has disappeared in company with other valued if not necessarily aesthetically important buildings.

It is unlikely that this trial and sentence had any significant effect on the alcoholic activities within the whaling communities. Certainly my experiences at the end of the winter with the first ship to arrive at Grytviken (the Harpoon) suggested no change.

But it was an interesting example of British colonial justice in operation and one which I feel it does no harm, after the passage of time, to record as a personal reminiscence.

I would add that for a young doctor it was yet another cusp of the learning experience.


© Michael Gilkes 2007. Michael Gilkes, FRCS, FRCOphth., FRGS, was the Station Medical Officer and Ship’s Surgeon at Leith Harbour and on board Southern Harvester during 1946-48. He is also an ophthalmic surgeon, a founder Friend of SPRI, founder member of the James Caird Society, and member of the Royal Cruising Club.



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