An Honest Man

by Michael Gilkes

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

Shakespeare could certainly have been thinking of South Georgia, if it had been discovered, when he made Caliban declaim ‘the island is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight’, for the island is replete with the material evidence of past visitors and residents since its discovery by Captain James Cook over two and a quarter centuries ago – not to mention de la Roche, the English merchant who made the first landfall a century earlier.

Some of this evidence takes the form of markers at individual sites, as well as the whaling station graveyards, and there are most certainly other sites with no known markers. The small graveyard in the middle of Leith station is a case in point; possibly Cape Verde Islanders, possibly victims of typhoid.

It was in December 1946 that I had the opportunity to accompany the manager of Leith, Captain Anton Torgerson, on a trip westwards on board the Leith harbour ‘buoy boat’ (the ex-whale-catcher) Stina along the north coast to visit the old Unilever station at Prince Olaf Harbour (mysteriously at one time named Port Gladstone) with the declared purpose of inspecting the buildings; and the possibility of bringing some of them down to Leith - particularly a replacement for the existing, but in my view by no means inadequate, hospital.

In reasonable weather, we had a splendid 2-hour cruise during which I was able to make a complete camera record of the utterly senic coast and glaciers.

On arrival at Prince Olaf, I fell under the wing of ‘bosun’ Hans Kristofferson, also Stina’s master, who showed me round the station. We looked at the buildings, unused since 1932, and decided that several would make useful additions to the Leith facilities.

Hans and I then went to the small bluff overlooking the stranded hull of the Brutus (ex-Sierra Pedrosa) brought down, as at the other stations, to act as a coal store hulk. While admiring her and the ruins of the station piggery alongside, Hans bent down and lifted an object from the tussac clumps covering the bluff. As we deciphered the lettering I felt - and still feel - that it was one of the most moving and touching objects that I have ever seen.

It consisted of a copper sheet about 2 ft 6 in x 1 ft 6 in (75 cm x 45 cm) folded over a piece of wood which was obviously the original grave marker. The inscription had apparently been made with a largish nail and hammer so that it is indented in the plate. The inscription reads:

JOHN ANDERSON
Mate of Sch Mary Jane of N York
Capt John S Pars(c)ons
Died Nov 23 AD 1838
In this port on board of the
Brig Medina of New York
Captain Elijah Hallett
Age 36 years
An honest man

Above the name there is an engraved but difficult to distinguish device which might be a whale, a krill or, most likely in the context, a fur seal.

As Prince Olaf had been closed since 1931, it was not surprising that the existence of this grave marker was not widely known even among the whalers. But over the succeeding years, prompted by my photograph of it, I would occasionally enquire if it was still in place. Nigel Bonner, a doyen of the island, confirmed that it was, but expressed an anxiety that it might succumb to the depredations of yachting tourists.

By 1994 the population explosion of fur seals (there were none at all in my years of 1946-48) significantly limited access to the site and it was reported to have disappeared. However, in 1993 during a visit with the cruise ship Explorer, a misinterpretation of my directions led a shore party to report that the marker could not be found. They had mistakenly gone to the upper graveyard above the station and rather naturally drew a blank. It is of note that the absence of the oil tank visible in my earlier photograph occasioned considerable uncertainly as to location.

In 1994 I anxiously led a party through he gambolling and vicious young fur seals. After rummaging in the tussac the marker was found, and a fine record photograph taken by a fellow passenger. This being the time of the founding of the South Georgia Whaling Museum, to my great relief steps were eventually taken to move the marker down to Grytviken where it can be honoured by the increasing droves of visitors and admired for the moving object that it is. A fibreglass replica was installed at the original site, but obviously both fur seals and draconian station visiting rules will ensure that it is rarely visited. A shame, for it is a lovely site overlooking the Bay of Isles.

The ships and personnel have been identified by Robert Headland, former Archivist of SPRI, and relate to the later stages of the fur seal frenzy – but nothing can take away from the moving humanity of that inscription.


© 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.

For information about the South Georgia Whaling Museum, click here.

 

 

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