Readers of Gristly History might recall an earlier post about the mysterious existence of a platypus on a sixteenth-century carving in Viseu Cathedral, Portugal. Historian Robert Bremner alerted me to this fascinating indication of a direct or indirect Portuguese knowledge of Australia at this very early date and has now provided his photographs of the carvings.
Six more weeks they waited, then gave up their companions for dead. Despair and depression were balanced by the need to find ways to stay alive. They moved to another island and built a substantial house using materials left over from an abandoned Maori settlement. They learned to capture and kill the wild pigs and goats that roamed the island and began domesticating them.
Life was maintained but it was monotonous and hard, rescue constantly in everyone’s mind. They prepared signal fires, used Cape hens as messenger birds, forced written pleas for help into seal bladders which were then inflated and set afloat. Scraps of wood were carved with information for potential rescuers and cast into the sea. They made small boats of wood and metal with sails of zinc on which was scratched:
“Ship General Grant wrecked on Auckland Isles 14 May, 1866; 10 survivors to date. Want relief.”
As autumn chilled the air even more their situation seemed hopeless, Sanguily recalled:
… we were sorely afflicted with scurvy, or, as whalers call it, “the cobbler”. The entire party was attacked, and it was only later that we realized how severely our ankle and knee joints were stiffened, and the flesh so swollen that the imprint of a finger would remain for an hour or more. We had heard that the remedy for scurvy was to bury a man all but the head. This we tried in several cases, but it did no good. In closing our mouths our teeth would, on meeting, project straight out, flattened against each other. General weakness and despondency, with a longing for vegetables, was our torment. Severe exercise seemed to be the only remedy. This was our most trying time.
David McClelland, the oldest member of the group, cut his hand on a scrap of copper. The hand became infected and he passed away: ‘All cripples, we bore him to his grave.’ Who would last the longest, they all wondered?
On November 19 a sail was seen. They rushed to light the signal fire but the ship passed without seeing the desperate and despondent survivors. But two days later another sail appeared. They manned their remaining boat and’ pulled with might and main’ for the brig Amherst.
The boat reached the strange vessel, and through our savage appearance at first alarmed the crew, they received us on board. Then were we made welcome to all they could spare. The Amherst, Captain Gilroy, of Invercarghill, manned by Maoris, and bound on a sealing voyage, was the means of our rescue. Captain Gilroy beat up between the islands and anchored off the huts. We were all taken aboard, and treated in the most hospitable manner. No Persian monarch ever enjoyed such a treat as we when tobacco and tea were set before us.
The survivors remained with the Amherst for two months and eventually landed at Invercargill in January 1868. A private subscription was taken to send the Amherst out in search of the boat launched with such high hopes a year before. The search failed. The men in her had made the wrong guess about the direction of New Zealand from Disappointment Island. They sailed west into thousands of kilometres of empty ocean and were never heard of again.
The nine survivors of the wreck moved on with their lives. Some of the gold sunk with the General Grant belonged to Joseph Jewell. His life was saved but his fortune lost. He eventually became a station master on the Victorian railways. Fortunately, Mary was able to make a great deal of money giving lectures about their survival epic. Her ordeal probably accounted for her inability to bear children. In later life they were able to become parents through a surrogate arrangement.
Patric Caughey returned to Ireland and went into the insurance industry. He was known as a storyteller, often regaling people with yarns of his adventures, whether they wanted to hear them or not.
‘Yankee Jack’ was from the eminent French-Cuban family of Sanguily Garrite. He returned to Boston to follow a less adventurous but safer career as a shop keeper, later marrying an Australian. He and his wife returned to Sydney where she gave birth to several children. William died in 1909.
Two months after the survivors of the General Grant were safely back in New Zealand, the first salvage attempt put to sea. Accompanying the expedition was James Teer. He led them to the ‘cave of death’ where the barque had gone down but the waves were too powerful. They failed to find the wreck, as did the next few attempts in 1870. The first of these was accompanied by another survivor, David Ashworth. He disappeared with five others lost in a whaleboat as they tried to find the fatal cave.
At least a further eight expeditions are known to have searched for the General Grant’s sunken gold. Coins, cannon balls and a range of miscellaneous artefacts have been recovered, probably from a number of the ships wrecked on these bleak islands. But no one has come across 4000 ounces of gold and despite all these attempts, the General Grant herself has not been located.
Sailing from Boston to Melbourne late in 1865 the 1000 ton barque General Grant lost a man overboard in a gale. The young William Sanguily and others among the crew, thought this was an ill omen. Their ship reached Melbourne without further incident then loaded for London. But then:
By one of those coincidences, which sailors dread, we took aboard part of a cargo that had been intended for the steamer London. This ill-fated vessel had sunk in the Bay of Biscay on her voyage out, and there were many gloomy prophecies that no freight of hers would reach London in any ship.
The superstitious sailors also noticed that the rats had left the General Grant, a sure sign of doom in the lore of the sea. Nevertheless, the General Grant set sail for England on 4 May 1866 with a load of sixty men, women and children returning home from the diggings and a crew of 23 officers and men. Among the wool and hides in the hold was the unwelcome but hugely valuable cargo of gold – four thousand ounces.
After five days of good running, the ship was blown westward towards the sub-Antarctic Auckland Island. Several days of thick fog eventually lifted and land was sighted. But later, the breeze died. Despite the efforts of the captain and crew, around 1 in the morning of May 14 the General Grant smashed into the rocky shores of Auckland Island. She was forced further and further into the pitch darkness of a large sea cave. Crewman Joseph Jewell described the scene:
… such a night of horror I think was never experienced by human beings as we passed in the cave for seven long hours. It was so dark that you could not see your fingers before your eyes, and there we were with falling spars and large stones tumbling from the roof of the cave (some of which went through the deck), and so we remained until daylight.
The helpless crew and passengers huddled at the stern of the ship, still free of the cavern slowly sucking in their vessel. At daylight the mizzen top gallant mast collapsed through the ship’s hill and she began to sink.
The scene at this moment was one of such utter misery as few men ever see, and fewer still survive to tell of. Every sea washed over the stern and swept the deck. The long-boat was crammed with all who could gain a foothold. It was partly filled with water, and several poor creatures lying in the bilge were crowded down and drowned before she was clear of the ship. Women clinging to their children, and crazy men to their gold, were seen washing to and fro as the water invaded the upper deck.
One wretch saw his wife and two children driven by him in this way without making an effort to save them, while the last man who got aboard nearly lost his life trying to persuade the mother to be saved without her children.
The boats were launched into a swelling sea but only a few were able to reach them, most being trapped aboard the General Grant. The lucky few watched helplessly as men, women and children were washed away and the ship disappeared beneath the heaving water, her captain waving farewell from what was left of the rigging as he went down with his ship.
The two boats with their fifteen survivors, including one woman, spent two miserable nights and days in search of a place to camp. They had little food, few supplies and no water. Their clothes were inadequate for the climate and some were without shoes. A landing was eventually made at a place known as Sarah’s Bosom on the ominously named Disappointment Island. Here they confronted the possibility of cannibalism if they were unable to make a fire. Fortunately, they were. Albatross and shellfish made a welcome stew. From that time the fire was never allowed to go out.
The survivors split into two groups, existing as best they could in huts erected by earlier shipwreck survivors and a failed colony. They suffered greatly. There was dysentery, cold and a form of scurvy caused by their survival diet. Passing ships were sighted but they were unable to attract their attention. In October they decided to prepare one of the boats for a desperate attempt reach the New Zealand mainland, almost 500 kilometres away.
On Boxing Day 1866 they finished refitting their boat. Four men volunteered to sail her and they left on 22 January 1867. But without a chart or compass they would need to be both clever and lucky to reach safety.
Eleven souls watched their four companions depart. James Teer, Patric Caughey, Nicholas Allen and David Ashworth had all been passengers aboard the ill-fated ship. Aaron Hayman, Cornelius Drew, William Ferguson, William Newton-Scott, William Sanguily (known as Yankee Jack’) and David McClelland were all sailors, as was Joseph Jewell who was accompanied by his wife, Mary.
They waited hopefully. The weeks passed with no sign of rescue.
The anxious waiting which ensued told more severely on us than all the privation. The feverish excitement of hope caused a cessation of labour one day, and blank despair rendered us helpless the next. One man would accuse the unhappy crew of deserting us, and curse their selfishness. Another would, sobbing, deplore their cruel fate, and realise the noble men who ventured on a hopeless task.
Six more weeks they waited …. See Part 2
Around 1444, Queen Maria of Castile had a manuscript made for her by an unknown author. The document was a collection of plants drawings, together with their medical and culinary uses. The modern system of naming and categorising plants invented by Carl Linnaeus, would not be in existence for centuries and so the plants are identified according to their folk names. One plant was named Andromeda, after the Greek myth of Andromeda and Perseus.
There are many versions of most Greek myths, but the basic story of Andromeda is reasonably stable. She was the beautiful daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, rulers of an upper Nile region. Cassiopeia’s boasting of Andromeda’s great beauty offended the Nereids and as a result of this hubris, Poseidon had Cepheus and Cassiopeia’s lands ravaged by a sea monster. Cepheus and Cassiopeia chained Andromeda to a rock as a propitiatory sacrifice to the monster. Luckily, the travelling hero Perseus was in the neighbourhood and slew the monster just in time. Andromeda and Perseus were married and lived happily with many children in Greece. When Andromeda died, Athena had her whisked up to the night sky as the constellation named after her, near those of Perseus and Cassiopeia.
Ahh. Great story, no wonder people remembered it, including Linnaeus.
In the fifteenth century, and probably long before, it was believed that the Rosemary-heather was good for preserving womanly beauty, an early anti-ageing potion. Mixed with holy water into bread dough, and with the uttering of certain magical words, Rosemary-heather was believed to reverse the ravages of ageing. It seems that this knowledge, or belief, was subsequently lost.
But it was known to Linnaeus. When he came to name Rosemary-heather, he drew on this ancient knowledge to call it Andromeda polifolia, his use of that term based on the connection between the Greek myth of the beautiful Andromeda and the alleged ant-ageing properties of the plant. It used to be thought that Linnaeus had simply made up the name based on the general popularity of Greek myths, but we now know that he was making use of a traditional connection between the two.
But how did Linnaeus know that? No-one else seems to have had the knowledge. Was he heir to some informally transmitted repertoire of ancient magic and medicine? He was a man of science, but at that period the modern rational character of scientific inquiry was not fully established and scientists, including the great Isaac Newton, among others, frequently delved into or were influenced by all sorts of esoteric traditions. Alchemy, magic and mysticism often coexisted with rational inquiry and experimentation. Linnaeus’s notes on his drawing of Andromeda show that he was familiar with the esoteric tradition associated with the plant. The Latin translates as ‘fiction that is true’, ‘mysticism that is genuine’ and ‘forms that are depicted’. He happily adapted that connection to give the Rosemary-heather the scientific name it has had ever since.
We’ll probably never know the answer to this intriguing mystery. But what it does highlight is the survival of venerable knowledge and ideas over considerable periods and the transmission of that knowledge independent of formal channels. A great deal of serious scientific and medical interest is now being taken in traditional medicines of indigenous peoples around the world, as modern science re-discovers the efficaciousness of natural treatments previously ignored and refuted. This is beyond quackery and a reminder that, despite the technological and other wonders of our modern world, we don’t know everything and it pays to keep an open – and always critical – mind.
The information and images in this post are drawn from Gerard E Cheshire, Plant Series, No. 6. Manuscript MS408. Andromeda polifolia at https://www.academia.edu/41594847/Plant_Series_No._6._Manuscript_MS408._Andromeda_polifolia, Jan 2020.
New Guinea’s river-riddled southwest is the home of the Asmat people. Under the control of the Netherlands for many years, it was not until the 1950s that officials and missionaries finally made contact with the fierce Asmat, confirming that they practiced cannibalism as part of their spiritual and warrior culture. The waters of the Arafura Sea fringing their territory became known as ‘the cannibal coast.’
In the early 1960s, a young adventurer from the wealthy Rockefeller family came into contact with the Asmat during an anthropological filming expedition. Impressed with their culture and fascinated by their way of life, the 23 year-old Michael Rockefeller organised a return trip to study the Asmat more closely. Rockefeller was seeking adventure and also anxious to experience one of the world’s rapidly disappearing frontiers as well as documenting the customs and beliefs of an indigenous tribe.
The expedition began in October 1961. Michael and his companions followed a busy schedule of collecting and buying Asmat artefacts, trading for them fishing hooks and liens, cloth, tobacco and axes. He was particularly fascinated by the six meter carved wooden bisjpoles central to the spiritual practices and headhunting of the Asmat. The tall poles represented the ancestors and operated to ensure fertility of the soil and the continuation of human life.
A month later, Michael, together with a Dutch anthropologist named Rene Wassing and two local boys, was travelling in a motorised canoe through the Arafura Sea. Their intended destination was a wild area of southern Asmat country where the European presence was just one missionary. As they crossed the mouth of the Betsj River the canoe was swamped by a large wave. All four passengers were thrown into the wild water. The boys swam for the shore to summon help while Rockefeller and Wassing waited helplessly with the overturned boat, drifting further away from the coast. When it got light, Michael stripped to his underwear and tied two plastic jerry cans around his waist. With the extra buoyancy they would give him he began to swim towards the distant shore.
Unknown to Rockefeller and Wassing, the two boys had reached the town of Agats after many hours struggling through the swamps. They raised the alarm. A search plane spotted the capsized hull later that day and a rescue plane arrived the following morning. Wassing was saved but Michael Rockefeller was never seen again.
A desperate search followed. Did he drown from exhaustion and exposure? Perhaps he was taken by a shark or other predator? Or …? The Rockefeller family hired a Boeing jet and flew media to the area but they were unable to get closer than 240 kilometres to the coast where Michael was last seen. Official and unofficial efforts to find the missing millionaire were made and the event was reported around the world. But less than a week after his disappearance, the Netherlands government declared there was no hope of finding him alive. A few weeks later the search was ended. But the mystery of Michael Rockefeller’s fate began to grow.
Michael Rockefeller was declared legally dead in 1964 but that did not stop the flow of speculations and dark rumours about the time, place and manner of his death. Or even if he was dead at all. One of the earliest elements of the legend had it that the missing adventurer was alive and living in the jungle, either of his own free will or perhaps as a captive.
In 1968 an Australian smuggler and gunrunner named ‘John Donahue’ claimed not only to have seen Michael Rockefeller but to have spoken with him. Donahue had been pursuing his nefarious business interests in the Trobriand Island group off northeastern New Guinea where he met a bearded and crippled white man being held captive by the Trobrianders. The man identified himself as Michael Rockefeller. He told Donahue that he had managed to swim to the coast from the drifting canoe, wandered through the swamps for several days, then broken both his legs in an accident. He was fortunately rescued – or captured – by a group of Trobrianders who were in the area on one of their regular extended sea journeys. They took him back to their home and were keeping him in their village. Why the Trobrianders wanted to hold this man was not specified. Donahue apparently disappeared before he could provide further details.
Little, if any, credible evidence exists for this throwback to the myths of castaway sailors forming colonies or integrating into local indigenous populations. And there are other stories.
One popular explanation had it that the Netherlands authorities murdered a number of Asmat people in 1958. Asmat custom called for killings to be revenged and it is speculated that Michael Rockefeller did make it to the coast but swam into a revenge cycle initiated by the murders. The Asmat saw his sudden appearance as an opportunity to avenge themselves against the white men who had attacked them a few years before. In those days, Asmat revenge killings included taking the heads of their victims and eating their bodies.
More lurid versions of this explanation claim that the Rockefeller family hired private investigators to determine the fate of their son. One allegedly obtained three European skulls from the Asmat and, in return for a $250 000 fee, presented these to the family as evidence of Michael Rockefeller’s fate.
The Rockefeller family continues to mourn the loss of this naïve but passionate adventurer. In 2012 Michael’s twin sister published a memoir of her and her family’s struggle to deal with Michael’s disappearance. The enigma is still rehearsed from time to time in films, books, plays and the media.
Many of the Asmat artefacts collected by Michael Rockefeller, together with his photographs can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at The Peabody Museum at Yale University. While the man’s memory lingers on, so does his mystery.
One of the many myths of terra Australis incognita– the unknown southland – is that the Portuguese navigators made it that far south. There are wrecks and artefact finds that are claimed, by some, to be Portuguese and so to prove that those adventurous mariners were present early along Australian coasts, as were English and Dutch explorers.
The navigational skills of Portuguese explorers were certainly extraordinary and provided the basis for what became an empire, so it is certainly conceivable that they did visit Australia. Unfortunately, no-one has yet found any incontrovertible evidence that they did, despite some clever manipulation of old maps and charts.
I wrote about all this in The Savage Shoreand had to conclude that there just wasn’t enough evidence to put the Portuguese on these shores. But recently, a reader of my book emailed me with an intriguing note.
Robert Bremner, himself a historian, lived for many years in Portugal and some years in Mozambique. He was once told by a long-time English resident of Lisbon that the sixteenth-century choir stalls of Viseau Cathedral (picture above) bore an extraordinary wooden carving. It was described by some as a ‘duck-billed rat’ and Robert was intrigued. He took the time to visit Viseu and found the choir stall, now apparently upstairs in the museum, and took a photograph. It seems that the carving could represent the platypus, the odd creature unique to Australia. If so, it would certainly strengthen the case for an early Portuguese encounter with the great southland.
Unfortunately, over the years, Robert has lost track of the photograph. But, if some intrepid adventurer should happen to visit Viseau – which looks like a great place – do take a pic and zip it to me. You could be making history!
“The Carte of All the Coast of Virginia,” engraved by Theodor de Bry based on John White’s own map, published in Thomas Hariot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1588.
‘The towne of Pomeiock’ by John White (British Museum).