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Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Norfolk Island grave


There can be few graveyards as fascinating as the one on Norfolk Island.  The stones date back to the earliest days of the first settlement, which began in 1788, and include memorials to convicts and their wives and children, as well as to the soldiers who guarded them. The stones testify death of disease, drowning, accidental shooting, murder during mutiny, and by hanging on the scaffold.  Those who tried to seize ships have skulls and crossbones on their stones.

Of particular interest to me are the graves with whaling connections.  One, pictured above, is "Sacred to the Memory of George Hales," captain of the London whaleship General Boyd.  Intriguingly, as well as the odd head with wings (an angel?) on the stone, there is a carefully executed Masonic symbol.

So who was he?  And what was his ship like?

According to LLoyds Register, where the ship-rigged vessel first appears in 1798, she was 302 tons register, and had been built in Philadelphia in 1775. Her draft was 15 feet, her managing owners were Sanson & Co., and her first whaling captain had the good old Nantucket name of Swain.  Evidently he was one of the many whaling Quakers who declined to fight in the Revolutionary War. To avoid involvement, Captain Swain took his family across the Atlantic, probably to Milford Haven in Wales, where the Nantucket Quakers formed a settlement.

And who was the "General Boyd" the ship was named after?  Maybe someone in some American militia who has been lost to history since. And how did the ship get to England?  Presumably as a prize of war.

George Hales first appears in the records as the captain of the South Seaman Greenwich, coming into Gravesend from South Seas in August 1796. Then he had a bout of bad luck. According to LLoyds List for March 3, 1797, when he went out again, in command of the Hercules, he was seized by a privateer, and his ship taken into Bordeaux.  Was he imprisoned while a ransom was arranged?  It is impossible to tell, but it could account for a hiatus, because he does not show up again in the records until September 1800, when he was in command of the General Boyd, outfitting at Gravesend for a voyage to South Seas.

This voyage, as the gravestone testifies, was even more unfortunate. Jane M. Clayton's Ships Employed in the South Sea Whale Fishery from Britain, records that the ship finally left England in November, and called into Rio de Janeiro in January 1801, to meet another English ship with a doctor on board, before heading for Australia. The captain, it seems, was ill.

The ship dropped anchor in Port Jackson on June 18, 1801, and according to Cumpston's Shipping Arrivals and Departures she  stayed in port until July 25, when - as the gravestone indicates - all sail was made for the whale-ground about Norfolk Island. In August, still ill, George Hales was landed on Norfolk island, and there he died, on the 16th.

A paper on Freemasonry in Australia by Richard Num has more. George Hales had been made a Mason on December 24, 1789, in the Dundee Arms Lodge No. 9, in Wapping, so it seems likely that he attended a meeting while in Sydney - which, because of the restriction on formal gatherings, would have been held on one of the ships. It was his last meeting with his own kind. As the paper goes on to say, "It is moving to see this surviving evidence of the care of local Freemasons for a fellow Mason who died in a tiny isolated settlement among strangers so far from his home."

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