There's always a bit of regret when we leave a place we've enjoyed and been comfortable. There's always a bit of apprehension mixed with anticipation and exhilaration as we haul anchor and head out of a harbor and across a vast ocean. What's out there? How will the weather be? What will break this time? How long will it take us?Read More
We mentioned Captain Joshua Slocum in several blog posts and actually dedicated a whole post to him on his birthday one year. Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World is a classic for sailors and quite a wonderful read. Sailing aboard his 37' yawl, Spray, he was the world's first solo circumnavigator (1895-1898) and an amazing guy. We knew he had stopped here in St. Helena, but had forgotten all about it until I saw a souvenir coffee mug in a local shop here with an image of the Slocum commemorative plaque on it. We'd never seen it. I asked where it was and nobody in the shop knew, but figured the Tourist Info folks would know.
We walked next door and asked a new friend, Val, where the plaque was located. Hmm … she didn't know and asked another tourist info woman. She didn't know either. Our best bet, they said, was going to see Liz at the museum. We didn't have anything else on the agenda, so we trotted the hill to the museum and found Liz only too accommodating. She had no idea where the plaque was, maybe in the Castle Gardens, but she dug through several files and books to verify where it might be. All to no avail. “Go to the Archives” she advised. “They'll surely know where it is.”
So we strolled across Main Street through the Castle gates to the Archives where a lovely young lady spent at least 30 minutes hunting through registers and files, looking for mention of Joshua Slocum and the plaque commemorating his visit to the island in 1898.
She found a copy of the actual newspaper article in the St. Helena Guardian dated April 14, 1898, which she kindly allowed me to photograph, but no mention of the existence of the plaque or its whereabouts. She suggested looking in the Castle Gardens or perhaps, the Heritage Trust would know something about it.
We stopped in the Castle Gardens and made a careful circuit of the grounds, just in case we'd missed it the last time through, but we could find no plaque, so we headed back up Main Street to the Heritage Trust office. We explained our quest and though they promised to look further into it, they had no more information to offer, nor any other suggestions for searching further. We'd exhausted all the options.
The story of Slocum's visit here was a good one, by the way. When he arrived in Jamestown Harbour and anchored Spray (probably not too far from where Nine of Cups is moored today), he was warmly greeted and welcomed. Slocum was quite the raconteur and gave two talks while here, one for a few pence admission (fattening up the cruising kitty) at the Garden Hall and one at Plantation House for the Governor, officers and special guests. He was actually invited to stay at Plantation House as the guest of the Governor (we were not) for a few days in a room that was reputedly haunted. He met no ghosts and received gifts of fresh fruit and cakes when he departed. What the article did not say was that he was also given a gift of a goat, which in his book he refers to as an “incarnation of evil”. The goat managed to eat his West Indies charts, much of his food, several lines and Slocum's best straw hat. He “marooned” the animal ashore at Ascension when he dropped off the mail.
We headed back to Cups, our quest unfulfilled. We reread Slocum's chapter about St. Helena Island, chuckling all over again about the goat and his luck (or lack thereof) with other animals he'd had aboard … a rat, a tree-crab, a centipede and some crickets. The only animals that evidently managed to survive without causing problems were a family of spiders that had been aboard since his departure from Boston.
The next morning we took a short-cut we'd found behind the Customs building up through the Castle Gardens, heading for Anne's Place to do some internet. And there it was … as plain as day … the Slocum plaque. It wasn't really hidden away, just way at the back of the garden where one would usually not go unless heading down to Customs or the apartments just behind. Birds had managed to deface the plaque, but the rest of our water bottle and some toilet tissue did a fine clean-up job. Hello, Joshua Slocum!
It's hard having a true appreciation for a place until you learn a little more about its history. I've pulled Joshua Slocum's well-used classic, Sailing Alone Around the World, off the bookshelf once again because we are now following in his wake across the Indian. His visit to the Cocos was a memorable one … “If there is a paradise on this earth, it is Keeling,” he wrote. He visited on July 17, 1897. His writing remains relevant and a most enjoyable read even 117 years later.
The Cocos Keeling Islands are comprised of two atolls and 27 coral islands. The islands have been an Australian territory since 1984.
The atoll was discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling (East India Company) and named by a British hydrographer in 1805. A Scottish trader, John Clunies-Ross, visited the islands in 1814 and returned with his family and eight “sailor-artisans” in 1825, dug wells and planted coconut palms. Alexander Hare had actually arrived just shortly before Ross with a harem of 40 Malay women, but the women sought Ross' protection and Hare was soon driven out. The Clunies-Ross imported more Malay workers, built up his coconut plantations for copra production and prospered. Queen Victoria granted the islands to the Clunies-Ross descendants in perpetuity until they were purchased from the family by Australia in 1978. The Cocos Keeling flag reflects its history and heritage … a coconut palm, the Australian southern cross plus one star and the Islamic crescent symbol of the Malay people on a field of green.
Interestingly, Charles Darwin developed his theory of atoll formation when he visited the Cocos aboard the HMS Beagle in 1836. His study of the coral reefs here, led to his theory of reef development and evolution as published in his 1842 scientific paper.
Only two of the islands, West Island and Home Island, are inhabited. A tiny, isolated society of about 500 Cocos Malay people live on Home Island, descendants of the original workers brought to the Cocos by Alexander Hare and John Clunies-Ross. The Cocos Malays also maintain weekend shacks, referred to as pondoks, on most of the larger islands. West Island is primarily inhabited by ex-pat Australians and is the location of a tiny airstrip (with weekly Virgin Australia service), administration, a supermarket, a golf course (which plays across the runway) and basic services (like intermittent internet). A ferry service operates six days a week between Home and West Island and twice a week between Direction and West Island.
There are reportedly over 1,500 species of marine life in the Cocos waters including the endemic Cocos pygmy angelfish. We've seen dolphins, but there are also turtles, rays and even a resident dugong (manatee), named Kat. Odd species like purple land crabs and horn-eyed ghost crabs are also critters for which we'll be on the lookout. There are several species of birds here, but only one endemic, the Cocos buff-banded rail. Several avian visitors stop here in their migratory flight and the area supports one of the world's largest and most significant breeding colonies for the red-footed booby. We've certainly seen lots of boobies flying around, but haven't had a chance to check out their feet. Much of the native flora was cleared for coconut palms and therefore, endemic plant life is nearly non-existent.
As you can see, we've got lots of exploring to do … if the wind ever lets up.