Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

The marco Polo and Sam Napier
Two Legends, One Story


Sam Napier   If the full-sized replica of the famous New Brunswick clipper ship Marco Polo is ever build in Saint John, Bathurst may be her first port of call.

    Stephen Brunet, vice president Of Bathurst Heritage Trust Commission, has formally issued the invitation for the ship's maiden voyage to Barry Ogden, who's heading a group to have the replica built for Saint John.

    To those who know their Marco Polo history, the link is obvious.

    "Bathurst is the home of the famous Sam Napier who in 1857 signed on as a crewman aboard the Marco Polo," said Mr. Ogden.

    It was Napier, who with his brother Charles, on Aug. 14, 1857, discovered what up to that time was the world's largest gold nugget in the Kingover Goldfields of Australia.

    Born Samuel Hawkins Napier in Scotland in 1837, Sam immigrated to Bonaventure, Quebec, at an early age, and shortly afterward, to Bathurst where he grew up and attended public school.

    Later, letters from his older brother Charles who was prospecting in the Kingover Goldfields, inspired Sam, then 20 years old, to leave Bathurst and sign onto an Australian-bound ship as a crewman. That ship was the Marco Polo, and both the boy and ship were on their way to becoming legends.

    Once the Marco Polo was safety moored at a dock in Australia, Sam jumped ship and scurried off to join his brother. That summer the Napier boys found their ticket to fame and fortune. It came in the form of a 145 pound gold nugget. Measuring two feet four inches long, 10 inches wide and more than 1½ feet thick, it was so large that when Sam's pick first struck it, the boy from Bathurst believed it was only another big rock.

    In England, the nugget was named Blanche Barkley in honour of the daughter of Governor Barkley of Victoria, and the two New Brunswick boys, now rich and famous, were granted an audience with Queen Victoria.

    The nugget was purchased by the Bank of England for $60,000 (today, it would have a value of more than $1.5 million) and it was broken up. Before it was demolished, however, a replica was made and is still on display in the Memorial Branch of the British Museum, Cromwell Road, London, England.

Sam Napier built his wife a graceful home upon his return to Bathurst in the 1850's. It was latter turned into the DeGrace Hotel.     The brothers divided the money. Hungry for more adventure, Charles returned to Australia; Sam, content, went home to Bathurst where he built a colossal house near the centre of the village. In 1870 he was elected MLA for the County of Gloucester and, for the next four years, proved to be a flamboyant, if sometimes unruly, politician.

    Meanwhile, on the Liverpool to Australia run, his old friend the Marco Polo was also flying high. Her interiors boasting maple panelling, crimson velvet upholstery, and stained glass doors, she was racking up record-after record for speed and endurance.

    But the fair winds that for years had appeared to be constantly at the backs of both Sam Napier and the Marco Polo were dying.

    In 1867 the Marco Polo made her last voyage as a passenger clipper, and settled down to a life of general cargo duty. Sam Napier. in 1874, when his term in the legislature ended, did not re-offer; business-wise, his fortunes were plummeting.

    By the 1880s the Marco Polo had been reduced to a tramper, carrying everything from coal to guano*. In Bathurst, Sam Napier had sold his home, and was looking for work.

   Then tragedy struck both the man and the ship. On July 25, 1883, the 32, year-old Marco Polo was wrecked in a violent storm off Cavendish, P.E.I. Napier's days were also numbered. He had left Bathurst in 1896 to find work as a timber cruiser with a logging company in the Gatineau Wilderness. His body was found in June 1902 in his lonely cabin in the Ottawa Valley, with his dog guarding it.

   "They're gone, but certainly not forgotten," says Ogden. "Their legend lives on and may well produce a web of mutual interest throughout this province that will be of tremendous benefit to the Tourism Industry. When the Marco Polo II is finished and sailing the world, she'll represent not simply Saint John, but the entire province. She'll be New Brunswick's travelling ambassador, and chief advertising executive.

    "Bathurst's invitation shows the kind of healthy interest we're looking for; it suggests important support for the project in the northern as well as the southern sections of the province."

* guano: a substance composed chiefly of the excrement of seabirds and used as fertilizer

Gail MacMillan
a free-lance writer in Bathurst