Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

Jodi Bertapelle photographed the rock during a five-hour exploration of Cocos Island in 1992.

Rock message stands Test of Time
CHANCE DISCOVERY: A Seattle researcher is intrigued by the Saint John whaler who chiseled a message on a deserted Pacific island in the 1840s.

By Brian Kemp
Times Globe staff writer

    0n a small uninhabited jungle island 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica in Central America, an island once frequented by pirates, a researcher has discovered a rock on which a Saint John sailor carved a message in the 1840s.
    Travelling by water from Saint John to Cocos Island, the unknown sailor was more than 17,000 kilometers from his home port and in waters very familiar to pirates. The Pacific, Ocean island is just north of the Galapagos Islands, which were visited by evolutionist Charles Darwin in the 1830s.
    The Seattle marine researcher, Jodi Bertapelle, is seeking information on the sailor who made the engraving on the island more than 150 years ago.
   A ship Ms. Bertapelle was sailing with in 1992 stopped on a journey back from Antarctica for five hours at Cocos Island. After frolicking under one of the island's 200 waterfalls, Ms. Bertapelle went for a walk along a beach. She spotted the rock near the shoreline and was immediately intrigued with the carving on it.
    "I was intrigued that somebody took the time to document their stay on the island," said Ms. Bertapelle, who recently e-mailed Saint John's Web site for guests, hoping to get some answers.
    The Times Globe attempted to unravel the mystery for Ms. Bertapelle and for our readers.
    The word "ship" is engraved at the top of the rock. Underneath is "JAs Stewa." The carving trails off and the rest of the word is not visible. It is likely the ship's name.
    The next line clearly reads "St. John NB." That is followed by "July" and letters that looks like a "th" which is followed by the number "21." After that, on the same line, is "184." The last number is not fully visible, but Ms. Bertapelle said to her eye it is likely a 6. The last line on the rock is " 10 Mos. "
    Robert Elliot, former marine history curator at the New Brunswick Museum, said the engraving contains a number of clues.
   First, the word "ship" was very specific word in the 1840s, referring to a three-matted square rigged vessel, said Mr. Elliot., It was not a schooner, so Mr. Elliot believes that the ship was likely a whaler that sailed from Saint John.
   Whaling was big in the city for 13 years or so, beginning in the early 1830s. Yet most of the whales in the North Atlantic had been taken already, so ships would have had to sail very long distances to find their large prizes.
   In ships measuring about 30 metres long, the whalers would sail until their cargo holds were full of whale oil. The men onboard could be away from home for as long as four years.
    While out at sea, they would harpoon the whales, attach them to the boat, cut the animal into sections and boil down the blubber in pots on the deck to retrieve the valuable oil.
    According to the book Saint John Ships and Their Builders, written by Esther Clark Wright, local shipbuilders completed and launched a 386-tonne whaler in July of 1833. The ship, the James Stewart, made five voyages before being disposed of in San Francisco.
    In April of 1845, after a voyage of 44 months, the James Stewart arrived in Saint John with 14,000 barrels of whale oil on board. Her next voyage has no date, but she brought back 2,000 barrels of whale oil, 400 barrels of sperm oil and 10 tonnes of whalebone.
    The "10 Mos" engraving on the rock is likely a reference to how long the ship had been away from Saint John, said Mr. Elliot. The crew had to sail their vessel around the bottom of South America to reach Cocos Island. He estimated it would take one or two months to reach the island sailing straight from Saint John - depending on the weather, of course.
    The crew likely stopped at the 50-square-kilometre island to gather provisions such as fresh drinking water. Cocos Island has a number of waterfalls and it rains almost every day between March and December.
    The name on the rock may not refer to the ship's name, but to family name. However, there was a family in Saint John in the 1830s and 1840s with the last name of Stewart who were involved in the whaling business.
    In fact, the James Stewart was built for a Charles C. Stewart of Saint John.
    Mr. Elliot said it was not unusual for sailors of that time to leave inscriptions on rocks or whatever else they saw fit to carve upon while visiting isolated locations.
    In fact, there are other rocks with inscriptions on them along Chatham Bay on Cocos Island, where the Saint John sailor left his mark.
The 1840s were not safe times to sail in the waters off Costa Rica. Pirates sailed the waters in those days.
    There are stories of rich treasures being hidden on Cocos Island, buried by a pirates like Benito (Bloody Sword) Bonito, who spent time raiding cities along the Pacific Coast.
    Pirate William Thompson's treasure was known as The Lima Booty and is likely the most valuable that was hidden, with legend saying it consisted of tonnes of gold and silver bars, sheets of gold leaf that had covered the domes of churches in Lima, Peru, church ornaments and life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary crafted in solid gold.
    Did the Saint John ship stop for provisions or was the crew hoping to find something more valuable? Only the crew knows the answer to that question.
    Dozens of adventurers from the early 1800s onward have looked for treasure on the island, which inspired Robert Lewis Stevenson's Treasure Island and was the setting for Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.
It takes 36 hours in a powerboat to reach the uninhabited island, which was recently named a World Heritage Park.
    Cocos Island is home to a large variety of insects, reptiles, spiders and 85 types of birds, Small mammals such as deer, cats and goats, among others, have been introduced by boats that visited the island over the decades.
    The waters surrounding the island are teeming with sharks and hundreds of other marine creatures, making it an attractive destination for adventurous divers.


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