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
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
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 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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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