Monday, September 08, 2008

Hi’ Everybody

I’m Casper Toftgaard Nielsen, one of this year’s Danish Interns from Copenhagen University in Denmark. The first time I heard about the National Park on the US Virgin Islands was in October 2006, when I saw an e-mail advertisement about a 2 person Internships with the US Virgin Islands National Park Service in a joint venture programme with Copenhagen University; the program offered academic credits, a free plane ticket, free lodging, and, best of all, a one month stay on the US Virgin Islands doing research with the US NPS Archaeologist on St John and Hassel Island.
That wasn’t bad, I thought, but due to other commitments I couldn’t apply straight away. So I waited with, some trepidation, until October 2007 to see if the program continued into 2008. It did, so I applied and got into the interview round at Copenhagen University …. And got a lucky, unexpected and unplanned for 3rd slot in the program. Much of this was due to my background as a former Naval Officer in the Royal Danish Navy, as Ken Wild, the USVI NPS Archaeologist on St John, had quite a few maritime projects he wanted me to look into at the National Archive in Copenhagen. Briefly listed below in the “initially” prioritized order:

1. Historical Shipwrecks on St John.
2. Historical permanent moorings or anchorage in the outlying bays of the St. John.
3. General information on Danish naval and commerce activities, for example the type of ships and boats used in the sugar industry, military patrols, etc
4. Information on the double ended coal barge used by the American Hamburg Line and now lying as a rusty hulk in Careening Cove on Hassel Island.
5. Establish a list of pirates and privateers operating in or around the USVI.

Quite a mouthful to say the least, but theory is one thing and practice is quite another thing, as everybody knows, and events were to take us through a somewhat different, but very, very interesting and exciting path, where I got to look at all the subjects to varying degrees. Even though we all knew beforehand that I would ultimately have to focus on one or two projects due to time limitations back at Copenhagen University.

So when I arrived at St John on the 20th of April 2008, I had looked into the all the dusty and worm eaten papers that I could lay my hands on back in the old, cosy National Archive in Copenhagen to have as many notes as possible to be able to give the VINPS Archaeological and Historical Staff an idea about what we could expect to gain by working jointly with the literary (in Denmark) and archaeological sources (In the V.I.).

Initially I got myself a little surprise though, as Ken Wild and Susanna Pershern (The NPS Archaeological Staff) were busy with the Sea Salvage Company clearing the bush in the area around Shipley Battery on the Northern top of Hassel Island and needed my help to do a land-survey in the immediate area around and inside the battery, before the Sea Salvage guys moved in with the heavy clearing equipment. Luckily, Ken had prepared me that this would probably happen, so I had brought with me: my desert booths, desert trousers, camelback and jungle hat from my Navy days. And secretly I was also really quite excited about getting into the bushes and shrubbery and the Catch & Keep, the Pinguin and the Christmas Bushes, as we have nothing comparable in Denmark and I look at (almost) every new experience as something positive. A few weeks later, I had gotten my fill, especially of the Christmas Bush and to some degree the Catch and Keep, as I expect most local Virgin Islanders have, but that was to come later on. Initially I just enjoyed myself immensely surveying, clearing the shrubs and exploring the northern part of Hassel Island. Where we also looked for the abandoned Hassel Plantation buildings besides clearing around Shipley Battery, but without any positive result with regards to the Hassel Plantation Buildings, even though we found a lot of ruins and an old cemetery, but they where probably all from a later time period and most probably from the English occupation in 1801 and again from1807-08/1815.

The second week we started to look into the subjects I had researched in the Copenhagen and especially the question: Had there been established permanent moorings or anchorage in the outlying bays of St. John in the historical period between 1680 and 1850.

We already knew that there had been plans for this in Charlotte Amelia Harbour in 1802, even though it wasn’t effectuated until some years later, we also knew that General Governor Peter von Scholten had also issued regulations around 1825 about the safeguarding of smaller boats, ships and canoes to prevent slaves from escaping to Puerto Rico where it is mentioned in the regulations that mooring poles or anchoring buoys should be locked securely. This proves that the local Planters and Sailors used these techniques around 1825-29.

But the question Ken Wild really wanted answered was, if the several historical anchors that had been found through the years had been used for just that or if they had been lost or used for other purposes. This could only be researched properly by diving on the anchors and the ballast piles from the old wrecks to note their dimension, constructions, general appearance and their positions on the bottom relatively to the surroundings and especially to the reefs around them. Because we were quite sure that the sailors of former days, just like sailors of today, would chose good sandy bottoms that ensures good holding, while they would try to avoid corals and rocky areas, where you risk getting your anchors stuck and, even worse, losing it if you can’t get it untangled. An operation which must have been a some what more difficult proposition in the historical period than today, where scuba divers can help the unlucky captain without “too much” difficulty.

One thing more we had to look after, was if the anchors where of the “Corps Mort” type, that is to say, if one of the Arms of the anchors was missing, as that was a quite common damage to anchors in the historical period, as the welding techniques during anchors production was almost impossible to control, which meant that ships often damaged their anchors and as a consequence had to carry between 4-8 anchors to ensure they had enough workable anchors compared with 1 or 2 anchors on modern ships and boats.

(Corp Mort type anchor, from George Cotsells: A treatise on Ships Anchors, 1856).

The reason why we had to look for these damaged Corp Mort type anchors where, that they were considered useless for normal anchoring, as you couldn’t be sure that they buried they remaining arm and ensure good holding. But on the other side they where excellent for permanent moorings, as they could be deployed in a controlled fashion, ensuring holding ability and at the same time ensuring that there wouldn’t be any anchor arm pointing upward, which lowered the risk of damaging a ship’s bottoms if the wind changed and the ship drifted onto the anchor on the bottom or in a crowded roadstead. So if we found a Corp Mort type anchor, it would indicate a permanent mooring facility, while undamaged anchor would make it more doubtful.

Altogether we dived on 4 anchors and 3 wreck sites during my second week on St. John, but all of the anchors where stuck in corals and always where a sandy and coral reef area joined up, likewise none of the anchors where of the “Corp Mort” type. These 2 fact held together almost certainly proves that the anchors are from ships where the anchors dragged and got stuck in the coral reef maybe even leading to the loss of the ship.

(Field sketch by USVI NPS showing the typical position of an anchor between corals and sand bottom)

This could very well be the case especially in Reef Bay on the south side of St John where there are also historical cannons and several gear rings for sugar mills on top of the Reef close by the anchor. But it could also just be an indication that the crew of the ship has unloaded surplus weight to lighten the ship and get it off its dangerous position on the reef, only further investigations can reveal it.

But it’s almost certain that the historic anchors in around St. John haven’t been used for permanent moorings, neither the placement of the anchors or the anchors themselves fits the historical evidence or the practical seamanship we would expect from sailors. This kind of took the wind out of our (and especially my) sails, as the evidence underwater and the National Archives in Copenhagen didn’t really provide enough material either written or archaeological to allow me to write the article we had hoped for on the 2 first research subjects.

Trine Lise Wahl: Kan ankerfunn spille en rolle I en marinark├Žologisk funnkontekst? Unpublished Master Thesis from Copenhagen University.
N. E. Upham: Anchors, Ships Publications Ltd. 1983.
Betty Nelson Curryer: Anchors, an Illustrated History, Chatham Publishig Ltd, 1999.
George Cotsell, Ships’ Anchors for all services, London, 1856

But concerns regarding this had to wait a little as we entered my 3 week on St. John, as Andreas and Vibe, the 2 other interns from Copenhagen, Eric and Mandy the 2 interns from Continental US, Holly, a PhD candidate from Syracuse University and a 5 person survey team from NPS regional office in Atlanta landed on St John.
So my third week was spend being “the old hand” with on Hassel Island and on Haulover, the NPS boat, that we used for our daily trips to Hassel Island and the different locations the Atlanta team had to survey and inspect. Of course this limited my own research possibilities somewhat, but as I hadn’t be sailing in the Royal Danish Navy for almost 2½ years, as I spend almost all of 2006 in India and Pakistan as an UN Military Observer and 2007 in the lecturing rooms at Copenhagen Uni, I must admit, that I enjoyed myself immensely just helping sailing the Haulover as a “deckhand” and acting as a “Bush Guide” on Hassel Island.

(Bush Guide on Hassel Island).
One day was very interesting though, from my research’s point of view, as we went to the old keelhauling place in Water Creek in Coral Bay. This place had it all: A cannon placed vertically in the sand ashore making it perfect as a bollard, if you had to keelhaul a ship, besides the cannon there was old building ashore on the opposite side of the creek (perfect as storage for tar barrels, rope, timber for masts and spars etc.) and ballast stones on 2 different places underwater and a wreck buried in the mud. Altogether very exciting, but as I hadn’t done any research on this site at all back in Copenhagen, this will have to be a project for the future.

When the Atlanta Team left after a very productive and enjoyable week, I only had one week left on St John and I was starting to fell the pressure to find something I could write about, that would involve both archaeological material from the Virgin Islands and archival material from the Copenhagen. I knew of course, that I could always write about: General Danish naval and commerce activities, the type of ships and boats used in the sugar industry, military patrols, etc. on which I had found quite a lot of material both in the National Archive and published in Danish, but then my main article would be pretty much a literary work, without using much archaeological material at all, that wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

This left me with the Coal Barge wreck on Hassel Island, the problem with the Coal Barge though, was if the barge was from the Hamburg America Line, because that company was/is a German company, making it more or less certain that the archival material would be in Hamburg, Germany.

But Ken and I agreed that I at least could make a very thorough survey and take extensive field notes on the Coal Barge. So during the last few days I had on Hassel Island, I used my newly acquired skills with a machete and pruned the bush around and inside the barge, to be able to do as many measurements, field notes and take as many photos as possible. Luckily I think this went really well and after I came back to Denmark the Coal Barge Idea has slowly grown more and more in my mind, which have led to the decision, that I’ll do my main article on precisely what I thought lest likely (except for the Pirate thing) when I started out for the USVI in late April.

Finally I’ll like to express my very grateful thanks to the extremely friendly and always helpful NPS Staff, to the Friends of the USVI National Park for their generous financial support without knowing really who I was (but just trusting the USVI NPS and Copenhagen University) and to all the kind Virgin Islanders I meet during my stay and who took me into their homes and showed the most amazing hospitality.