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Herald and Pandora: A Chronicle of Panama Belles, Irish Colonies & Giant Tortoises

 

Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday 2 August 1847

The mission must be conducted with absolute secrecy. That was the essence of the instructions from Rear Admiral Sir George Seymour, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station. Or, more specifically, ‘those under your command, both on board the Herald and Pandora,’ are ‘not to talk of the service on which the latter vessel is Employed.’[1]

As Captain Henry Kellett digested the orders from his superior officer, he must have been inclined to shake his head in exasperation. Hadn’t the admiral read his report? The Galápagos Islands were simply not worth it. Kellett had travelled the length and breadth of the archipelago a year earlier and concluded that it would be pure folly for Britain to seize them. Not because the Ecuadorians, who claimed them, would have afforded much resistance but because the complete lack of coal and other vital resources there would have meant nothing but trouble in the long term.

And yet Seymour’s letter suggested that the Admiralty had not given up on the plan. Instead, Captain Kellett, commander of Her Majesty’s Surveying Vessel Herald, was ordered to despatch his fellow-surveyor Lieutenant James A. Wood to conduct a fresh investigation into the potential of the Galápagos as a British naval base and possible colony. Wood was a seasoned naval veteran who had already explored the North Sea and the coasts of Africa and California. As commander of HMS Pandora, a relatively small but speedy six-gun barque, he had enjoyed a particularly upbeat start to 1847, surveying the sheltered harbour of Esquimalt at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. His observations on Esquimalt’s close proximity to rich coalfields at Nanaimo were instrumental in ensuring that it replaced Valparaíso in Chile as the home of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station.

Kellett and Wood had been in Pacific waters since the winter of 1845, serving on what transpired to be one of the last major hydrographic surveys carried out ‘at the mercy of wind and tide’.[2] The two men had been despatched by Rear Admiral Francis Beaufort of the Hydrographic Office in London to complete the survey of the west coast of America from Guayaquil in Ecuador up to the Arctic Ocean.[3] It appeared that an earlier survey, conducted by Edward Belcher, had been incorrect in several instances, and Kellett was to rectify these errors. When the County Meath born Beaufort approached Kellett on the subject in 1844, he made no bones about the enormity of the project. ‘Are you in the mind to accept of that extensive enterprise?’[4]

Part of the brief was to gather up whatever plants, fish, shells, molluscs and suchlike they deemed worthy of bringing home to London. To this end, Kellett was assigned a naturalist, in the form of Thomas Edmondston, the brilliant young professor of botany at Anderson’s University in Glasgow; but Edmondston was killed in a tragic gun accident off the Chilean coast in January 1846.

Edmondstons’ replacement did not board Herald until January 1847.  Berthold Seemann, a 21-year-old botanist from Hanover, was recommended by Sir William Jackson Hooker, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, where Seemann had studied since 1844. The intrepid young German joined Kellett’s ship at Panama and he would remain on board for much of the ensuing four years.

Herald’s Pacific mission was by no means wholly scientific. The 26-gun frigate had also been instructed to keep a close eye on the US Navy’s activities in the region, particularly in light of the American invasion of Mexico and its seizure of the Mexican province of Alta California. Kellett, an Irishman, was no stranger to conflict. In his younger years he had chased slave ships through the West Indies, transported redcoat soldiers to Australia and served with distinction in the First Opium War against China, in which his skills as both surveyor and pilot were commended by his superiors.[5]

When Herald sailed for the San Blas Islands of Panama in November 1846, she carried Father Eugene Macnamara, a maverick Irish priest from Corofin, County Clare, who had made a fortune as a shareholder in a Mexican silver-and-mercury mining venture. Earlier that year Macnamara had managed to wrangle a licence from the Mexican governor of Alta California to settle more than twenty thousand square miles of empty space in the San Joaquin Valley with 15,000 Irish emigrants. As Berthold Seemann wrote, the concept was that this ‘colony of Irishmen … would swear fealty to Mexico and resist the further encroachment of the Americans.’[6] Or, as Macnamara put it, they would serve as a bulwark to prevent Mexican Catholics from becoming the ‘prey of the Methodist wolves’.[7]

However, Macnamara’s extraordinary dream of a ‘New Ireland’ was rapidly unravelling with the onset of the Mexican-American War, in which the US’s first strike was to annex Alta California. As a result, the success of an Irish colony in the region would have depended on British military support. Although Britain and the US had nearly come to blows over the hotly disputed Oregon Territory, neither country wanted war. Moreover, as Henry Kellett observed, there were now so many determined American settlers in California – including a battalion of ‘well armed’ Mormons – that it would ‘require a fleet to turn them out’.[8]

Rear Admiral Seymour also wished to know more about whispers of a proposed canal being cut through the Panama isthmus. With this in mind, Herald commenced a survey of Panama Bay on 26 January 1847, remaining in the region until April, constantly employed, as Seemann recalled, ‘in soundings, taking angles and sights, working out the observations and laying down the results on charts.’[9] The survey was undoubtedly as ‘tedious and laborious’ as Seemann described, but it found favour with Don Tomás de Herrera, Governor of Panama. At this time Panama formed part of the Republic of New Granada, along with present-day Colombia and some of present-day Ecuador and Venezuela. On 22 April, Governor Herrera hosted a ball in Panama City in honour of the surveying expedition of Rear Admiral Seymour and Captain Kellett. As Herald’s officers indulged in an evening of quadrilles, waltzes, polkas and galops, Seemann eyed up the womenfolk.

All the ‘belles’ of the city were assembled; there was a profusion of pearls … the ladies being generally well supplied with that article, pearl-fishing having been pursued on the coast ever since the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. Most of the Panamanian ladies have handsome countenances, regular features, dark sparkling eyes, and fine black hair. Their figure, however, is generally defective: being in the habit of having their dresses open behind when at home, and not wearing any stays, they have no waist, and do not look well in ball costume.[10]

In early May Herald rejoined Pandora at Iguana Island, near Punta Mala, and the two ships convoyed south, reaching the Peruvian port of Callao by the end of June. Seemann wrote that,

‘during our stay, the ship’s company of the Herald obtained ‘liberty’, and the officers amused themselves as well as they could, playing cricket, riding on horseback, going to Lima, and seeing everything that was to be seen.’ [11]

It wasn’t the season for bullfights, which disappointed Seemann. Moreover, while there was a sizeable theatre, it was

‘very dirty, and so full of fleas that a person has to take a more than ordinary interest in the performance to disregard the irritating operations to which he is exposed.’ [12]

Herald left Callao on 23 July and called in at the northern seaport of Paita five days later. It was Independence Day in Peru, and Paita’s 3,000-strong population was celebrating twenty-seven years since General José de San Martín had seized control of Lima and declared Peru independent of the crumbling Spanish Empire.

While Kellett set off to survey the coast between Paita and Guayaquil, Seemann got the go-ahead to embark on what was to be a marathon thousand-mile overland exploration of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian interior. He set off across the desert on 29 July, accompanied by his friend Bedford Pim, an English naval officer from Devon, as well as several guides and a number of ‘steady paced’ mules. As they rode along the sandy paths to Piura in northwestern Peru, they befriended a party of muleteers on the same road. ‘Their songs, the many little anecdotes they told, and the numerous questions which we had to answer, all tended to shorten the night, and to make the journey less tiresome.’ [13]

When they arrived in Piura, the town was in ‘a state of excitement’ over a double murder that very morning. Seemann’s party continued north the following day, bypassing cactus forests and marauding bandits, before crossing the Macara River into Ecuador, where they got thoroughly lost in the land of the Incas for several weeks. The experience boosted Seemann’s understanding of just how beleaguered the indigenous people of Ecuador were, and he wrote sympathetically of the manner in which ‘the Indians entertain a hope of freeing themselves from their oppressors, by driving them into the sea.’[14]

Seemann and Pim were considerably behind schedule by the time they clambered up to the beautiful city of Cuenca in the highlands of Ecuador on 12 September. Awaiting them was a letter from Captain Kellett urging them to rejoin Herald at Guayaquil as soon as possible. Another two weeks would pass before they managed to reach Naranjal and board a cocoa barge that escorted them up the Río Guayas and straight into the hurly-burly of the port of Guayaquil. Herald had already departed, but Lieutenant James Wood was waiting to scoop them up on Pandora, and, by the end of September, they were back on Kellett’s vessel.

While on board Pandora, they would have presumably learnt how Lieutenant Wood had spent his summer. On Rear Admiral Seymour’s orders, he had sailed his ship a thousand miles west of Ecuador to size up the merits of the Galápagos Islands. Although buccaneers had long frequented the archipelago, European interest had not really kicked off until 1809, when an eccentric Irish sailor named Patrick Watkins was rescued, having been marooned on the small Galápagos island of Floreana for two years.[15] The first whalers began piling in soon afterwards, and over the next four decades there were as many as 1,700 whaling ships and fur-sealers operating in these waters.[16]

Fifteen years had now passed since the Republic of Ecuador laid claim to the islands and established a penal settlement (now defunct) for political offenders on Floreana. Kellett had already decided that the Galápagos Islands were not worth fighting for, but Seymour wanted a second opinion.[17] Rumours had long been circulating that San Cristóbal (or ‘Chatham Island’, as the British called it), the most easterly of the thirteen major islands, was stuffed with coal.

As Pandora covertly rounded island after island, Lieutenant Wood deduced that the only resource of any possible value was the islands’ giant tortoise population. The future was not looking remotely positive for the Galápagos giant tortoise in the summer of 1847. In the thirty-eight years since Patrick Watkins’s rescue, they had become one of the most hunted species on the planet. As a sailor, Wood recognised that the tortoises were almost the ideal victual for men of the sea. Easily captured, they required astonishingly little water or food, and yet they could be kept alive on board a vessel for months on end. As well as the surprisingly succulent quality of their meat, diluted urine and water stored in their neck bags provided a useful source of drinking water. There was also a lucrative trade in tortoise oil, which the wily buccaneers used as a substitute for butter.

In August 1847 Wood totted up the damage to the tortoise population on San Cristóbal. According to his calculations, the settlers had already captured and sold

‘as many as 10,000 from this Island alone, so that they are now far from numerous – the wild dogs & the supply of food they afford to Whalers & Settlers will soon destroy all that remain … Indeed Mr Gurney [the mayor] thought three months’ work would pretty nearly clear off those that are available for Food or oil.’ [18]

Among the twenty people he counted as residents of Puerto Baquerizo, on the south-west of San Cristóbal, was an Englishman named Williams, who had a personal stock of between two and three hundred tortoises, which he traded with the whalers.

More than 250,000 tortoises are thought to have been living on the Galápagos Islands in 1800. An estimated 100,000 were captured before 1830, while 13,000 were recorded in the logs of whaling ships between 1831 and 1868.[19] Tortoise shells littered Floreana Island by the time Charles Darwin called by in 1835, but he could find none that were still alive. The Floreana tortoise was one of several subspecies that were wiped out. As Wood anticipated, they were also hunted to extinction on the south end of San Cristóbal. Fortunately some survived on the northern end, and today there are more than 1,800 on the island. Indeed, from a low of 3,000 in the 1970s, there is now a relatively buoyant population of between 20,000 and 30,000 in the Galápagos as a whole.

It wasn’t just on the Galápagos that tortoises were pushed to the brink. A merchant in Hamburg once told the German explorer Otto Kersten that a hundred men – the crew of two ships – had collected and carried off 1,200 giant tortoises from the remote coral atoll of Aldabra in the Seychelles in 1847. Among these were a number of veritable dinosaurs, weighing 800 to 900 pounds.[20] An Aldabra giant named Adwaita is thought to have been about 255 years old when he died in 2006 at Alipore Zoological Gardens in Kolkata. Adwaita would have been nearly a hundred when the German sailors decimated his family in 1847. Fortunately the Aldabra giant tortoise survived the human offensive, but its neighbour, the Seychelles giant tortoise, was virtually annihilated. A rare survivor is Jonathan, a Seychelles giant who lives today on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. Jonathan, who celebrated his 192nd birthday in 2024, was already in his mid-teens by 1847.

Captain Kellett’s report to the Admiralty in 1846 concluded:

‘As to whether [the Galápagos Islands] would be an acquisition to Her Majesty’s Government or not I consider they would, in case of war, as a commanding position on the coast, but not otherwise, as I do not think they could ever support themselves.’ [21]

A year later Lieutenant Wood confirmed that all the talk of coal seams on San Cristóbal was utter fiction. For starters, the Galápagos are volcanic islands, while coal is formed from prehistoric plant life – perhaps the archipelago’s black rocks had deluded those studying them from afar. Likewise, reports that at least one of the islands was replete with guano deposits – a vital ingredient for fertilisers and explosives – transpired to be a myth. Wood duly concurred with Kellett and advised Rear Admiral Seymour to drop his plans to conquer the Galápagos.

Meanwhile, much to Kellett’s dismay, he received orders from Rear Admiral Beaufort in the late summer of 1847 to prepare for a voyage to the Arctic to find out what had become of Sir John Franklin’s missing expedition. Beaufort conceded that he found it ‘vexatious’ to have to take Kellett away from his hydrographic survey,

‘but in the present case, I could not even grumble – any effort on behalf of poor Franklin, and his anxious friends here, no one with any heart can grudge. Besides there is no one on that station who has the resources of mind and the physical activity you have.’ [22]

One can hear mournful tunes emanating from Captain Kellett’s flute as the veteran skipper reluctantly set his sights on the cold north in early 1848 and headed off on what would be the first of three consecutive summer cruises up to the Bering Strait and out into the icy western reaches of the Canadian Arctic. Passing through the Chukchi Sea, between Siberia and Alaska, he came upon an unmapped island, which he named ‘Herald Island’, after his ship. Kellett’s three Arctic expeditions would add considerably to the general knowledge of the region, particularly of the Siberian coast, but no trace of Franklin or his ships was found. Moreover, he came no closer to cracking the puzzle that had brought Franklin to these perilous shores, namely the vital but elusive search for the Northwest Passage and the North Magnetic Pole.

Herald returned to England in 1851, via Hawaii, Hong Kong, the East Indies and Cape Town. But Kellett was back in the Arctic two years later, commanding HMS Resolute on a daring expedition to rescue his fellow Irish explorer Robert McClure, whose vessel was trapped in ice.[23] When Resolute was broken up several decades later, Queen Victoria had some of the ship’s timbers used to build a desk, which she gave to the President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1880. The ‘Resolute desk’ serves as the president’s desk at the White House to the present day.

Henry Kellett survived innumerable adventures at sea and was promoted to admiral. In 1869 he was posted to Hong Kong – where he had served nearly thirty years earlier – as Commander-in-Chief of the China Station. He remained in that post for two years, before retiring to his home in Fethard, County Tipperary, where he died in 1875.

Bedford Pim served alongside Henry Kellett during the Resolute expedition and led the men who rescued Robert McClure. He later became the first man to travel overland from a ship on the eastern side of the Northwest Passage to one on the western side. In the 1860s he reunited with Berthold Seemann for an expedition to Nicaragua, after which Seemann fetched up as manager of a sugar estate in Panama, as well as managing director of the Javali goldmine in Chontales, Nicaragua. Seemann was at Javali when he succumbed to a fever in October 1871 at the age of forty-six. Pim returned to England, where he was elected Conservative member of Parliament for Gravesend in 1874.

Pandora was also detoured for the abortive mission to find Franklin, and she remained in the Pacific until November 1849, when Lieutenant Wood was ordered to sail home to Britain. Upon his return, he was promoted to the rank of commander. In 1855 he was given charge of a survey of the north-west coast of Scotland, but the climate took its toll on his health. He died, aged forty-seven, on 12 April 1860.[24] Many of the items Pandora gathered on her Pacific voyages are now in the British Museum, including a Santa Rosa Island fox collected in 1847.

Rear Admiral Sir George Seymour continued his rise through the ranks to become Admiral of the Fleet in 1866, four years before his death at his house in Eaton Square in London.

After the collapse of his ‘New Ireland’ adventure, Father Eugene Macnamara initiated a more modest proposal to settle five hundred Irish families in the fertile Osorno region of southern Chile. Charles Darwin had trekked through Osorno in 1835, but for most Irish people it was better known for its association with Ambrose O’Higgins, the Sligo-born Viceroy of Peru, whose restoration of the ancient city had led the Spanish king to make him Marquis of Osorno. Macnamara’s Chilean venture fell apart when it emerged that the land being offered was already owned by a large number of indignant rancheros. Father Macnamara died in Paris in 1852, aged thirty-eight, and left a fortune of 1.2 million francs (approximately £48,000 at the time) to his brother John, an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary in Limerick.

 

Further Reading

 

  • Fox, John, El Proyecto Macnamara: The Maverick Irish Priest and the Race to Seize California, 1844–1846, Sallins (Co. Kildare): Merrion Press, 2014.
  • Grant, K. Thalia, and Estes, Gregory B., Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World, Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • McCarthy, Vincent, ‘Henry Kellett, explorer’, Fethard and Killusty Newsletter (Fethard, Co. Kilkenny), 2006.
  • Samson, Jane, ‘An empire of science: The survey voyage of HMS Herald and British ambitions in the Americas, 1845–1851’, in Alan Frost and Jane Samson (eds.), Pacific Empires: Essays in Honour of Glyndwr Williams, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999, p. 69–86.
  • Samson, Jane, ‘“That extensive enterprise”: HMS Herald’s North Pacific Survey, 1845–1851’, Pacific Science, 52, no. 4 (1998), p. 287–93.
  • Seemann, Berthold, Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Herald‘ during the Years 1845–51, under the Command of Henry Kellett, C.B., R.N.: Being a Circumnavigation of the Globe, and Three Cruizes to the Arctic Regions in Search of Sir John Franklin, 2 vols., London: Reeve, 1853.

 

 

End-Notes

 

[1]       Rear Admiral Sir George Seymour to Captain Henry Kellett, 2 August 1847, quoted by Jane Samson in ‘An empire of science: The survey voyage of HMS Herald and British ambitions in the Americas, 1845–1851’, in Alan Frost and Jane Samson (eds.), Pacific Empires: Essays in Honour of Glyndwr Williams (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999), p. 75.

[2] The naval officer (and future Admiral) Richard Aldworth Oliver conducted a hydrographic survey in New Zealand around 1850, as captain of the sailing ship HMS Fly. Mr Oliver was a kinsman of both Charles Silver Oliver and Lola Montez.

Jane Samson, ‘An empire of science: The survey voyage of HMS Herald and British ambitions in the Americas, 1845–1851’, in Alan Frost and Jane Samson (eds.), Pacific Empires: Essays in Honour of Glyndwr Williams (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999), p. 70.

[3] Jane Samson, ‘An empire of science’, in Alan Frost and Jane Samson (eds.), Pacific Empires: Essays in Honour of Glyndwr Williams (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999), p. 73.

[4] Jane Samson, ‘An empire of science: The survey voyage of HMS Herald and British ambitions in the Americas, 1845–1851’, in Alan Frost and Jane Samson (eds.), Pacific Empires: Essays in Honour of Glyndwr Williams (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999), p. 73.

[5] John T. Walbran, British Columbia Coast Names, 1592–1906 (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1909), p. 279–80.

[6] John Fox, El Proyecto Macnamara: The Maverick Irish Priest and the Race to Seize California, 18441846 (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion, 2014), p. 177.

[7] John Fox, El Proyecto Macnamara: The Maverick Irish Priest and the Race to Seize California, 18441846 (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion, 2014), p. 87.

[8] John Fox, El Proyecto Macnamara: The Maverick Irish Priest and the Race to Seize California, 18441846 (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion, 2014), p. 177.

[9] Berthold Seemann, Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Herald’ during the Years 1845–51 Vol. 1 (London: Reeve, 1853), p. 139.

[10]        Berthold Seemann, Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Herald’ during the Years 1845–51 Vol. 1 (London: Reeve, 1853), p. 140–41.

[11]        Berthold Seemann, Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Herald’ during the Years 1845–51 Vol. 1 (London: Reeve, 1853), p. 143.

[12]        Berthold Seemann, Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Herald’ during the Years 1845–51 Vol. 1 (London: Reeve, 1853), p. 143.

[13]        Berthold Seemann, Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Herald’ during the Years 1845–51 Vol. 1 (London: Reeve, 1853), p. 149.

[14]        Berthold Seemann, Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Herald’ during the Years 1845–51 Vol. 1 (London: Reeve, 1853), p. 199.

[15]        In 1832 the islands were annexed by Ecuador, triggering the first serious attempt at colonisation, including the cultivation of dyer’s moss, a mauve lichen found there, which was deemed to be a potentially lucrative source of the dye orchil. However, the settlement at Floreana failed, and by 1847 there had been an exodus by many settlers to San Cristóbal. Pete Oxford and Graham Watkins, Galapagos: Both Sides of the Coin (Morganville, NJ: Imagine Publishing, 2009); E. Alison Kay (ed.), The Conservation Biology of Molluscs: Proceedings of a Symposium Held at the 9th International Malacological Congress, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1986 (Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, 1995), p. 8–9.

[16]        K. Thalia Grant and Gregory B. Estes, Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 84.

[17]        Jane Samson, ‘An empire of science: The survey voyage of HMS Herald and British ambitions in the Americas, 1845–1851’, in Alan Frost and Jane Samson (eds.), Pacific Empires: Essays in Honour of Glyndwr Williams (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999), p. 75–7.

[18]        Lieutenant James Wood to Rear Admiral Sir G. F. Seymour, 29 September 1847. Quoted in K. Thalia Grant and Gregory B. Estes, Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 84–5.

[19]        Charles Haskins Townsend, ‘The Galapagos tortoises in their relation to the whaling industry: A study of old logbooks’, Zoologica, vol. 4 (1925), p. 55–135.

[20]        Lord Rothschild, ‘On the gigantic land tortoises of the Seychelles and Aldabra-Madagascar’, Novitiates Zoologica, vol. 23 (1915), p. 15.

[21]        Captain Henry Kellett to the Admiralty, undated (1846), quoted by Jane Samson in ‘An empire of science: The survey voyage of HMS Herald and British ambitions in the Americas, 1845–1851’, in Alan Frost and Jane Samson (eds.), Pacific Empires: Essays in Honour of Glyndwr Williams (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999), p. 74–5.

[22]        Rear Admiral Francis Beaufort to Captain Kellett, 16 March 1848. Quoted by Andrew Lambert in Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), p. 184.

[23]        Captain Robert Maclure [sic], The Arctic Dispatches: Containing an Account of the Discovery of the North-West Passage (London: J. D. Potter, [1854?]).

[24]        Obituary of James Wood, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, vol. 30 (1860), p. cxxvii.