Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Ghost Ship

One of the many traditional tales told in West Cumbria concerns the ‘ghost ship’ Betsey Jane. It tells of a 19th century ship trying to reach Whitehaven harbour on Christmas Day. It is laden with slaves, gold, silver, rum and other treasures. The Captain, though hearing the church bells ringing, decides to try to bring the ship into port on this holy day. But, as in all good legends, he thus tempted fate and a storm sank the ship killing all who sailed on her. The ship was wrecked on Giltstone Rock near Harrington harbour. The legend goes that each year since – around Christmas time – the Betsey Jane can still be seen out to sea, desperately trying to reach Whitehaven. Unlike many legends, the origin of this one can be traced fairly precisely to a ballad penned by one John Pagen White, although he may have been used an already-familiar legend as the basis for the ballad. The Slaver in the Solway is full of Christmas images, desperatel telling of the ship fighting the storm to get into harbour and, above all, of human greed. It ends with the skipper still holding tight onto his gold as the ship sinks into the sea... It is an anti-slavery song. John Pagen White lived during the 19th century when campaigning against the slave trade – in which Whitehaven was a key player – was finally to prove successful. But Pagen White was wrong in one respect – no slaves were ever landed at Whitehaven. Despite many traditional tales – and the deep conviction still of many Whitehaven residents – slaves never were landed at Whitehaven. Ships sailed out from Europe to Africa carrying copper, cloth, trinkets and guns. Slaves were then taken from Africa to the Americas or the Caribbean. And on the final leg back to ports such as Whitehaven, sugar, tobacco, rum, rice, cotton and other goods were carried.John Pagen White was born in Howgill Street, Whitehaven, on May 27, 1812 but moved with his parents to Egremont about 1824. At 16 he became an articled pupil with Messrs Reay and Collinson, surgeons, in practice in Liverpool ; and afterwards studied at King's College, London. He was admitted a member of the College of Surgeons in 1837, and advanced to a Fellow of the same College in 1868. In the interval, and until time of his death in 1868, he resided and practised in Liverpool. He retained, however, a deep affection and attachment to West Cumbria and had a particular interest in the legends, superstitions and folklore of the district. He published a series of short odes and poems which drew on this folklore for inspiration. These were later republished in a book called, Lays and Legends of the English Lake Country. Although now out of print, the books readily available from libraries and second-hand bookshops. The sea has, of course, created many myths and legends over the years. The difficult life of early mariners led to a strongly-forged link with the sea, the storms and Mother Nature. One of the most famous sea legends concerns the Mary Celeste. The ship is often wrongly referred to as the Marie Celeste but this was the name given to the ship by a young aspiring fiction writer by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle. He took the bare bones of the tale and almost single-handedly turned it into the legend it has become today. The brigantine, the Mary Celeste was found abandoned and unmanned in December 1872 in the Atlantic about 600 miles west of Portugal. The ship was still seaworthy but the missing lifeboat suggested that the ten-man crew had abandoned her. No crew were ever found and the mystery remains unsolved. It might have been forgotten as just another failed voyage but for Conan Doyle’s short story, J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement which put it alongside The Flying Dutchman as one of the great sea mysteries.