The Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who lived from 1879 to 1962, changed his birth name when he was in college. He was originally known as William Stephenson, and was born in Manitoba, Canada. His biographers do not know exactly what prompted him to make such a startling reinvention of identity.
For he did not just choose a new name; he adopted a specifically Scandinavian name. I do not know if the name is Icelandic, Norwegian, or of some other Scandinavian source. I do not have much acquaintance with these nations and their languages. But perhaps he wanted to make a clean break with an unhappy past; or perhaps he was seeking to gird himself for a life of exploration, and he thought a new name would help him. In any case, Stefansson had a legendary career as an Arctic explorer. He absorbed a great deal of wisdom, stories, and tales from the polar regions, and one such tale will be our subject here.
In the few years before his death, Stefansson maintained a correspondence with the American maritime writer Edward R. Snow. According to Snow, who mentioned Stefansson in his 1963 book Unsolved Mysteries of Sea and Shore, one tale of the Arctic held a strong fascination for Stefansson: the tale of the quest for the doomed ship Starry Crown, which was said to be laden with gold. Stefansson was not sure if the tale was fact or legend, or a mixture of both. “The tale I cannot prove,” Stefansson cautioned Snow, “but you may use it any way you wish. Nevertheless, I will not give it to you unless you make it clear that it may just as well be a legend as the truth.” But perhaps this is the way sea-yarns should be: riddles wrapped in salt-encrusted mysteries. What matters is the story, and what it teaches us; if it be strange and exotic, so much the better. As Petrarch says, in his 1362 letter to his friend Giovanni Boccaccio:
We look down on what is commonplace and widely celebrated; yet the unexpected dislocates and unsettles us. [Vulgaria et nota contemnimus; inopina nos quatiunt ac perturbant].
So it should be with sea-stories. The Starry Crown, says Stefansson, was a large clipper ship displacing sixteen hundred tons. In 1875 she left Melbourne, Australia for London carrying a cargo of gold bullion. But the doomed ship never reached port. She was presumed to be lost at sea with all hands. For twenty years, no news of any kind was heard about the lost clipper ship. In 1895, the whaler Swordfish departed from Hobart, Tasmania for a six-month cruise. On her return journey, the Swordfish became trapped in treacherous, shifting pack ice, and was unable to move at all.
As food and provisions slowly ran out, the men became afflicted with scurvy. The captain and most of the crew eventually died; finally, only two crewmen were left, an officer named Roland Last and four other sailors. One day, as he was high in the ship’s rigging, Last spotted what looked like another ship imprisoned in the ice floes. As the Swordfish floated closer to the other wreck, Last finally beheld a magnificent clipper ship in an apparently good state of preservation. He at first believed he was hallucinating, but then realized the ghost-ship was real. Last’s heart pounded in his chest with increasing intensity; if he could get aboard the clipper, he might be able to secure supplies and food. Eventually they could see the name of the ship painted on her bow: it was the Starry Crown.
As the ice floes stopped moving, there was a window of opportunity. Only one other man besides Last was in good enough health to board the Starry Crown. The two of them cautiously made their way across the sea-ice and, with great effort, boarded the old clipper ship; they wanted to scavenge quickly and leave, as they did not know when the ice would begin to move again and separate them forever from access to the Swordfish. The Starry Crown was in relatively good order. There was no indication of what might have happened to her crew. In the galley they found precious lime juice, biscuit, medicines, and other provisions. When the men went below to see what was in the hold, they were shocked to discover 122 chests of gold bullion, mined in Australia.
But the men were too weak and exhausted to carry any of the gold back to the Swordfish. But not only this; they began to hear the loud rumbling and cracking of ice, which meant that the floes were beginning to move again. If they did not leave at once, they would be trapped aboard the Starry Crown forever. The two men returned to their ship, and the Swordfish continued its aimless drifting. As the days came and went, the Swordfish began to be battered more and more by the ice. Soon she was leaking so uncontrollably that the pumps could not keep pace with the water. But just as the Swordfish was about to slip beneath the waves, Last and his men sighted another ship, the Nereus, which was headed to Melbourne from Cape Town, South Africa.
The crew of the Swordfish were rescued, but most of them were beyond salvation. On the return journey to Melbourne, all of the crewmen died except Last. He was now the only living soul who knew the secret of the Starry Crown’s gold, and he was determined to mount an expedition to find the ship and recover her precious cargo. Eventually Last confided his secret to a ship captain named Arnold Manton, who commanded the Black Dog. Last explained the details of his discovery to Manton, and tried to point out on nautical charts where he believed he had boarded the Starry Crown.
Together with a small crew, the two men, Last and Manton, sailed from Port Philip Heads through the Bass Straits, and tried to make their way to the region where the old clipper ship might be located. Like so many other ships, the Black Dog became trapped in shifting ice fields; soon she was crushed between two massive floes and vanished. Manton and Last escaped by leaping onto the ice; the rest of the crew perished. The two men realized that they had no other option but to hike in the direction of where they thought the Starry Crown could be found. After miles of hiking, the two battered, exhausted men spied what looked like ship’s rigging protruding from a white horizon. It was the Starry Crown; she was still there, beckoning the treasure-seekers, calling out to them through the silent, frozen air.
When the men reached the ship, the went at once to the galley, and prepared some coffee and biscuit, perfectly preserved after decades in deep-freeze. There was also enough food aboard ship to last them for at least a year. They could stay aboard the Starry Crown as she moved slowly about the polar region, and, with some luck, hope that she might be broken free of her captivity. In the hold, the chests of gold were still there. In all, the men counted 2,050 pounds of gold with a market value at that time of over 1 million dollars, a vast sum in those days.
But as the days came and went, the minds of the men began slowly to deteriorate in the white vastness of the north. They began to grow suspicious of each other. When they did speak, all they spoke about was gold. Each man began to believe he had contributed more to the success of the enterprise; and each man believed he was doing more work aboard ship. One day, Manton insisted that they count out all the gold and separate it into two perfectly equal piles, so that each man could keep track of his own stash. They began to lock their cabin doors at night, and to walk about the ship armed. One day, Manton would not leave his cabin and stopped looking after his hygiene. Last began to fear Manton, and kept his revolver on him at all times. One night, during a storm, Manton, clutching a revolver, tried to force his way into Last’s cabin; Last shot him first, and Manton fell dead to the deck.
With great sadness and regret, Last buried Manton at sea. Now totally alone aboard the ghost ship, Last grew more and more depressed. He had been on board for over eight months, and now realized that the ship would never be freed from the ice. His only chance of survival was to leave without delay. He built a sledge from ship’s timbers and loaded it with as much provisions he could take. Yet not one bar of gold did he take, which was the entire purpose of the original expedition. So disgusted was he with the yellow metal, and so embittered by his folly of pursuing it above all else, that he could not bear even to lay eyes on it. It was the same loathing felt by the diamond-seekers in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines: once they had escaped death by entombment in Gagool’s treasure chamber, they wanted nothing to do with the cursed stones.
Last made his way across the ice with his sledge; for a great many days he maintained his steady pace. Eventually he reached a place where he could access water; here he abandoned the sledge, and put in a small skiff he had taken from the Starry Crown. His plan was to reach the open ocean, and hope that he might encounter a larger vessel that could rescue him. And so it turned out to be. After a few days in the open ocean, he was rescued by the schooner Spray, commanded by a captain named Harmer. He told his rescuers that he was the sole survivor of the Black Dog; the Starry Crown he did not discuss.
So do the avaricious lead themselves and their companions to ruin. Unable to control their greed, they poison all they touch. In the 1948 film Treasure of the Sierra Madre, not even the discovery of great riches could compensate for the personality defects of the Fred C. Dobbs character. What was already within him was magnified by wealth; he destroyed himself, and nearly all those around him. So too do leaders animated by greed and self-interest lead their states to ruin. It was not without reason that Petrarch warned, in a 1366 letter to Pope Urban V,
Often indeed men have perished under one leader who might well have been saved under another. Often through the fault of their leader men who had been disposed to victory have been crushed. And often (or almost always) the opinion of the masses shifts the blame from the soldiers to the leaders.
Yet it sometimes happens that such tragedies must be allowed to play out. Man is rarely persuaded by reason; only collision with the brick wall of Fate seems to make an impression. The vortex of fate pulls very many things into its swirling funnel. In one of his letters (Epistula CVII.11), Seneca quotes the philosopher Cleanthes:
The fates lead on the willing, and pull along the unwilling. [Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt].
This is why we must see the treasure-seekers Last and Manton as captives. They were the captives of the Starry Crown, in that they were both physically imprisoned there, and mentally imprisoned by their lust for gold. This captivity corroded their minds over time, and eventually brought them to their dooms. To break free from this imprisonment requires a commitment to moral and ethical principles that few men are willing to undertake. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a haunting tale (The Captain of the Polestar) of a ship trapped in the Arctic ice. Its captain is driven along by fateful obsessions that have to do with his dead bride-to-be. One day, he wanders out on the ice, lured to his death by these secret fixations. And over his dead body, his crewmen believe they see the ghostly figure of a woman crouching over him, then rising into the frozen mist. He too was released from his captivity—through death. The verses of Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “Captive” are relevant:
When in the dark of some despairing dream
Sorrow has all her will with me, and ease
Is full forgotten, through her dear degrees
Steals Music, beckoning with a hand supreme
For me to follow. Straight I see the gleam
Where the winds dip them in the far, bright seas
That roll and break upon the Hebrides;
See white wings flash, and hear the sea-birds scream.
Or it may be in palace gardens falls
The moonlight on wide roses, where the swell
Of one great lover’s heart in passion calls
To deeps in other hearts. And, listening, well
I know, while sink my slow dissolving walls,
So Music lured Eurydice from hell.
When he landed in Melbourne, grateful to be alive, Last never made another effort to locate the Starry Crown. And as far as is known, the ship has never been sighted again. Perhaps the ancient Starry Crown has gone to the bottom; or perhaps she remains trapped in the ice even now, and for all eternity, floating ghost-like in cracking ice floes with the Arctic currents, tempting the avarice of man, and beckoning him to risk death for a chance to claim a cursed cargo.
Read more on the fates of commanders and leaders in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: