Perils of the Refrigerated Meat Trade: The Disappearance of the Marlborough and Dunedin

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

“Leftovers in their less visible form are called memories. Stored in the refrigerator of the mind and the cupboard of the heart” – Thomas Fuller

I get the feeling this isn't going to end well...

I get the feeling this isn’t going to end well…

Chances are you live where you do because of your refrigerator.  Okay, maybe it has something to do with your girlfriend, but she lives where she does because of her refrigerator.  This is tragic because the refrigerator hates you.  I’m not suggesting that the demon Zuul, Gatekeeper of Gozer is plotting world destruction from your freezer.  Everyone knows it’s actually Ereshkigal.  But at any rate, it’s not so personal, rather a more general principle of the universe, that is, nature abhors refrigeration, demonstrated by the fact that (1) a wide array of strange phenomena are often associated with the refrigerator, and (2) the first successful refrigerated cargo ship, the Dunedin (as well as its sister ship, the Marlborough) disappeared under mysterious and deeply disturbing circumstances.  Few of us realize the fateful precipice we balance over each time we walk through the frozen meat section at the supermarket.

Before we could ship things around the world in refrigerated trains, ships, and trucks, big cities tended to cluster around main transport hubs like rivers or harbors.  Even if “thar was gold in them thar hills”, you often couldn’t grow food there and so a huge, urban population near natural resources other than those you could eat was largely unsustainable for any length of time.  Once we figured out how to keep things cool as we moved them around, and then keep them from rotting once they arrived, we started to be able to settle in some pretty inhospitable places, and pack more and more people into increasingly concentrated areas.  This would change how and what we farmed (easier to get oranges to Minnesota), our daily lifestyle (people didn’t have to go to the supermarket every day of their lives), and where we settled (Las Vegas).  You may think you’re living where you are because that’s where your job is.  The fact that you have a job there is a largely a result of our being able to deliver food to you.

Mankind has always had an eye out for a better way to preserve food.  Salt was pretty popular for most of human history, but the resultant species-wide hypertension explains why we’ve only had 300 years out of the last 5000 where we weren’t busy killing each other.  We even tried ice as far back as 1000 B.C., but it has this annoying tendency to melt, and even well into the 19th Century A.D., ice harvesting involved hacking at a frozen river with an ax, which is generally bad policy should you have strong objections to drowning or hypothermia.  By about 1830, at least in America, there was a commercial trade in ice, but this involved horse-drawn ice-cutters (since horses can’ talk they couldn’t complain about drowning or hypothermia) and large ice warehouses, which made things a little cheaper.  Ice was harvested in New England (a popular hangout for ice) and shipped to hotter places like the American South and the Caribbean (presumably to facilitate the invention of the mint julep and the piña colada).  We’d been experimenting with artificial refrigeration since at least 1755, but hadn’t come up with anything commercially viable until Australian James Harrison patented a practical, ether-based vapor compression system in 1856 and as he was Australian, the primary goal was to make sure that beer could be produced year-round (fermenting yeast is very sensitive to temperature, so summer brews tended to taste awful).  I’ve long suspected that before the internet, most technological advances can either be credited to war or beer.

Once Australia and New Zealand had cold beer, they turned their attention to other profitable markets.  Obviously, they needed a steady income to buy more cold beer and the wool market happened to be slumping.  Luckily, the United Kingdom in the 1850’s was starting to worry about its food supply, particularly of meat, a huge quantity of which was being imported in an unrefrigerated form from the United States (the world’s leading producer of beef) to keep up with the demand.  This was possible since to move meat from the U.S. to the U.K. you need only bridge less than 4000 straight miles, whereas shipping meat from New Zealand to the U.K. requires some sort of preservation method to cross the 11,500 miles without serious wastage (and before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it would have required rounding South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, or Tierra Del Fuego in the other direction  – which would have been more like 13,000 miles, either way).  People usually prefer relatively fresh to canned meat, which means that if New Zealand and Australia, which had an overabundance of meat-based things on four legs, wanted to break into the lucrative meat market in the United Kingdom, they needed to figure out a way to freeze meat for the long journey by ship.  And with all that cold beer just lying around waiting to be bought, they put their noses to the grindstone, and started outfitting the first refrigerated cargo ships.

During this period a new industry grew up which influenced the situation for the better. A means was discovered of keeping food-stuffs fresh so that they could be exported from New Zealand and received in England in perfect condition. The first refrigerated meat cargo left Port Chalmers in 1882. Forty years later the value of frozen meat exported annually had grown from twenty thousand pounds to eleven million pounds, and a great export trade in butter and cheese also had developed (Elder, 1928, p68).

As the anti-refrigeration gods were clearly paying attention and wanted to stomp on things before they went too far, the first attempt to ship a cargo of meat from New Zealand to the United Kingdom was an abysmal failure.  In 1873, the sailing ship Norfolk left Australia with the first cargo of beef in a cold room system (pretty much a huge insulated icebox).  The ice providing the cooling melted too fast, as ice is wont to do, and this experimental venture failed as did a later attempt with sheep and a refrigeration system.  As all that cold beer was still idling about waiting for thirsty folks with pocketfuls of currency, Australia and New Zealand remained undeterred.  One thing New Zealand had was a lot of sheep, but shipping live sheep anywhere in bulk is prohibitively expensive, not to mention smelly.  After some careful research, New Zealander William Soltau Davidson (1846-1924) outfitted the sailing ship Dunedin with a compression refrigeration unit, stuffed it full of frozen sheep, and in 1882 (despite a few initial refrigeration problems before leaving New Zealand), set sail for London.  Ninety-eight days later, the Dunedin arrived in port with the loss of only one carcass, rave reviews about the quality of the meat delivered, and raked in a tidy profit.  The Age of Refrigerated Meat had arrived.

It was decided to freeze on board, and the work was entered upon in a ‘tween decks chamber on the Dunedin at Port Chalmers on December 7, 1881, when Mr. Davidson and Mr. Brydone personally stowed the first frozen sheep ever loaded in New Zealand, the question with them being as to whether the carcasses, after they had been frozen on board the ship, should be placed “thwart ship ” or “fore and aft” in the chambers. All went well until December 11, when a fracture of the engine’s crank-shaft owing to a flaw in the casting stopped the work and compelled the sale of the 641 sheep then in the chambers and of the 360 killed and in transit. Thus New Zealanders themselves were the first consumers of their own frozen meat. A repair was made, and the loading was completed on February 11, 1882, the ship sailing on the 15th of that month, and arriving in London Docks on May 24, after a long passage of ninety-eight days. During that period the refrigerating machine had worked steadily; sometimes, in cool weather, it was only run two or three hours in the twenty-four (Critchell, 1912, p40-41).

With the success of the Dunedin venture, and subsequent availability of beer, the Dunedin’s sister ship Marlborough was quickly converted to a refrigerated cargo vessel, and both made numerous profitable voyages transporting meat between New Zealand and the United Kingdom, opening up a lively trade in dairy and meat between Australasia, South America, and the United Kingdom.  But the dark forces aligned against refrigeration, who now knew that they could not stem the tide of frozen meat, settled for vengeance.  Both the Dunedin and the Marlborough mysteriously vanished in 1890.   No trace of the Dunedin would ever be found.  Ships sailing near the Antarctic Ocean at roughly the same time reported more icebergs than usual, and it was presumed that both the Dunedin and Marlborough were sunk by icebergs, which one has to admit has a certain irony.  If this was the last we heard of it, we could write off the disappearance of the first two New Zealander ships to transport refrigerated meat to the fact that sailing the ocean blue in 1890 was still a dicey proposition and any number of things could easily kill you.  The HMS Garnett was dispatched to investigate in 1891 amid rumors of crewmembers shipwrecked in Tierra del Fuego, but found no evidence of their existence. Then strange conflicting accounts of the fate of the Marlborough started to appear. The New Zealand Evening Post reported an odd story on September 26, 1913, wherein Captain McArthur, commanding A Blue Funnel steamer out of Seattle, was told a story by a pilot named Burley, once wrecked on Cape Horn, about discovering a shipwreck (with the name “Marlborough” clearly visible) and twenty skeletons while he searched for shelter.  Captain Burley’s story was later discredited, and to some degree, it was maintained that if he was telling the truth at all, he likely saw the Marlborough of London, a ship also wrecked in the vicinity.  Strangely, on October 27, 1913, the Singapore Straits Times tentatively reported the Marlborough had been found.

A day or two ago another British sailing ship arrived in Lyttelton with the story that she had found the Marlborough and the skeletons of twenty of her crew in one of the rocky coves near Punta Arenas (Sandy Point), in the Magellan Straits.  The captain is quoted as telling the story in the following words, “We were off the rocky coves near Punta Arenas, keeping near the land for shelter.  The coves are deep and silent, the sailing difficult and dangerous.  It was a weirdly wild evening with the red orb of the sun setting on the horizon.  The stillness was uncanny.  There was a shining green light reflected on the jagged rocks on our right.  We rounded the point into a deep cleft cove.  Before us, a mile or more across the water, stood a sailing vessel with the barest shreds of canvas fluttering in the breeze.  We signaled and hove to.  No answer came.  We searched the ‘stranger’ with our glasses.  Not a soul could we see, not a movement of any sort.  Masts and yards were picked out in green—the green of decay.  The vessel lay as if in a cradle.  It recalled ‘The Frozen Pirate,’ a novel that I read years ago.  At last we came up.  There was no sign of life on board.  After an interval our first mate, with a member of the crew, boarded her.  The sight that met their gaze was thrilling.  Below the wheel lay the skeleton of a man.  Treading wearily on the rotten deck, which cracked and broke in places as they walked, they encountered three skeletons in the hatchway.  In the mess-room were the remains of ten bodies, and six were found, one alone, possibly that of the captain, on the bridge.  There was an uncanny stillness around and a dank smell of mould which made the flesh creep.  A few remnants of books were discovered in the captain’s cabin, and a rusty cutlass.  Nothing more weird in the history of the sea can ever have been seen.  The first mate examined the still faint letters on the bows, and after much trouble read Marlborough, Glasgow” (Straits Times, October 27, 1913, p3).

Doubt if you will, but to me this reeks of divine retribution.  The hubris of attempting to deny the inevitable rotting of flesh (albeit in the interest of a tasty treat), that which differentiates us mere mortals from those divine critters lurking out there, was met ultimately with a supernatural smack-down involving gruesome decay.  Of course, that cat was already out of the bag, so to speak, and now we merrily ship our frozen foodstuffs every which way, but the original price of our TV dinners was the unnatural consumption of the Dunedin and her sister the Marlborough.  So if you meet Nature in a dark alley, tread carefully.  She wants you to decay, and all our refrigeration only forestalls our fate for a short while.  Nature can be so mean and you shouldn’t trust her, as observed by Bob Dylan when he said, “I am against nature. I don’t dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which nature can’t touch with decay”.  Oh, and don’t forget the beer.

References
Critchell, James Troubridge, 1850-1917. A History of the Frozen Meat Trade: an Account of the Development And Present Day Methods of Preparation, Transport, And Marketing of Frozen And Chilled Meats. 2nd ed. London: Constable & Company Ltd., 1912.
Elder, John Rawson, 1880-1962. New Zealand, an Outline History. Oxford: University press, 1928.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,050 other followers