• Carolyn

Who took the whisky?

Updated: Dec 25, 2020

One hundred and thirty years ago, four bottles of excellent whisky disappeared from a hole in the sand beside a grave, on a deserted beach in San Julián harbour, Patagonia. Sadly, the owner of the bottles never knew who took them.


But now I've found out.


I first read about the disappearance of the whisky in a book called 'A Yankee in Patagonia.' This book, published in 1931, outlines the adventures of an American called Ned Chace, who arrived in Patagonia in 1897. He found work with a Scottish sheep farmer called Monroe, in the isolated area of San Julián.


Here's what Chase said about Monroe's whisky:


Monroe's store was very well stocked with almost everything you could think of that would be needed on a farm, except liquor. There was none of that for sale, though Monroe, like everybody else, served rum at shearing and dipping. He had a box of fine whisky hidden for a while in a pile of stones beneath a cross on a hilltop near the port, marking the grave of a lieutenant from the Beagle. But the crew of one of those transports that put into the bay one day, thinking the pile marked an Indian* grave that might be rifled, left no trace of the whisky.


Monroe, whom we will call Munroe from now on, must have told Chase this story sometime between 1897 - when Chase arrived - and 1899 - when Munroe died. But the whisky was stolen in 1890 - as I will soon reveal. So, even after seven years, Munroe was so upset about the theft that he told Chase about it. In fact, Munroe, who was a great storyteller, probably told Chase about it many times. And Chase remembered the story more than 30 years later.


It's a great pity that Munroe did not read the 'The Standard,' an English newspaper in Buenos Aires, otherwise he would have known who stole his precious whisky. But in those days, British Patagonians were more likely to read London newspapers than Argentine or Chilean ones, even if they had to wait for weeks, or even months, to receive them.


But now for the solution to the mystery.


It was in a copy of 'The Standard' from February 1891, that, completely by chance, I found the culprits. A writer who had travelled on a naval ship called 'La Argentina' wrote a series of articles for the newspaper. In one of these articles, called 'Cruise of La Argentina, Chapter III,' he described a visit to San Julian in November 1890:


We again left Santa Cruz on 1st November and on the 4th we anchored in San Julián, the best harbour I have seen on the coast; we lay close in shore and a large party landed, and after exploring a little they returned with four bottles of good ‘Garnkirk’ which they had found in a hole, and a quantity of eggs and flowers which they had gathered; they found no trace of inhabitants, so we fired our big gun at sunset and at 9pm I set up a few rockets to notify the settlers of our presence. Next morning a horseman appeared and when brought on board proved to be a Scotch shepherd in the employ of Mr Munroe; he had heard no guns although he had been out all night watching the flocks, as the lions** are very troublesome; and he had come casually to have a look around . . . Our shepherd . . . told us all about the place, which is very little.


We still can't be certain it was Munroe's whisky, because it was not clear that it was beside the grave. But if we read on, we will know for certain:


. . . Mr Munroe sent down two horses with a Paraguayan shepherd. Our Captain wanted them for carrying instruments and an observer to take bearings at the bar, and while the horses were being prepared, we examined the hole where the whisky was and found a flat stone with the following inscription:- ‘Lieutenant R. Sholl, H.B.M.S.Beagle. Died 20 June, 1828, aged 31 years.’


So an old mystery is solved! It was, indeed, poor old Munroe's whisky, right beside the grave where he had hidden it, and a fellow Brit was complicit in its disappearance.


HBMS Beagle, Magellan Straits

But wait, there's more.


Interestingly, another historic issue is also solved by the same article. It relates to the cross on the grave.


First, we need to read an article about the grave in Medium, by Patricio Donato, which states:


The iron cross seems to date at least from before 1924, but it is not certain who put it there or when.


If the reader is kind enough to humour me, they will continue to read 'The Standard' article:


Having a shovel we began digging away to see if the body had been removed; after a time we reached the coffin and a copper plate with the same inscription as on the stone; we then filled up the grave and made an iron cross out of the ring of a cart wheel which we found. A brass plate was prepared and riveted to the cross, bearing the following inscription:-“Teniente R Sholl, oficial de la Beagle, fallecido 20 Junio 1828. A su memoria la dotación de la corbeta de Guerra Argentina. La Argentina, 8 de Noviembre 1890.”*** The stone with the inscription in English was placed at the foot of the cross and the grave covered with stones and earth and wild flowers and grasses planted all over it.


So two mysteries are solved. The whisky culprits were passengers on the ship 'La Argentina,' who also made the cross for the grave.


To be fair, the passengers didn't know that the whisky belonged to Munroe, but they could have asked. After all, they met two of the three or four Europeans living in the area in 1890, all Scottish. There were also a few scattered groups of nomadic Tehuelche, though they did not meet any.


And to add insult to injury, Munroe was very helpful to them by lending them the horses. He never knew that he was helping the very people who stole his treasured whisky.





Postscript:


A 'Yankee in Patagonia' can be found here. It was uploaded by archive.org. A word of warning if you decide to read this book - I would give it one star out of five for literary merit. Whilst it has interesting (for me) information about the Patagonia of one hundred years ago, it's incredibly tedious.

The picture of The Beagle is 'By Unknown author - Popular Science Monthly Volume 36, Public Domain'

*The nomadic Tehuelche were, in those days, by some British settlers, referred to as 'Indians.'

**'lions' were pumas.

***The Spanish inscription is translated as follows:

Lieutenant R Sholl, officer of the Beagle, died 20 June 1828. In his memory, the crew of the Argentine naval corvette 'La Argentina,' 8 November 1890.

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