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Sailor’s Ditty Box Returns to Antarctica – 200 Years Later

Museum trustee Alex Bulazel holds up the ditty box that traveled with Palmer to Antarctica at Seception island on January 27, 2020. Credit: Amanda Bulazel

Museum trustee Alex Bulazel holds up the ditty box that traveled with Palmer to Antarctica at Deception Island on January 27, 2020. (Photo Credit: Amanda Bulazel)

DECEPTION ISLAND — When Nathaniel’s Palmer’s sloop Hero anchored at Deception Island on that fateful day in 1820 when it is thought that Palmer first saw the continent of Antarctica, a small sailor’s ditty box was along for the ride. Two hundred years later, that same box – now in the Museum’s collection – made the trip back to the very same harbor.

The trip was the idea of Museum trustee Alex Bulazel, who has traveled to Antarctica and the Arctic many times. It was Bulazel who called attention to the 200th anniversary of Palmer’s sighting of the continent.

Ditty box from HERO's 1820 voyage.

The ditty box from Palmer’s 1820 voyage.

Bulazel, Museum president Steve White, and 12 other people with ties to Mystic Seaport Museum were part of a group of 186 passengers on the ship Le Lyrial on a cruise to Antarctica in January to visit sites connected to the Palmer bicentennial. The expedition was organized by the luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent. Glenn Gordinier, co-director of the Museum’s Munson Institute, was on board to give talks on the history of the Palmer story and Antarctica.

Palmer and a crew of four were on a sealing expedition on the 47-foot Hero. While anchored in Whalers Bay on Deception Island, Palmer went ashore and climbed a hill where he saw the continent of Antarctica for the first time on November 17, 1820. Two other expeditions led by the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen and Englishman Edward Bransfield also sighted the continent earlier in the year.

The 7″ x 3″ wooden ditty box was donated to the Museum in 1950. It is ornately carved and has an inscription, “L.B. Stonington Slp. Hero.” The L.B. probably stands for Stanton L. Burdick, who was 16 at the time. Ditty boxes were carried by sailors, who would keep special items and personal remembrances in them during their time at sea.

The box will be included in the Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Discovering Antarctica, set to open November 14, 2020. The show will mark the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica with the first-ever exhibition to explore the full history of human contact and humankind’s engagement with the Earth’s most extreme environment.