Sometimes you find some really, really odd things when you’re doing historical research. Witness this tidbit that I happened to find in the Naval Register, the official journal of the British Navy, for the year 1809 (Naval Journal for 1809, London, Joyce Gold, 1809, p. 459). I produce it here absolutely verbatim.
A letter from a lawyer on the island of Nevis [a British-held island in the Caribbean] to the Dean of St. Astaph [a rectory in Wales]:
Nevis, February 27, 1809.
I beg to mention the following circumstances, and leave to your better judgment the propriety of making the same public:
About a fortnight since, the overseer on the camp estate discovered a chest floating in the wash of the sea, and, with the assistance of several negroes, he had it brought on shore. On opening it, it was found to contain a female corps [sic] wrapped in several folds of seer cloth, and a quantity of tea was spread between each fold. The box or coffin was also filled up with tea, to the quantity it was supposed, of two hundred weight. The body was in a tolerable state of preservation, and had the appearance of having been that of a person about 30 years of age, rather corpulent, with a remarkable handsome hand, and good set of teeth, and long dark hair; the mouth had been filled with tea, and some moisture having occasioned the tea to swell, left the teeth exposed; on touching them, one fell in. The box was better than six feet long, and made remarkably strong, having sixteen iron clamps; the whole of it covered with cloth, which had Burgundy pitch rubbed over it, and was perfectly water tight. It must have been in the sea a very long time, as it had a number of barnacles upon it. The wood was supposed to be what is called in the East Indies Teak-wood. Around the middle of the box was a tarred rope, which had the appearance of having suspended it, or been a lashing to it.
Should the publishing this account be the cause of making it known to the relatives of the deceased, it may prove grateful to their feelings, to know that the body was decently interred in this island, and every attention paid to it.
I remain, dear Sir, yours very truly,
John Colhoun Mills.
This is just bizarre. Burials at sea were common enough in the early 19th century, but this sounds like some sort of ritual burial. The coffin sounds as if it was magnificent to behold. Someone obviously put a lot of effort into constructing it. Who was the dead woman inside? If she was “corpulent” (fat), she must have lived relatively well. Also, if she was buried in 200 pounds of tea, that wasn’t cheap. This may have been a woman of considerable means. How her life ended and she came to be bobbing in a box in the Caribbean is anyone’s guess.
But why bury her in tea? That makes no sense at all. Maybe it was some effort at preservation. Again, why? Some kind of bizarre religious ritual?
This is one for the “WTF?” category. If anyone has any clue what might have been going on here, put it in the comments below.