Feb. 14, 2006
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the second in a series of six feature articles prepared for Heritage Week, Feb. 13 - 20, 2006. Entitled Spotlight on Natural Heritage, the series is a reflection of the people, landscape and museum collections of New Brunswick's past. For more information on Heritage Week activities throughout the province, visit the website at http://www.gnb.ca/0007/HW-SP/2006/index-e.asp.
Samuel Hawkins Napier was a member of New Brunswick's legislative assembly, but it was his international adventures with his brother, Charles, that stirred the imaginations of generations. As a teenager he worked his way to the gold fields of Australia aboard the famous New Brunswick clipper ship, Marco Polo. There, he and his brother discovered the largest gold nugget in the world, and soon became the toast of London society. They were granted an audience with Queen Victoria.
Napier was born in Scotland in 1837. At an early age he immigrated with his family to Bonaventure, Quebec, across from Dalhousie on the Bay of Chaleur. Shortly afterward he and his family moved to Bathurst, which was then emerging as a bustling lumbering and commercial center. Samuel and his brothers grew up there, spending their summers working in the sawmills, and winters studying at Bathurst Public School.
The Napier boys, like many others of their generation, were captivated by gold fever. Gold had been discovered in California in 1848, and in 1851 two major fields were found in New South Wales and Victoria, in Australia.
New Brunswickers were particularly caught up in the excitement, because New Brunswick shipyards were working hard to provide the ships needed to carry supplies to the new mining locations. Charles Napier, Samuel's older brother, left Bathurst in the early 1850s with many other New Brunswickers to seek his fortune in Australia. Before long, Charles was writing home of his adventures on the other side of the world, and of the opportunities for sudden wealth.
In 1857, Samuel decided to join his brother in Australia. Still only in his late teens and without money, he found a job aboard a ship carrying New Brunswick lumber to Liverpool, England. In Liverpool the Marco Polo - the pride of New Brunswick, and the fastest sailing ship in the world - was also in port and preparing to leave for Australia. Samuel took a job as purser, and, in what was almost a record passage soon arrived in Melbourne. There he joined his brother, and together they began their quest for gold.
The Napier brothers purchased a 36-foot claim in the goldfield of Kingower, Victoria. On Aug. 14, 1857, 20-year-old Samuel, having dug 13 feet below ground level, felt his pick strike what he and his brother first thought was a rock. To their delight and surprise they pulled out what they were later to learn was the largest gold nugget on record in the world at that time. Determined to keep their discovery a secret, they borrowed a wheelbarrow and moved the giant nugget to their tent. Inside, they buried it beneath a table, and then, telling nobody, discreetly arranged for passage to England.
In London, it was confirmed that the nugget weighed 54.21 kilograms (1,743 troy ounces). It was .7 metres (two feet, four inches) long; 25.4 centimetres (10 inches) wide; ranged between .46 metres (one foot, six inches) to 1.14 metres (3 feet, 9 inches) thick; and was 95 per cent pure gold.
News of the discovery spread quickly throughout London. Almost overnight the Napier brothers became famous, and found themselves being wined and dined by London's glittering high society. It is said that when Queen Victoria heard of the Napier nugget she arranged for it to be conveyed to Buckingham Palace under armed guard, and invited the brothers to dine with her.
The Napiers named their nugget the Blanche Barkly in honour of the daughter of Governor Barkly of Victoria. It was placed on exhibit in London's Chrystal Palace, and then sold to the Bank of England for $60,000 (today it would have a value of more than $1.5 million). Before the bank melted it down, a replica was made which is still on display in the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road, London. The proceeds from the sale were divided equally between the brothers, and Charles returned to Australia, where he lived out the remainder of his life.
Samuel returned to Bathurst and was welcomed home as a world hero. He built an impressive home on Main Street, and in 1870 was persuaded to seek a seat in the provincial legislature. He was still only 33 years old.
Samuel's good fortune did not last. After a brief career in politics he lost his money in a number of failed business ventures and spending sprees. When he was 59 he moved to Ottawa, where he worked as a timber cruiser with a logging company on the Gatineau River. In June of 1902 his body, guarded by his dog, was found in a small cabin in the Gatineau wilderness.
Although Samuel's good fortune did not last all his life, by age 33 he had travelled the world, sailed on the Marco Polo, gained a fortune, dined with London high society, and was received by the Queen of England. It is said that in later life he enjoyed telling stories of his youthful adventures, and indeed, he had many exciting stories to tell.
For more information on life in New Brunswick during the time period of Samuel Hawkins Napier, visit the Virtual Museum of Canada site "New Brunswick: Our Stories, Our People" at http://www.gnb.ca/0007/heritage/vmc/.
MEDIA CONTACTS: Ryan Donaghy, communications, Culture and Sport Secretariat, 506-457-6445; Cynthia Wallace-Casey, Heritage Branch, Culture and Sport Secretariat, 506453-2915, firstname.lastname@example.org.