In May 1826, two British Admiralty ships, the HMS Adventure and the HMS Beagle, sailed from Plymouth to examine the southern coasts of South America. On that first voyage there was no Darwin, who would join five years later on the second voyage of the Beagle (the most famous). In 1826, the Adventure was commanded by Commander Phillip Parker King, while the Beagle was commanded by Commander Pringle Stokes. The latter would commit suicide in August 1828, before the end of the voyage, and his position would later be occupied by the famous Lieutenant Robert Fitz-Roy. However, before this event, another death would occur on Patagonian land. Midshipman Robert H. Sholl of HMS Adventure was promoted to lieutenant of the HMS Beagle in September 1826, replacing Lieutenant E. Hawkes and at the request of Captain King. His career on this ship would be short, according to the HMS Beagle’s log:
Sunday, January 20th. 2.45 pm. Departed this life Lieut. Sholl.
Monday, January 21st. 8:40 am. Capt. went with the Cutter to find a convenient place to inter the body of Deceased.
11.15: The Officers, Marines and Seamen went in the Yawl to inter the body of the Deceased.
4.50 pm: Yawl returned with the Officers.
At 6 Captain returned in the Cutter.
The Beagle continued its way down the eastern coast of South America, rendezvous with the HMS Adventura near Port Famine (Puerto Hambre). There, Captain Parker King heard the news:
By the Beagle’s arrival we were informed of the death of Lieutenant Robert H. Sholl, after an illness of ten days. His remains were interred at Port San Julian, where a tablet was erected to his memory. This excellent young man’s death was sincerely regretted by all his friends, and by none more than me. He was appointed to the expedition, as a midshipman, solely on account of his high character.
Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle, Volume I — King, P. Parker (1838)
About R.H. Sholl’s death, it is not certain what happened to him, apart from the aforementioned “ten days of sickness”. Some historians say it was caused by some kind of accident resulting from the beaching of the Beagle, but the only testimony of such an event is from January 31st of the previous year, according to the ship’s log.
Since January 1828 until now, the mortal remains of Lieutenant Sholl rest in a place in San Julián Bay known as Punta Tumba (Tomb Point), or Tumba Sholl (Sholl Tomb), 3 or 4 kilometers north of the city of Puerto San Julián. The environment of the burial place is very beautiful, with the typical calm and vastness of the Patagonian geography, which preserves its wild nature almost as in the days of the voyage of HMS Adventure and HMS Beagle.
The tomb originally consisted of a pile of stones and a roughly carved tombstone. Today the tombstone can be seen in the local museum, and in its place there is an iron cross and a metal enclosure painted white. Above the tomb are a series of commemorative plates left by the crews of some ships that operated in the area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The iron cross seems to date at least from before 1924, but it is not certain who put it there or when.
Attached to the cross there is a commemorative plate that was affixed by the crew of the war corvette “La Argentina” in 1890. In an old photograph from the early 1940s, a plate appears on top of the cross that is not there today. It is possible that it is the same plate, which has been moved.
The inscription on the plate on the cross states:
Here lies Lieutenant R. Sholl, officer of the Beagle, deceased June 20, 1828. In his memory… the crew of the Argentinean war corvette “La Argentina” 8 November 1890
One of the things that draws attention to this plate is the wrong date, which replaces January by June. The cause of this error could be found in the similarity between January and the spanish word “Junio” (June).
At the ground level there are three more plates, also placed by the crews of Argentine ships and local inhabitants:
To the memory of Lieutenant Sholl. The crew of the hydrographic gunboat “Patria” 21 September 1924.
To Lieutenant R H Sholl. The Village of San Julián. 1828 — XX — I — 1928
To Lieutenant Sholl. The hydrographic vessel “San Luis” 15 February 1929
According to a report by Professor Walther Schiller of the La Plata Museum, entitled “A Lonely Grave in Patagonia” (The Geographical Journal, Vol. 71, №1 (Jan., 1928), pp. 74–76), there were other plates, one left by the crew of the Uruguay corvette in 1916 and another by the Alférez Mackinley beaconage vessel in 1919. However, none of them were in place in January 2012. They may be in the local museum, although it cannot be excluded that they have been subject to vandalism, as it happens in some other places in Patagonia (e.g., the small cemetery of Puerto Lobos).
Patagonia is full of small cemeteries and abandoned tombs, some forgotten and others lost. All of them provide evidences of dramas and stories of lives that, for different reasons, concluded in this nearly mythical land. Robert H. Sholl’s tomb is one of the few that has a well-documented and properly contextualized history, which has turned it into a historical landmark in San Julián. Others have not been so lucky and still remain as mysteries in the complex, and little known, history of Patagonia.
[You can read a Spanish version of this article on the blog Bahía Sin Fondo])