Musing about the past…

This week, I received correspondence from my “fifth cousin, twice removed.”  John van Waterschoot lives in Canberra, Australia, and through him, I have discovered much about my paternal grandfather. Grandad’s life has little to do with “Writing From Merida” but I can’t stop thinking about him this morning, and feel compelled to give you a glimpse into his colorful past…

My grandfather Joseph Nicolaas Maria Theodorus van Waterschoot van der Gracht was born in Amsterdam in 1880.  He studied at the University of Freiburg, Duitsland (Saxony), graduating in 1905 as a Geological Engineer.

He participated in several geological expeditions to remote regions, including    Borneo, and in 1910 he published a book about the year he spent in the Far East.

A few years later, he was a member of the crew on Douglas Mawson’s first Australian-led Antarctic expedition aboard the Aurora.  They departed Hobart, the Tasmanian capital on December 2, 1911.

The Aurora entered and retreated from thick pack ice and at times feared it would not make land.

“The pack grew heavier and the bergs more numerous, embattled in a formidable array,” Mawson would later write. “It was impenetrable. No water-sky showed as a distant beacon; all over was reflected the pitiless, white glare of the ice.”

Eventually, on January 8, 1912, the Aurora managed to reach land at what would be named Cape Denison and become the AAE’s main base.

Mawson’s expedition was the first to set foot on, explore and map a 3200km area of the frozen continent between Cape Adare and Gaussberg. This laid the basis for Australia’s territorial claims and scientific presence in Antarctica.

At the “Sydney University Art Gallery” there is a collection of thirty-two of my grandfather’s artworks in pencil and crayon created during the voyage They capture polar scenes and everyday life at the base camp.

Actually the “hut” that served as Mawson’s headquarters still stands “frozen in time”

One hundred years later, the same problem stumped those seeking to commemorate the historic event. Three ships departed Hobart on December 2, 2011, but were haulted by unusually dense ice floes off the coast of East Antarctica, and particularly at Mawson’s landing spot of January 1912, Commonwealth Bay.

One person aboard said, “From the bow of a ship in heavy pack ice, the sea appears a heaving, endless icescape.”  They were forced to turn back, fearing they would otherwise be trapped in pack ice

Mawson’s Huts Foundation director Greg Holland reported that the failure to reach Cape Denison was disappointing, but provided insight into the difficulties of Antarctic travel.

As far as I can make out, my grandfather and his older brother Willem Anton Joseph Maria van Waterschoot Van Der Gracht traveled to America shortly after his Antarctic experience. This time they were employed by “Royal Dutch Shell.” In 1915 at the corporate office of the oil exploration division in San Francisco, my grandfather met my grandmother Florence Ethel Ross. They married in 1916. And from this point on, the history of my family in North America began…

Photos: All of these have been sent to me by John van Waterschoot: Grandad onboard the Aurora ; the cover of his book , his pastel drawing of a penguin , the lightweight aircraft used by the Mawson expedition , my grandfather onbord the Aurora



Filed under Family and Friends

6 responses to “Musing about the past…

  1. Alice Trueman

    I only knew your paternal grandfather as a much older man who told stories of his time in Antarctica and far off places. I remember his renditions of icebergs, both in the house in West Van and the one on the wall of the your dining room in North Van. Who has it now?


  2. Cheryl Keller

    How very interesting, now we know where you get so many of your talents.


  3. What an interesting story, Joanna. The photo of your grandfather reminds me of a Vincent van Gogh self portrait I have seen, although I have to say that Joseph van der Gracht is the more striking of the two. By the way, I love the occasional segues from life in Mérida to a bit of family history.


    • Thank you… I enjoy reading family stories and its good to know you do as well. I agree that my grandfather looks a bit like van Gogh… I said so to my husband. He laughed and said he had been on the verge of saying the same thing. The fact that he was a painter strengthens that.

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