Record of the Month

The mystery of the Mary Celeste continues at West Sussex Record Office

certificate-of-discharge.pngAlthough we receive all manner of enquiries here at the Record Office, some cause us to investigate a little further, or highlight records within our collections that deserve a closer look. One such enquiry was made last week, regarding a Certificate of Discharge for a sailor from Shoreham. So far, so straightforward. However, it quickly came to light image1that the record had originally been deposited at the Marlipins Museum in Shoreham, and was part of a large collection of records transferred by the curator of the Museum to the Record Office which had not yet been catalogued. This deposit, it transpired, totalled 8 large archival boxes of deeds, plans, shipping and harbour records, personal papers, and correspondence. An hour of searching, and a few distracting Latin deeds later, I came across an envelope with the name ‘Henry Clement’ on. Inside was an A5 sized record, badly in need of a once-over from our Conservator, but bearing the stamp of the US Shipping Commisioner of the Port of New York. The certificate records the discharge of Henry Clement, a Shoreham sailor, from service on board the infamous Mary Celeste!

The tale of the mysterious abandonment of the Mary Celeste is well known and well documented the world over; however, finding a local connection to the ship once again raises more questions than it answers. The accompanying display information from theMarlipins display card museum states that the certificate discharged Henry Clement from ‘the ill-fated Marie Celeste some 2 years before her celebrated discovery at sea having lost her entire crew without trace’. The family also believed Clement to have had a lucky escape by disembarking before the fateful voyage, and the 1942 obituary of his wife confirmed that ‘Mr Clement had been a member of the vessel’s compliment, but did not ship with her when she started on this particular voyage. She was subsequently found with not a soul about her, and the event is a mystery to this day’. The narrative surrounding Henry Clement’s connection to the Mary Celeste suggests that this certificate proves the sailor’s fortunate discharge from the ship, avoiding the unknown fate of the rest of the crew.

image2Although, like every element of truth connected to the infamous ship, the story is not quite as simple as that. The record provides a wealth of information, and gives us great detail about the 19 year old seaman, stating he is of ‘good’ character and ability. In faded ink, it also lists Clement’s date of entry on the ship as 19th December 1876, and his discharge on the 10th August 1877. 5 years after the vessel was discovered abandoned and adrift between the Azores and the Portugese coast, on the 5th December 1872. After returning to New York following the salvage hearings in Gibraltar, the Mary Celeste continued to sail under new ownership, although to little success, and much suspicion. Plagued by rumours of a curse, the ship was eventually over-insured, wrecked, and once again clouded in scandal and another court case. It was during this less well-documented and unsuccessful period in the ship’s illustrious past that Henry Clement was aboard the Mary Celeste. Although we have no further information about Henry’s time on the famous ship, it must have been some experience for a sailor from Shoreham to explore the West Indian and Indian Ocean shipping routes on the Mary Celeste herself! We’re just glad he found his way home again, and that the record of his discharge survives to intrigue generations to come.

Lauren Clifton

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