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Diving into Our History

The Jeremiah Denis Murphy exhibit.

Story & Photos By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum

The exhibits in the Guinep House were created in 1990 and have remained largely unchanged for more than 20 years. We have uncovered a lot more history since then, with more fascinating artifacts to show and more incredible stories to tell. What we created in 1990 is no longer adequate for the National Museum of the Turks & Caicos Islands.  So, along with major renovations of the physical layout of the Guinep House we are reorganizing and augmenting the exhibits and the stories they tell.

Jeremiah Murphy is the subject of TCNM’s new exhibit.

The main subject on the ground floor remains the Molasses Reef Wreck, the oldest shipwreck found in the Americas. Unlike some museums, our home, the Guinep House, is itself an exhibit. It is one of the oldest buildings in the Turks Islands and steeped in history. On the ground floor visitors will be able to tour the recently renovated old Bermuda kitchen, and on the second floor we plan to open a new exhibit recreating a 19th century office showcasing the many artifacts associated with administration of the Islands donated by the Hutchings family.

The principal exhibit renovations will be made on the second floor, where the life and times of Jeremiah Denis Murphy will be used to highlight the “Golden Age” of the Turks Islands during the last half of the 19th century. Capt. Bob Gascoine, Dr. David Challis, and Dr. Randel Davis have been researching Murphy for more than 10 years. Murphy’s story is so amazing it is surprising he hasn’t been discovered by Hollywood! Several of Murphy’s direct descendants now living in the US, Bermuda and Great Britain have generously contributed information, documents, and even artifacts for the planned exhibit.

Since the 1960s, Grand Turk and Salt Cay have been known for some of the best scuba diving in the world. But few people realize diving here started more than 150 years earlier in about 1854 when a Boston-based undersea treasure-hunting company used Grand Turk as their headquarters while exploring the Silver Shoals for shipwrecks to salvage. Jeremiah, a young Irish helmet diver, was among them. He must have had a great deal of self-confidence, even at the tender age of 20, because when the rest of the group packed up and moved back to Boston, he and a colleague talked the company into lending them the necessary diving equipment so that they could stay behind and continue to locate and salvage shipwrecks.

Antique diving helmet

Bear in mind that helmet, or “hard hat” diving, was at this time a newly emerging technology, barely 20 years old. The equipment was still evolving and looks primitive to modern eyes. Jeremiah’s mentor, James Whipple, was an innovator who is thought to have designed a diving bell as well as “armoured diving dress” (some sort of suit). Helmet divers were the astronauts of their day, pushing the boundaries of the possible, risking life and limb, going where no one had gone before. However quaint-looking the equipment was, its principles remained largely unchanged for almost a century until SCUBA became popular in the 1960s.

Murphy’s diving career and adventures spanned almost the entire second half of the 1800s, and took him not just to nearby reefs and islands like Silver Shoals and the Bahamas, but also to Jamaica where he was the first person to dive on the sunken city of Port Royal, to Bermuda where he worked as a “submarine engineer,” and to St. Thomas where he and his brothers spent four years clearing the harbor of ships wrecked during the disastrous hurricane of 1867. It was there at nearby Salt Island that he raised gold bullion worth $60,000 from the wreck of the Royal Mail Steam Ship Rhone. But such success came at a steep price. Tragically, one—possibly both—of Jeremiah’s brothers died in diving accidents while working in St. Thomas.

Jeremiah’s travels aside, this was his home. Although born in Ireland, Murphy became a true son of Grand Turk, living here until his death in 1895, during which time he was a deep sea diver, salt merchant, guano miner, US Vice Consul, Justice of the Peace, Freemason, and ex officio member of the Legislative Board. He married into the Manuel family with ties to Bermuda. He was buried with his wife, brother, two sons and a daughter in St. Thomas’s churchyard. His memorial reads, “In loving memory of Jeremiah Denis Murphy. Born at Courtmasherry, Co. Cork, Ireland March 21 1832. Died at Grand Turk Turks Islands, Sept 21, 1895.”

What we know about the life and times of Jeremiah Murphy opens a window onto the “Golden Age” of the Turks Islands in the second half of the 1800s. Government was stable, the salt business profitable. Enterprising entrepreneurs were trying their hand at new industries such as sisal production, sponge harvesting, and guano mining in the Caicos Islands. Beautiful homes for prosperous families were going up on Duke, Front, and Middle Streets. Some of the large commercial buildings lining the waterfront that are in shambles today were new, imposing edifices then. Jeremiah Murphy provides a larger-than-life personality to link all these stories together. The exhibits in the main gallery upstairs will highlight this time period, with exhibits on the lighthouse and Jeremiah Murphy occupying the center of the gallery.

The visual heart of the Murphy exhibit will be a mannequin diver in full dress with the “air pump” on which his life depended. Surrounding exhibits will tell the stories of Murphy’s diving exploits on the sunken city of Port Royal, Jamaica, clearing the harbor of St. Thomas after the hurricane of 1867, salvaging the RMSS Rhone, and exploring Silver Shoals for treasure ships.

Antique diving air pump

There is no record of exactly what type of equipment Murphy used. Fortunately, helmet diving changed little between 1850 and 1950. The Museum already has in its collections items of antique diving equipment to use for this exhibit including a helmet, lead boots, air pump, and a suit. None of these artifacts can be traced back to Murphy, but it is the story that is most important, and after years of research we have a pretty good one! We will open our exhibit with the equipment we already have, supplemented by a relatively small investment in new acquisitions. Over time, we will seek to replace items with more appropriate, earlier ones as they become available.

We also have mementos of Murphy’s exploits. Thanks to the generosity of Jeremiah’s direct descendants we have a teacup and saucer Murphy salvaged from the RMSS Rhone, a copy of a sheepskin scroll and a cast of a commemorative medallion presented to Murphy by the thankful citizens of St. Thomas, photocopies of letters written by Murphy to his sponsor in Boston, and photocopies of pages from Murphy’s salvage log.

We also intend to modernize the presentations. Instead of cabinets filled with curios and placards of text, we want to create exhibits that are engaging and interactive. For example, we want to present a facsimile of Murphy’s actual salvage log, but his handwriting is a little hard to make out. We can make this exhibit more interesting with a “talking” log book reciting the entries in an Irish accent as the pages are turned. Similarly, the suited mannequin of Murphy could start recounting his explorations of the sunken city of Port Royal as visitors approach—all in a proper Irish brogue, of course! Exhibits like these cost more to produce, but they are the kind of thing modern museum-goers expect.

Murphy is not the only diving personality associated with the Turks & Caicos Islands. With some of the best SCUBA diving in the world, Grand Turk has been a magnet for divers since the 1960s. This exhibit should recognize the contributions made by local dive operators to the reputation and economy of Grand Turk as well as the feats of two phenomenal free divers who lived or set records in the TCI: Jacques Mayol and Tanya Streeter. Mayol, the first free diver to descend to 100 meters (330 feet), resided at Belle Sound on South Caicos for many years (Times of the Islands, Summer 2001, pp. 31–38). The film Big Blue (1988) was inspired by his life story and philosophy. His 1983 book Homo Delphinus relates his spiritual connection with the sea and its inhabitants, particularly marine mammals.

While not a resident of the Turks & Caicos, free-diver Tanya Streeter deserves coverage for a feat so incredible it defies the rules of diving physics. Sponsored by Club Med Turkoise, Big Blue, and Red Bull, Tanya chose the deep water off Providenciales to set the Women’s No Limits Free Dive record of 160 meters (525 feet) on August 17, 2002, (Times of the Islands, Winter 2002/03, pp. 73–81). This singular accomplishment puts her firmly in the Divers’ Hall of Fame along with Mayol and Murphy.

These new exhibits are quite an ambitious undertaking. It starts with the publication of this article, which we hope will focus attention on the terrific opportunity we have to create a unique exhibit that will secure Grand Turk’s reputation as one of the world’s oldest and best diving locations. The TCNM is actively seeking financial support for the purchase of certain items of antique diving equipment, production of graphic material, and creation of modern interactive exhibits. We can’t do this alone. Jeremiah, Tanya and Jacques need your help to make this exhibit a reality.

Readers wishing to support this exhibit can contact Museum Director Pat Saxton at (649) 946-2160 or from US (505) 216-1795 or email pat.saxton@tcmuseum.org. In the US, Museum Foundation President Dr. Donald H. Keith can be reached at (361) 779-3861 or (505) 466-2240 or email dhkeith@shipsofdiscovery.org.



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