- In search of "The Lost Graves" on Danes Island -

As earlier mentioned in the section on "The China Trade" , I have a cleverly made copy of an old painting showing the anchorage at Huangpu (Whampoa) Reach, as it appeared about 1850.
The view is from Danes Island, in the Pearl River.

Huangpu (Whampoa) Island with its pagoda can be seen in the background, and all the European ships are seen at the anchorage between Huangpu Island and Danes Island, - an area referred to as English Reach.
In the background, - to the right of the pagoda -, is White Cloud mountain.
The waterway to the left of Whampoa Island is Fiddlers Reach, and to the right of the island you see Junk River and a part of Junk Island.
In the lower part of the left side of the painting is the inlet to French Reach, -  just visible -, and also showing a small part of French Island - - -
Behind it all is the Whampoa Channel leading up to Canton and Shamian Island - - -
The original painting is now kept in the Hong Kong Museum of Art.
And that painting really got me going - - - - -

"The Huangpu Anchorage"
- - about 1850 - -

Danes Island
My cleverly made copy of a well known painting from the Hong Kong Museum of Art.
(From the private collection of the web master)

"Danes Island" - - -  ?????
Why was it called so????
Did Denmark posses a colony in China?????
And what did all the ships do there????
There did not seem to be any town at all!
What was the story behind that painting????
Where exactly is "Danes Island"????
What does it look like today???

A detail on the picture clearly shows a hill near the bank of the Pearl River, where a cross and stones can be seen!
A cemetery,- and obviously a Western one -, because the Chinese do not use the cross as tomb decoration!
Who were buried there, and is it still possible to find the remains to-day????

The questions were many, and I had no answers - - - -

Danes Island
Detail showing Cemetery Hill on Danes Island,- and Huangpu with pagoda -
(From the private collection of the web master)

I really got a very strong urge to find the answers, and to visit the very same spot the Chinese artist had used as viewpoint, when he painted the picture for more than 150 years ago - - -
And ,- if possible -, I would try to find the remains of the European sailor's graves which are shown on the painting.
To mention my own ancestors,- the Danes have been sailing to the Far east since 1673, and it is believed, that about 2000 Danish sailors died during the China trade, and are buried there,- somewhere - - - -
I wanted to find the remains of those European sailors who did not make it back again - - -

But I had several problems - - - -
First of all,- which one of the numerous islands in the Pearl River delta is Danes Island?????

The modern charts covering the Pearl River delta showed no island known under that name, and likewise the modern pilot books that any oceangoing ship carries, also did not mention any such island!
But I had good luck - - - -
Because now and then, the pilot books are replaced with new editions, and the old books are usually just thrown overboard or incinerated!
Except when I am around, because I collect them - - - -
The old editions of those books are true treasure houses of information, - and also works of art-, with a lot of drawings made by the early navigators, who first explored those waters, and paved the way for those who followed!
The new pilot books have no artistic and beautiful drawings, but only photographs - - - -

But in my old China Sea Pilot,- Volume 1, Fourth Edition, from 1978-, I finally struck gold  - -
In the description on the channels leading up to Guangzhou, the island Chang Zhou is mentioned, and in a parenthesis after the name is writen:    "Danes Island"!!!!
Without any doubt,- Chang Zhou was my island,- - - - Danes Island!!!!

Old map clearly showing "Danes Island" to the right - -

Modern map showing the same area,- with marked positions of Danes
Island,- where the Western ships were anchored, and the sailors were
buried -, and also Shamian Island, where the actual trade took place.

But the description in the pilot book also gave some very disturbing information: "Military and naval establishments are situated on Chang Zhou." !!!!!

Military area?
Maybe the island was closed area to adventurous travelers like me????

There was only one way to find out!
Go and see for myself, and see what I could do about it!

After a couple of years dreaming and planning, the day finally came when the search for "The Lost Graves" began.
It was Saturday 19th. of January, 2002 - - -

The "Pearl River" as seen through a water stained ferry window.
- between Hong Kong to Guangzhou, - in mist, - and with heavy traffic -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

I realized, that on a small island far away from the tourist trail, I would need an interpreter since a lot of discussions with authorities might be required.

The obvious choice was Kit Yu, who later became my wife.
She lived conveniently in Guangzhou,- near Chang Zhou island-, and had both the spirit and the drive to explore unusual areas and things!

Immediately she was in on my Danes Island project, but due to some circumstances beyond our control, she had to be present in Hong Kong at the same time when I was proceeding in the opposite direction,- up the Pearl River on the ferry boat to Whampoa!

I had to find a stand-in for Kit Yu, and got contact to Xiao Ling.
This was a completely new experience to her, because this was actually the first time in her life, that she had faced a Westerner,- a "gwei-lo" -, and even talked to him!!!
When I explained my plans to her, she stared into my face with that typical Asian look that clearly expressed her thoughts:  "Yes,- the old folks are absolutely right about the "Foreign Devils"!!! They really are crazy!!!"

Crazy or not,- she was very interested in helping me -, and the next couple of days, she proved to do extremely well - - - -
I am quite sure, that without her I could not have done it on my own,- or at least it would have taken me days to do what we now made in just one - - -

To show people what we looked for, I had visited a net cafe in Guangzhou, and downloaded a copy of the old painting showing the Western cemetery on  Danes Island, and with that in my hand, we were on our way, in search of the forgotten graves - - - -

With Xiao Ling as a competent guide, it was no problem to find transportation to the ferry station, and for a ridiculous low fare, we were soon navigating the Pearl River on the way to Danes Island, which was only a few minutes ferry ride away from Whampoa - -

View from the local ferry to Danes Island
- Pearl River , - and the endless Whampoa docks in the background -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

But nothing looked like on the old painting - - - - absolutely NOTHING - - - -
For a short, terrible moment I wondered if it was the right island we approached????
Could just a little more than 150 years really change things so dramatically?????
Whampoa Island (Huangpu) was now fully developed with buildings absolutely everywhere!
Nothing green could be seen, and everything was shrouded in gray smog from China's millions of smoking chimneys - - - -
And Danes Island was indeed military area - - - -
A couple of destroyers, and some smaller warships were moored at the island, and another destroyer was under repair in a navy dry dock - - - -

Would I as a foreigner be allowed on this island????
Loaded with cameras and maps????
Would I be arrested for spying again, like I have been a couple of times before in the seventies during the Cultural Revolution????

No,- nothing happened, and freely I could finally walk ashore on Danes Island - - - -
As a "Gwei-lo" I did of course create some attention, but the small town at the ferry station was like any other small Chinese town, and no police or military people could be seen - - -

Danes Island
- view of the village and canal near the ferry station -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

We needed transportation, and some advice of where to start the search, but since the island did not have normal taxis, we had to use motorbikes.
Just at the ferry station a whole gang of those motorbike taxis were waiting for customers, and Xiao Lings skill as negotiator came to the first test - - - -
She explained what we wanted, and showed the old picture to the cabbies, and after a lot of discussions, she chose two "bike cabbies" that appeared to know the island well - - -

In China those motorbike taxis are very common,- and cheap -, and it is law, that both the driver and the passenger MUST wear a crash helmet.
Apparently that law had not yet found its way to this small island, and without helmets we were soon on out way, and no police officer would not even think about nailing us for NOT using the compulsory protection- - -

Danes Island
 - on our way through the back streets, -  Xiao Ling in front -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

However, - my guides were not quite sure of the location I looked for, and locals had to help with suggestions.

Danes Island
- asking direction -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

The first burial place we came to was NOT the one I looked for - - - -
It was  a steep hill overgrown with trees,- and a tall monument at the top  (See picture), but it soon became obvious to me, that it was more likely a mass grave for victims of one of Chinas many internal struggles, and not a grave site for the first western sailors.
Also it was of a much younger date than the cemetery I looked for.

Danes Island
My team at "new" monument,- Xiao Ling and our guides -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

Danes Island
- village below the hill with the monument -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

Danes Island
- here a view towards Whampoa Island -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

However,- since it was a  hill, it did offer a possibility for having a limited view over the surroundings, and with great excitement I noticed, that Whampoa Island was visible, - and not only that:  The famous Whampoa pagoda could be seen through the mist!
The very same pagoda as on my old painting - - - -
It was STILL there, after more than 150 years - - - -
Now I knew that I was on the right track, - at least I was on the right side of the island - - - -

Only one important thing was missing, - the White Cloud mountain -, which was impossible to see due to the poor visibility.
If I could only see White Cloud mountain, it would be a great help to find the place I was looking for, when comparing the position of the pagoda in relation to the position of mountain.

Danes Island
- view from the top towards Whampoa Island -
The old pagoda can be clearly seen in the mist!
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

But the search had to continue - - - -
The next cemetery we visited was right at the river bank,- as it was supposed to be -, but it was NOT on a hill.
Furthermore,- this cemetery was for Chinese people, and of much newer date than the grave site I was looking for.

As usual a lot of people gathered around us, and Xiao Ling tried to make them understand, that I looked for "Gwei-Lo" graves, - at least 150 years old -, or older - - - -
But nobody seemed to know anything about such a place - - - -

Danes Island
 - Xiao Ling trying to explain to the locals what we were looking for -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

At that point I almost gave up - - - - -
Maybe those old sailor's graves did not exist anymore????
Maybe the Red Guards had been there already,- and destroyed everything????
Maybe the old "Cemetery Hill" had disappeared as well???
In the name of progress, it could easily have been leveled, and the site used for a shipyard or similar????

But I decided to give it one more try - - - -
We were now at the bank of the Pearl River and just across was Whampoa Island, just like on my old painting - - - -
I HAD to be very near, and at this point it would be stupid to give up - - - -

And obviously Xiao Ling had got a hint of something promising.
We were just outside the gate of a shipyard, and in the guard house outside the yard, there was a watchman in a small office with a telephone.
Xiao Ling talked to him, and soon he started to make some telephone calls.
Later Xiao Ling talked in the telephone as well, - and some of the calls took VERY long time.
What was said,- and with whom she talked to -, I do not know, but finally she came up with a new clue to the mystery about the forgotten graves on Dane's Island.

Danes Island
- Xiao Ling on the phone,-  pulling strings in the guard house -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

Soon we were on our way again, - this time accompanied by an official from the ship yard.
Next stage of the search had begun - - - -

We stopped at another guarded gate, and again a lot of talking took place and the telephone was glowing!
However, things went very smooth this time - - - -
The man from the ship yard obviously had some important position, and after  Xiao Ling had signed a paper in Chinese, we all continued through the gate, now followed by one more person - - - -

The area inside looked like a deserted industrial site,- pretty run down and overgrown with grass and vegetation -, and with rusty bits and pieces of steel scattered in the grass - - - -
There was forest with huge trees around the area - - -
Nobody seemed to work there - - - - it was empty - - - -

We stopped at the end of a dirt trail - - - -
A small, steep mountain rose in front of us - - - -
It was heavily covered by big trees with very dense vegetation below - - - -
One of the "yard men" pointed to the hill - - - - - - -
"Up there is supposed to be something - - -",  he said.

Danes Island
- up the hill through dense vegetation - apparently nothing special to see -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

I rushed up the hill like a bulldozer,- fighting my way through the dense vegetation -, making a trail for the rest of our company - - - -
At this point I was VERY exited, because this time the place looked right!
It was a hill, and it must have been very near the Pearl River bank,- and it was opposite Whampoa Island - - - -
Everything matched perfect - - - -
But as I worked my way up the hill I became disappointed again - - - -
Apparently there was NOTHING here, but I realized, that things could easily be completely hidden in the very dense, jungle like vegetation,-  just a step away from me - - - -
Only I could not see anything,- not yet!

But when I came near the top, the dense undergrowth partly disappeared, and made it possible to see much more ahead of me - - - -

And BINGO - - - -
Suddenly I saw a corner of a stone protruding from the ground - - -
And it was clearly man-made - - - -
It was winter, and a lot of the trees had lost their leaves, which now covered everything, but when sweeping the leaves and earth away from the stone I saw that it also had traces of writing on it - - -
And further through the vegetation I saw more,- and more, - and more stones - - - -

Danes Island
BINGO!!  - Old tomb stones scattered in the forest
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

The whole mountain top contained tombs, and by digging them out and cleaning them for earth and leaves it was possible to read fragments of the inscriptions on several of them - - - -

Danes Island
- everywhere, - more and more stones appearing -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

Danes Island
 - Tomb "fever" - - - Not only me, - but all are very exited -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

The whole mountain top contained tombs, and cleaned for earth and leaves it was possible to read fragments of the inscriptions on several of them - - - -

I could identify dates, - around the first half of the 18 hundreds.
Everything fitted in - - - -
But the names I could identify were all Indian names, which I found strange, but I concluded that most likely they had served in the British army, and therefore buried the same place as the Europeans - - -

But although I searched a big area, and cleaned lots of stones, I did NOT find any European names on the tomb stones. However, - I found the word "Parsee" mentioned many times, and on a lot of the stones there was not only English writing, but also Indian - - - -

Danes Island
- Parsee tomb stone -
On this stone is clearly marked the year "1851" , - the word "parsee" and "Bombay", - and it has Indian writing.
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

Again I had to accept that also this cemetery was NOT the one I looked for - - - -
I looked for European sailors and traders - - -
But very strange indeed, to find an Indian Parsee graveyard on a remote island in China's Pearl River delta!

Later I found out that the Parsee grave site indeed is from the heyday of the China trade.
The Parsees came in from Bombay and traded with China from Shamian Island, - just like the Europeans - - - -
However,- the Parsee way of burying their dead is normally NOT like what you find on Dane's Island.
Actually they do NOT bury their dead at all - - - -
The bodies are just left in free air in special Parsee cemeteries, - "Towers of Silence" -, and then it is left to Mother Nature and the vultures to take care of the rest - - - -

That brought my thoughts about 25 years back in time, when I happened to be in Bombay, where I one fine day set out with the purpose to find and photograph the "Towers of Silence" inside the Parsee cemetery on Malabar Hill - - -.
These "Towers of Silence" are huge open, round structures that most of all look like forts, but without guns pointing out from the top of the fortress wall.
Inside these "Towers of Silence" is where the Parsees dumped their dead,  - without burial - - -
However,- my mission failed miserably!
When I could not charm my way in through the main gate, I looked for another access, - but no chance!
Foreigners are obviously not welcome to enter and explore the "Towers of Silence" - - -
Therefore I never saw the "Towers of Silence", but they were there all right, which was clearly indicated by the large number of vultures circling the area.
But with the wonders of the "Google World" satellite map of our wonderful planet, you can actually have a perfect aerial view of the "Towers of Silence".
Just zoom in at Malabar Hill in Bombay, - present days Mumbay -, and you see them very well in the jungle covered area of the hill.

But back to Danes Island in China's Pearl River delta - - -
Here the Parsees obviously did not use "Towers of Silence", but quite ordinary cemeteries.
The reason for this is, that the Chinese authorities did not allow the Parsees to practice their special burial rites on Chinese territory.
The bodies HAD to be properly buried, and that explains the Parsee cemetery on Danes Island.

But I looked for the European grave site I had learned about from my old painting, and this was NOT it, although it was indeed a very interesting discovery and a nice extra bonus to get for all my troubles!

We continued our search and asked several people for help, and we got various suggestions  - - - -
Soon we ended up in another cemetery, which was clearly an old one, but it was a traditional Chinese grave site, far from the Pearl River,- and with no European tombs -, but I got the chance to say "Hello" to the caretaker - - - -

Danes Island
- the caretaker -
(Photography by Karsten Petersen)

Click  HERE  to continue the search for "The Lost Graves" - -

Click  HERE  to go back to the "China Menu" - - -

Click  HERE  to go back to "The China Trade",-3.

Updated:  Dec.18.2002
               August 01.2006
               July 06.2008
               July 07.2008
               July 14.2008