Marco Polo and Multiple Launches

On July 27th, in honour of Alumni Weekend (for Prince of Wales College, St. Dunstan’s University, and the University of Prince Edward Island), the LMMI commissioned a Virtual Reality experience adapting as a script the sixteen-year-old L.M. Montgomery’s prize-winning essay “The Wreck of the Marco Polo.”  Alan Edwards, of the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, created the amazing five-minute experience, and I had the privilege of introducing the funding angel, the NBCCD Director, Alan Edwards himself, and the ship, the Marco Polo.

Five hundred and thirty-one people put on the goggles and marvelled!

Here is what I said.

It is my privilege to point out some people directly responsible for this Marco Polo Virtual Reality experience and to explain something of how this project came about and why it is important for celebrating L.M. Montgomery and Canada.

Marylou Hughes is our funding angel for this project and for many to come.  (Marylou, would you mind putting up your hand for one embarrassing moment?)  In 1981 Marylou became the first mature student accepted into the Faculty of Science at UPEI.  She earned a first-class BSc. in 1985, worked at Diagnostic Chemicals for a year, and then earned a Masters in Science from Dalhousie on a full-tuition scholarship. Eventually she started her own successful business, Island Audiology.  She is passionate about music and reading and cycling and community service – to UPEI and numerous professional boards. For six years she negotiated with PEI Health Services so that the Island government would cover the cost of hearing tests for all its citizens – and since 2013 this has been so.  Marylou’s six-figure donation to the LMMI will help us to realize many educational and celebratory projects.  Thank you, Marylou.

Myrtle Jenkins-Smith had hinted to Philip Smith and to me that President Alaa was very interested in seeing Montgomery highlighted in some special way in this 150th anniversary year.  Fortunately, I was already in deep discussions with Marc Braithwaite about the wonderful work going on at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design in Fredericton.  Marc was an administrator at UPEI for twelve  years and is now the Director of NBCCD. Marc?  Marc was describing to me some of the work of his Digital Media Studio Head, Alan Edwards.  Alan? Alan, it turned out, not only knows and appreciates Montgomery’s work but grew up spending every summer vacation on PEI and has been actively engaged with creative works concerning the Marco Polo for more than 15 years. His research for the New Brunswick Opera Company’s 2002 production of the Marco Polo, to quote his own words to me “took me to museums around the maritimes, Pictou to see and photograph the Hector being built, to Tall Ship events to learn how these amazing ships work, and finally to Cavendish to photograph the site where she [the Marco Polo] now lies.  One of my favourite images” he said, “was a time lapse of the sun setting over the very spot where she rests, and another of the ocean cliffs in a gale, that I used to composite my 3D model in to look like an old photo taken of the wreck.”  Alan worked with Jim Stewart, the composer of the Marco Polo Suite, and that is why this Virtual Reality experience has permission to use Stewart’s popular music.   The LMMI has been fortunate to have Alan Edwards making a portion of Montgomery’s life and career come alive in a new way for us.

Which brings me to the ship itself and how its story helps us appreciate multiple things Canadian.

The Marco Polo was designed and launched by shipbuilder James Smith in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1851.  His was a daring design for what would shortly become a cargo and passenger bearing ship, combining the speed of a clipper with the carrying power of a barque.  People today liken this design to putting together a 747 airplane with a Concorde.  Twisted slightly in a nearly disastrous launching, the Marco Polo recovered and went on to cross the Atlantic in little more than 15 days, making it the Fastest Ship in the World.  For years, as a star of the Black Ball line, she carried passengers to and from England and the new gold fields in Australia and was outfitted for luxury, including a copper skin on her hull.  Later, though sailors still saluted her whenever she entered any port in the world, she was held together by chains and survived with water pumps, and was sold, eventually becoming the property of a Norwegian company.  The Marco Polo’s last voyage in 1883 began in Montreal with a huge load of pine planks.  The ship encountered horrible weather – gales and mountain-high waves that nearly swamped her.  On July 25, 1883, the storm was at its peak.

Almost exactly one hundred and thirty-four years ago today, the people of Cavendish saw a 184 foot-long ship, with its tall masts of sails stretched to bursting, hurtling landwards.

Among those who experienced the wreck and the terrifying aftermath was eight-year old Lucy Maud Montgomery. 

The captain of the Marco Polo boarded with Montgomery’s grandparents, the Macneills of Cavendish, and he and his crew stayed in the district for the rest of the summer while they waited for the insurance money to come through.  Imagine the impact on this already ambitious scribbler and story teller in hearing the captain of the ship and her own gifted story-telling grandfather swap yarns in the Macneill kitchen, which was also the community post office.  Listening to their vivid tales, the young Maud Montgomery absorbed daily lessons in drama and story craft.  Imagine how the budding author delighted in the antics of the crew and then in the final sale by auction, in the Macneill orchard, of the surviving cargo and remaining treasures of the famous ship.  Imagine the round parlour table – a table the Macneills still own today – loaded with gold coins to pay the crew – and the little girl, wide-eyed from staring at such exotic wealth.  The everyday world is full of drama, the author observed and remembered.

Urged by her Cavendish school teacher, Montgomery wrote the essay “The Wreck of the Marco Polo” as an entry in a contest sponsored by the weekly journal the Montreal Witness.   A year later, when she was 16, the essay was published, becoming her second official publication.  The essay appeared in print while she was spending the year in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, with her father, which just happens to be part of the background for Melanie Fishbane’s novel Maud  we have already heard about today and many of us have read with pleasure.

Scholars credit Montgomery’s success with the Marco Polo essay with bolstering her confidence to keep sending out works for publication. 

The Marco Polo had 900 paying guests aboard the first time she carried passengers to Australia – and you can imagine the thousands who sailed on her and watched her for decades.  The ship is remembered so well and so widely today as a symbol of brilliant ingenuity and seafaring romance, both of which are suggested in the dramatic re-telling of the wreck by the teen-aged girl recalling her childhood adventure.

The Virtual Reality experience that Alan Edwards has created is inspired by the words of the young writer. Alan has adapted the essay as a script so that the images you experience as-though-you-are-there are reinforced by the image-painting of a writer whose mature work would eventually become, for many people, synonymous with Canada itself.

We are very pleased that New Brunswick gets credit for the birth of the ship, Prince Edward Island for its celebrated demise, and that PEI’s most famous chronicler gets a meaningful part in the glorious ship’s after-life.  We think the inspiration, creation, and now today the viewing of the Virtual Reality experience of Montgomery’s “Wreck of the Marco Polo” is a fitting episode in the celebrations of Canada.

Thank you Alan, Marylou, and Marc, and thanks to the heirs of L.M. Montgomery for their blessing

– Betsy

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