“This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny.” —H.A. Howe
This piece from my collection is an antique English, 9-carat gold comet mourning pin. It is beautifully made, with a hand-chased stylized tail, black enamel embellishment, and a glittering foiled paste stone in silver settings, clearly displaying a black spot to simulate the open culet of a diamond.
The unusual shape of the brooch commemorates the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. Although this piece neither contains a loved one’s hair nor bears an inscription, the use of black enamel almost certainly associates it with loss during the comet pass year.
Halley’s Comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied previous sightings and correctly predicted its 1758 apparition. The comet returns every 75 years, with its last apparition in 1986 and its next to come in 2061. I will be 98, if I live to see it.
The first report of the comet is from its pass above China in 467 B.C. (Centuries later, during another apparition, the Chinese would call it by the beautifully evocative name, “Broom Star.”) The British Museum, London, holds other documentation in the form of cuneiform tablets describing the comet’s appearance over Babylonia in late September, 164 B.C.
It provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.
I purchased this mourning brooch from an eBay seller in 2008—I was the only interested party. Granted, it is not a particularly attractive brooch and has seen rough handling. However, it provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.
The key to its power is the reverse inscription, which reads: “In memory of Ernest. Died 4.30 AM, 11 January 1862. Latitude 31° degrees 30′ South, Longitude 14° degrees 40′ East. Aged 2 Years and 11 Months.” Whilst holding the brooch in my hand, I plugged the coordinates into Google Earth, which took me not to a point on land, but the inky dark sea. This confluence of coordinates placed the baby Ernest off the African coast, about 500 miles west of modern Bitterfontein, South Africa. Ernest had died aboard a ship.
Did the boy die soon after leaving or just miss the end of a long voyage? This brooch was located in England until I purchased it, so was more likely that the ship sailed toward Europe, rather than Australia or Cape Town, then a part of the rapidly expanding British Cape Colony.
I’m burningly curious why this baby has no inscribed last name, yet someone loved him so much that they noted the exact time and longitude and latitude of his death. Why not just inscribe “died at sea”? I want to know whether Ernest’s mother was there with him. Did he pass away in her arms? Was she a passenger or a convict? (The last transport to Australia wasn’t until 1868.) Was she a ship’s cook or perhaps a missionary’s wife?
To slip into death at half-past four a.m. surely indicates it was disease that took Ernest, as it often does, deep in the darkness. I can imagine the dim light of a lantern, a weeping but resigned mother pressing a cool cloth to the child’s forehead, the gentle creak of the ship’s timbers, and the waves rocking him to sleep.
Ernest was likely buried at sea; if so, his small bones are long dissolved on the ocean floor. All that is left of his little life is a lock of fair hair curled into a plume that was fixed by gum arabic to a piece of milk glass, decorated with a few sprigs of gold wire, and encased in black enamel over pinchbeck.
If Ernest’s family had recorded his last name on the brooch, I might be able to find him in public records to flesh out the story of his short existence. As it is, the only hope of knowing more about Ernest is to find a record of the ship he died on by narrowing down vessels in the area at the time—a mammoth task, albeit one that might be possible online someday. Challenges like this are more conquerable now than it ever before, and with each passing year, newly digitized historic data comes online to the joy of historians and genealogists everywhere. Ω