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August 2023

Object Title: Felt hat
Object Number: 2017.4.1
Continuing the theme of hats, this month we look at a hat from the late 18th century collected from a shipwreck camp at Diaz Cove.

In 2019 an archaeological project explored the earliest settlements and commercial activities on South Georgia. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of wooden and stone buildings, as well as cooking pots, iron tools and the wreckages of small boats, giving a glimpse into the hard lives of the sealers. Living conditions would have been tough, challenging and very dangerous, with many expeditions ending in shipwreck.

When Captain James Cook visited the ‘Isle of Georgia’ (as he called it) in 1775 and claimed it
for King George III he commented on the large number of ‘sea bears’. This attracted the attention of British and American sealers who were working their way through seal colonies around the coasts of South America. The first sealers arrived in 1786 and were followed by many more, commencing a brutal period of South Georgia’s history with the exploitation of two of its marine mammal species, the Antarctic Fur Seal and the Southern Elephant Seal.

The early sealing industry first targeted the Fur Seals, caught for their skins or pelts for fur, felt and leather preparation. Their pelts were stripped off, dried or salted, and loaded on board for transport to ports in England UK, New England USA and Canton, China.

In 1825 James Weddell, then a sealer, estimated that 1,200,000 Fur Seal pelts had been taken that year. At the turn of the twentieth century one naturalist visiting South Georgia had declared them extinct. From 1908 British legislation came into force to protect all breeding grounds of the Antarctic Fur Seal in the South Atlantic Ocean. Seal numbers began to recover and then to explode in succeeding years. The population is now over three million. It has taken nearly 200 years but it is an amazing recovery.