PORT AUX BASQUES — In the early 80s, diver Wayne Mushrow found two mariner’s astrolabes off the southwest coast. There are only 104 astrolabes, and none were within Canada when Mushrow found them. His passion was understandable, given the struggle it took to get recognition from the Newfoundland government.
Born in 1945, Mushrow did a variety of work growing up in Port aux Basques. He worked at the fish plant, and stocked shelves for Martin Brothers. The he started work as a milkman in 1971, selling three quarts for a dollar.
“I knew everyone in Port aux Basques, going door to door for 25 years. I knew most of the dogs on a first name basis,” Mushrow said.
It was in 1975 that Mushrow thought about scuba diving.
“I mentioned to my first wife that I’d try that scuba stuff. I could swim up to an Olympic sized pool underwater without coming up. If I had a diving tank, I should be able to stay down there pretty long,” recalled Mushrow.
When Christmas came, his wife had an empty scuba tank for him under the tree. It was just the tank, but it was a start. By the summer he had purchased the gear that he needed, and then taught himself how to dive.
“I’d go up to Cheeseman Park and get off in the falls. After a while you’d feel so comfortable underwater with the gear on and everything, you’d get to know your limits,” Mushrow said.
Through trial and error, and reading books on diving, he eventually honed his skills.
One tragic day he offered his services professionally, volunteering to recover a drowning victim. Two young boys had cut out the side of a 200-gallon oil tank and attempted to sail to Duck Island, but when the wind came up they capsized. One child managed to swim to safety and the other drowned.
The RCMP had called in their own divers and the scuba club from the Bay of Islands. Mushrow decided to go down himself, and volunteered his services to the officer in charge. It was Mushrow who found the body. Following this, he would assist the RCMP with finding drowning victims, covering the area from Ramea to Deer Lake.
By 1981, Mushrow had become a seasoned commercial diver, and had decided to explore a shipwreck off the coast near Isle aux Morts. Accompanied by his brother and a friend, they went to the site of this wreck and took a dive. They came across a big anchor, a clear sign of a wreck. They also found other items, like ceramic dishes, shoes, planks, and cannons. Much of it was coated with coral from being on the sea bottom for 400 years or more. It was around one of the cannons that Mushrow spotted a glint of something in the sand.
“I thought it was a rock. I saw something shine in the sand, like a little piece of glass. And I brushed it like that, and I said ‘gee,’ I said, ‘that’s brass.’ So, I dug it out and it was just a black rock, with a little piece of brass in it. So, I brought it home,” Mushrow said.
He sprayed it with oven cleaner, and cleaned it till the device underneath was free. Mushrow recognized it was some sort of navigation equipment. He did his own research, and sent photos to museums in Britain and America until he identified it as a mariner’s astrolabe.
He was told via correspondence that it would fetch a considerable sum on the world market for its rarity, and he learned that there were none currently within Canadian boarders. When he learned the importance of the find, he made it his goal to have it displayed in his town.
Mushrow was surprised to find that the Newfoundland government had little interest in the artifact, so he went to the media with his story. He appeared on national TV and explained its rarity, and noted that there was only one previously recovered in Canada, but was on display in New York.
The NL government requested a meeting with Mushrow, who invited officials to his home in Port aux Basques. However, when they came to his door an undercover RCMP officer was with them, someone Mushrow’s wife recognized. Things took a sour turn.
“I said if anybody would do this after me inviting them in my home, I’d wouldn’t even trust them to take it to St. John’s,” Mushrow said.
They then told him that he faced 14 years imprisonment if he did not turn it over, as well as fines for $50,000 and a year in jail for each day it was kept from them.
“So, I said, it’s like this – I wouldn’t give it to you if it was 28 years imprisonment,” Mushrow said.
In a second meeting with government officials, Mushrow was told that there were warrants for his arrest that were on hold for this meeting. However, if he turned it over, it would be kept in Port aux Basques according to his wishes, and he would be compensated for his expenses for finding it. He conceded.
“They brought it back to Port aux Basques, but they forgot about the compensation part. I never bothered to mention it no more,” Mushrow said.
Mushrow returned to diving. In the same area in the summer of 1983, he found another mariner’s astrolabe. Like the first, it was covered in coral before he cleaned it.
“I brought it home and cleaned it up, and sure enough – another. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, it’s unreal,” Mushrow said.
He then took it to his summer home in the Codroy Valley, and buried it. There it remained for 18 years.
Suspicious of the government, he waited to see if they would keep their promise of displaying the artifact in Port aux Basques. He also planned to negotiate getting the artifacts named after himself in recognition of his efforts.
In 1991, he wrote a letter to the town council, saying that he knew where a second astrolabe was. He faced resistance once again from the NL government and was warned about the prospect of imprisonment and fines. Unwilling to risk a repeat of the events of 1982, he kept quiet on the location of the second astrolabe.
It was not until 2001 that the Minister of Tourism, Jim Walsh, stepped in and began the negotiations with Mushrow to put both astrolabes on display. Mushrow did not budge this time, and the deal was made via legal contract. The second astrolabe was finally given to the NL government, but from this point they were referred to as Mushrow Astrolabe I and Mushrow Astrolabe II.
“Well, the way I looked at it was it was nice, that’s the way it should have ended. It should never, ever, have come to that. All those years going on and on, and fighting, and going to put you in jail. There’s no need of it,” Mushrow said.
Mushrow’s story about the astrolabes has prompted him to write a book – The Amazing Ancient Astrolabe Adventure: The Wayne Mushrow Story. It will be completed in June, and he hopes to be in Port aux Basques this summer for the 40th anniversary of the finding of the first astrolabe to promote it.
“The people in Port aux Basques, they don’t realize what I’ve done for the whole area. Like Isle aux Morts, Port aux Basques. You don’t realize the importance of those astrolabes. I knew right from day one that this one astrolabe was going to change history in Port aux Basques, and Newfoundland, and Canada. Two? Unreal,” says Mushrow.