By: Evander Price, Whaling Museum Intern
If you’ve watched the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets, then you probably recall screen actor Nicolas Cage’s daring break-in to both the White House and Buckingham Palace in order to steal ancient Olmec rune stone maps secreted away in hidden compartments within what he refers to as the “twin Resolute desks.” While Nicolas Cage is unarguably resourceful and clever in his fanciful investigation, the Whaling Museum would like you to know that there is more to this story than meets the big screen.
The HMS Resolute was a 600 ton British ship under the command of Sir Edward Belcher specifically designed for exploring the freezing Arctic. The ship set out in 1852 with the goal of finding the lost Franklin expedition, a team of Arctic explorers that had disappeared around 1848 and had, by that point, already perished. Ironically, the HMS Resolute promptly became ice-locked, and the crew was forced to abandon ship in 1854.
A year later, the empty Resolute—having drifted some 1200 miles with the icepack—was found by Captain James Buddington of the whaleship George Henry. Daring harsh weather conditions and forfeiting the whaling season, Captain Buddington and a skeleton crew piloted the ghost ship back to New London, Connecticut.
The British magnanimously waived their claim to the Resolute. However Congress, goaded on by Henry Grinnell (a wealthy business man with New Bedford ties who had funded several rescue attempts for the Franklin expedition), decided to buy the Resolute from Buddington for $40,000 and return it as a gift to Queen Victoria, symbolizing the friendship between the two countries.
Buddington never received a penny of that $40,000—by the time it was disbursed in 1857, the company who owned the George Henry had been bought up by Henry P. Haven, who left Buddington completely out of the loop.
The Queen graciously accepted the salvaged Resolute with a characteristic “I thank you, sir.” In 1879, the entire ship was dismantled, and its timbers were fashioned into a number of artifacts which the Queen presented to some of the parties involved with the ship’s exploits.
Back to Nicolas Cage, standing onscreen in front of the Eiffel Tower. After talking to a few French policemen and performing some impressive acrobatics of free association, Cage solves the latest riddle in the film’s plot and determines that the “twin Resolute desks” contain his next clue.
Cage correctly identifies the first desk—it’s in the Oval Office of the White House. The Queen gave this large, robust desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes, and it has been used by just about every President since (notable exceptions: Johnson, Ford and Nixon).
Cage figures that the second desk (containing the second half of the ancient Olmec treasure map) is located in Buckingham Palace. Not so, Mr. Cage! The second desk, which is considerably smaller and modest in comparison to the President’s desk, has been on loan to the Royal Naval Museum (Portsmouth, England) since the 1980s. However Cage makes a far greater mistake by assuming that there are only two desks. What he fails to consider is that the HMS Resolute was constructed from fine aged English oak—and a lot of it. Theoretically, there should be enough wooden artifacts to account for the entire ship, minus sawdust and shavings.
The third desk, a delicately fashioned lady’s desk known as the “Queen Victoria Desk” or the “Grinnell Desk” was a gift from the Queen to Henry Grinnell’s widow (Henry died in 1874), in gratitude for his contribution toward the Franklin rescue attempts.
And just where do such priceless whaling artifacts end up when they’ve run their course?You guessed it: the Whaling Museum. In 1983, Peter S. Grinnell was kind enough to donate the Grinnell desk to the collection.