AMRUM, GERMANY // For centuries the "Whispering Headstones" of the remote German North Sea island of Amrum have told chilling tales of treacherous whale hunts, shipwrecks, encounters with pirates and slavery.
The adventures of the mariners, who sailed from here to seek their fortunes on the high seas in the 17th and 18th centuries, are carved in dense writing on the 91 stones, some more than two metres high, in this windswept village cemetery, one of Germany's strangest graveyards. Many of the headstones are decaying, and the islanders are now trying to save them to preserve the memory of their seafaring ancestors.
"It's vital that they're saved. They are stone witnesses; they evoke the presence of the forefathers," said Friederike Heinecke, pastor of St Clemence on Amrum. When sea fog envelops the island, the captains' headstones exude a forbidding aura as they stand grim and proud around the small thatched church. The sunshine brings out their intricacy. Many of the stones are adorned with carvings of ships, the ones with sails set indicating that a man died young, while an unrigged ship shows he reached an old age.
The stone slabs were imported from the mainland, and they reflect the wealth amassed by the islanders, many of whom became captains in the profitable but dangerous whale trade in what the islanders call the golden age of the 18th century. In 1717 alone, Amrum, one of the Frisian Islands off the coast of northern Europe, supplied 25 captains of whaling ships bound for Greenland. The land was not fertile enough for farming, so most of the men took to sea.
"Considering it's such a little island at the end of the world, so to speak, the carvings are of a very high artistic standard," said Martin Rheinheimer, a historian at Esbjerg University in Denmark, who has researched the site. "You can find out a lot about the captains by using the headstones as a starting point," said Mr Rheinheimer, who has traced the histories of some of the seafarers buried there and salvaged barnacled tales of adventure fit for a Hollywood blockbuster.
These include the story of Hark Olufs, born on Amrum in 1708, who sailed on a merchant ship and was captured at the age of 15 by North African pirates near the Scilly Isles off the southwestern tip of Britain. Olufs's captors sold him as a slave in Algiers, and he was bought by the Turkish bey in Constantine, a provincial governor in northeastern Algeria, part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. Olufs found favour with his master, learnt Turkish and Arabic and converted to Islam. He went on to become his treasurer, the head of his personal guard and general in command of the cavalry.
They made a pilgrimage across the Sahara to Mecca together at the head of a caravan of 6,000 faithful. After 11 years, during which Olufs fought and won a number of battles for the bey, he was granted his freedom. Being caught and enslaved by Muslim corsairs, who raided merchant shipping and coastal towns in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic as far up as Iceland, was a fate that befell many Christian seamen right up until the early 19th century. Some were released in return for ransom payments, but many toiled in quarries or rowed on galleys until their deaths. Olufs returned to Amrum a rich man and bewildered the islanders by wearing Turkish clothes and slippers, elegant but unsuitable in the harsh climate of his homeland. He returned to Christianity and never went to sea again.
"Here lies the great war hero, resting calmly on Amrum's field of Christ," his headstone reads under a fine carving of a turban and scimitar. The stone tells the story of his capture and subsequent return, and remains legible to this day. Hark Olufs's headstone stands next to that of Harck Nickelsen, which says he was a "noble captain" and makes no mention of Nickelsen's sinister history. "He was a slave trader," Mr Rheinheimer said. "He sailed between Guinea and the West Indies. It doesn't take much to guess what cargo he carried."
Sailing for a Danish company, Nickelsen made his fortune by purchasing slaves in West Africa in return for rifles and cheap brandy. He would sail with 400 slaves chained below deck to the Caribbean, where he would trade his human cargo for sugar cane, which he transported to Europe. His stone is among the best preserved and has pride of place in the cemetery. Several of the captains sailed merchant ships for Dutch, Danish or German companies on routes to and from Asia. But despite their lives of adventure and encounters with a wealth of different cultures, most of them settled back on sleepy Amrum once they had made their fortunes.
The lure of the homeland may lie more in the make-up of the island community than the sand dunes and pretty thatched cottages. The inhabitants were an extended family in the true sense of the word. With a population of just 600, it was common to marry cousins, creating a tight-knit society that sees itself as distinct to this day. "They don't feel like Germans, they feel like Amrumers," said Mr Heinecke, who was not born on the island. "When they go to the mainland, they say 'I'm going to Germany'. And when they leave, they suffer endless homesickness. They even feel like Amrumers after two or three generations living abroad."
The population now totals about 2,500, and the island, famous for a broad 15-kilometre beach that lines its western shore, now lives off tourism. But Amrumers remain deeply aware of their roots. "It's a sport on this island to know who you're related to and how, and many people know their ancestry to the very roots of their family tree," Mr Heinecke said. "That's why these stones are so important. They're a reminder of the island's identity."
There has been no decision yet on how to restore the stones. Moss and yellow and white lichens have grown into many of them, especially the ones standing under trees and lined up crookedly against the cemetery's stone wall. The church bought a nearby building to house the stones indoors, but did not realise that they are listed as protected monuments and must not be removed from the cemetery. A recent scientific study recommended cleaning the stones in a complex and expensive procedure. Another suggestion has been to bury them for a while to let bacteria eat away the lichen.
"Burying them is nonsense," Mr Rheinheimer said. "It's a cemetery so they should remain standing there. But they must definitely be preserved." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org