Nova Scotia

Unmarked graves sought in navy cemetery

The Canadian navy is looking for a team of archeologists to probe an almost forgotten naval burial ground in Halifax to find out how many sailors are buried at the site.
The Royal Navy Burying Ground in Halifax will be explored to find out exactly how many sailors are buried there. (CBC)

The Royal Navy Burying Ground in Halifax is an almost forgotten trove of history tucked in a corner of the Canadian navy's home base at CFB Stadacona, which has likely been there since 1759.

There are 84 grave markers, monuments to long forgotten British sailors. But it's what can't be seen that the navy wants to know more about.

Now, the Canadian navy is looking for a team of archeologists to probe the graveyard. It wants to use ground-penetrating radar to find out how many are people are buried at the site — there could be as many as 500 people.

Historian Rick Sanderson is armed with a map from the 1860s that shows hundreds of graves, but it doesn't give the whole story.

"It doesn't tell you the names of the vast majority of people buried there and it doesn't tell you where there are unknown graves," he said.

"Even now, this last year, we had somebody come in to take a look at their relative's grave."

Many of the remaining markers are in rough shape and need repairs, such as a wooden grave marker from 1845.

"Back in the day, most of the markers would have been wood," Sanderson said.

Often the cause of death is explained on the marker. For example, James Hamley fell from the topmast of the squared rigged warship, HRM Sloop Pilot, on Aug. 4, 1841.

Underneath another marker lie five sailors who served aboard the HMS Shannon — the British ship that captured the American frigate, Chesapeake, during the War of 1812.

"For us, these are Royal Navy personnel and it's important that their sacrifice be respected because they are the people who defended Canada back in the 1800s," Sanderson said.

"Second, it's always important to prepare for whatever is going to happen to any of us and we want to know that somebody is going to take care of our body, our gravesite, when we're long gone."