Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra Expeditions to Barbados: RA-I 1969, RA-II 1970

Thor Heyerdahl was born in Norway in 1914. After studying at the Oslo University he went to the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific. He and his wife studied the possibility that the Pacific Islanders could have migrated from South America many centuries before. World War II interrupted his work. He served with the free Norwegian Air Force as an officer in the special parachute unit operating in the Arctic Norway. After the war he continued his research. He led archaeological expeditions to the Galapagos and Easter Islands.

The Kon-Tiki Expedition By raft across the south Seas by Thor Heyerdahl
Kon-Tiki – Plate V. Ready to start in Callao harbour.  Taken from: The Kon-Tiki Expedition By raft across the South Seas by Thor Heyerdahl.

He built the Kon-Tiki Balsa raft in Peru. He left Callao on the 28th April 1947 and sailed it for 6,900 Km across the Pacific to Tuamotu Islands arriving on the 7th August 1947. This proved that the Incas had the ships capable of navigating the vast distances of the Pacific.

He then considered that the Phoenicians sailed across the Atlantic many centuries before Columbus “discovered” the “West Indies”. Similar reed boats are used in the Mediterranean, along the West Coast of Africa and in South America, notable on Lake Titicaca. Wherever these boats are used the pyramid type buildings were constructed.

The Olmecs, Aztecs and Incas used a similar calendar to the one used by the Egyptians. Both of these calendars start around 3000BC. This led him to believe that the early Olmecs originated or were influenced by the Phoenicians. But could reed boats cross the Atlantic? The experts said no.

Thor Heyerdahl's Ra Expeditions from The Kon-Tiki Museum - Norway
Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra & Ra II Expeditions from The Kon-Tiki Museum – Norway

In 1969 and 1970 he built papyrus reed boats and sailed from Morocco. He named these boats Ra after the Sun God. The first started to break-up and had to be abandoned before it reached the Caribbean. Undaunted by this setback he returned to Morocco and built Ra II. This time he employed four Quechua and Aumara Indians and a translator from Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. They built boats almost exactly as depicted in the carvings of the Pyramids.

Ra II was 40 feet long, 16 feet wide and 6 feet deep. It had a 12 x 9-foot cabin. It was made from Papyrus reeds source from Chad. They set sail from Safi in Morocco on 17th May 1970 and arrived in Barbados late on the 12th July 1970. A journey of 6,100 Km.

Pat Toppin (8P6AZ) and Allan Otway (8P6AH), Barbados Radio Amateur Operators, were in contact with them during their voyage. They provided a reliable link to the families of the explorers.

As they got close they were met with the MV Calamar and the Tug Culpeper from Barbados. As they sailed along the South Coast and into Carlisle Bay a flotilla of boats including fishing boats, pleasure boats and the pirate ship Jolly Roger accompanied them.

Prime Minister Errol Barrow flew a small plane and circled them.

My brother, parents and I were at the Pierhead, along with hundreds of others, when they arrived. The boat was very low in the water, as the Papyrus had absorbed a lot of water. It was put on the Blackwoods Screw Dock and lifted out of the water. When I visited it a few days later water was still dripping out of it.

KonTiki_ThorHeyerdahl_cover
Daddy’s book: The Kon Tiki Expedition which Thor Heyerdahl autographed for me.

It is still debated if the Ancient Egyptians influenced the pre-Columbian civilisations of Central America. Thor Heyerdahl has proved that they had the sailing craft to reach the area. It is left to an archaeologist to find hard evidence that they did make the crossing.

During his stay in Barbados Thor Heyerdahl stayed at a house close to Sam Lords Castle. Daddy had a book on his earlier Kon-Tiki adventure which I borrowed, rode to The Castle and found his house. He invited me in and we talked for a long time. He showed me a lot of gear that they used on the crossing including the HF radio.

Little did I know that in a few months I would join Cable & Wireless and embark on a career in radio communication. Before I left he autographed the book, which I still have.


Below are a selection of Ra Expedition photos. You can click on the thumbnail images below to see a larger image with captions.


The Ra Expeditions (1972) – Swedish Broadcasting Corporation
https://youtu.be/EJDYiTYoaLE

Ra Expedition Part 2
https://youtu.be/hb6Jsudv7lg

Link to Kon-Tiki Museum videos on YouTube

Kon Tiki Museum in Norway

Click here to view: Thor Heyerdahl, on Ocean Pollution, 1970


Here are some addition photos of Ra II sent to us by Jim Webster.  You can click on the thumbnail images below to see a larger image with captions.


Presentation by William Burton at the 50th Anniversary of Ra II Expedition landing in the Careenage, Bridgetown held on 12 July 2020, arranged by the Barbados Museum and Historical Society in conjunction with the Kon-Tiki Museum in Norway.

I will start by giving a short introduction on others who have drifted or crossed the Atlantic without knowing exactly where they were going.

Barbados has always been a port of call for people drifting or exploring routes across the Atlantic.

Barbados first appeared on a map by Juan de Cosa about 1500. This was based on his and other explorer’s information. 8 years after Columbus’s first voyage.

The first permanent settlement was in the early 1600’s by the British.

During WW2 many survivors, from both sides of the war, of ships sunk in the Atlantic found refuge in Barbados.

After WW2 Dr. Alain Bombard after learning of the number of deaths of sailors who abandoned their ships during the war but subsequently died of hunger and thirst wanted to prove that you could live off the sea for a period of 2 to 3 weeks.  He left Las Palmas in October 1952 and drifted in an open Zodiac rubber boat and arrived in St. Lucy on the 23rd December. He proved that it was possible to cross the Atlantic on the fish and rain water that you collected to supplement your stores.

Then in 1958 the small world balloon left Tenerife with the intention of reaching the West Indies. The balloon failed soon after but the designers had planned for that and the gondola was able to float and it arrived at the Crane beach in January the following year.

Other adventures made the crossing on a wide assortment of rafts. One in an old Boiler Drum, This is now somewhere under the Oistins land reclamation area.

So crossing the Atlantic from Africa has been done many times over the last 500 years.

Thor Heyerdahl wanted to prove that with the technology and ship building expertise of 1,000 or more years ago people could have successfully crossed the Atlantic.  In 1970 he build a boat made of the Parraus reeds, using the same tools available 1 to 2 thousand years ago. He christened her RA after the Sun God.  The first attempt was unsuccessful and he was rescued by the Calamar a boat from Barbados.

He was not defeated. He returned to Morocco but this time he enlisted the help of reed boat builders from Peru who had been, and still are, building these type of boats on Lake Titicaca from very similar reeds for many generations.

They made one important addition which was not apparent on the drawings in the Pyramids of Egypt.  With the correct design and construction techniques he set out on the 17 th May from Morocco. He had a crew of 8 comprising of men from 8 nations.  He arrived in Barbados on the 12th July 1970.

I vividly remember my parents bringing my brother and I to watch the arrival. We were at close to Carlisle House and had a very good view of the arrival. Ra II  was towed by the Tug Culpeper around Needlams point and into the Constitution River

Ra II entering the Careenage 12 July 1970 - Craig Burleigh
Ra II entering the Careenage, Bridgetown – 12 July 1970 (Photo courtesy of Craig Burleigh)

As Ra II entered the Careenage on of the crew lit an Orange flare to celebrate. I remember how low it was in the water and even the smallest wave would wash over the deck. It docked at the Baggage Warehouse – where the Coast Guard station was or where the Buccaneer is now. Most of us who were present thought that he was mad to cross the Atlantic in a vessel made of what we called Bamboo. But I think that we all appreciated what he was trying to prove.

Both sides of the Careenage were lined with people and there was a shout of RA – RA as they got closer.

I took a few pictures and returned another day to take more from the area of the Blackwoods Screw Dock. It was raised on the screw dock and stayed there for a week or so to allow the water to drain out of the reeds. Along with the 8 crew, of different nationalities they had a monkey and a duck.

Daddy had a book on his previous expedition Kon-Tiki where he crossed the Pacific. I knew that Thor was staying at a house close to Sam Lords Castle. So I borrowed the book and rode there, found the house. I am not sure how I found the house, I did not have GPS or FaceBook! But in those days there were not many houses in the area.

Thor Heyerdahl was kind enough to invite a 17 year old in and we talked for a long time. I remember him showing me a lot of the equipment and things he had on the crossing including the radio transceiver that was used to contact Radio Amateurs in Barbados. Some of these were Pat Toppin and Allan Otway.  He autographed the book which I still have.

The challenge I give to researchers is to prove, by finding some artefact, that explorers from Africa did in fact reach Barbados, the Caribbean and Central America 2,000 years ago.

50th Anniversary of Ra II Expedition - Careenage, Bridgetown, Barbados 12 July 2020
50th Anniversary of Ra II Expedition
The Barbados Advocate front page 14th July 2020

Below is a RA II 50th Anniversary Message from Marian and Bettina Heyerdahl. In this video, Marian and Bettina Heyerdahl share a very special message for everyone in Barbados, and some of their memories of the arrival of RA II! 

Click here to see Marian and Bettina Heyerdahl video message which is available on the Barbados Museum & Historical Society Facebook page.

Were you at the Careenage when the RA II arrived? Share your memories with us!


Another source of photographs of the the arrival of Ra II in Barbados on 12th July 1970 is from American born, Bajan bred, San Francisco based photographer Craig Burleigh.

Below is a feed from Craig Burleigh’s website:


Why We Suddenly Have A Plastics Crisis by Chris Rose of the campaignstrategy.org blog featured BajanThings: Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra Expeditions to Barbados. He was highlighting how Thor Heyerdahl back in 1970 shocked the world with reports of mid-ocean pollution.  It has taken nearly 50 years for the UN Environment to ‘Declared War on Ocean Plastic’.  Erik Solheim, Head of the UN agency said, “It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans. … We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop.”


For further information see:

8 thoughts on “Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra Expeditions to Barbados: RA-I 1969, RA-II 1970”

  1. I am 71 now and remember Thor and the Ra-II. I wish I could have been with them! He is a true HERO!!!
    [BajanThings editor note: Phil Meyers would have been 22 in 1970]

  2. Hello,

    This post is excellent! I’m researching some vessels for my Masters thesis, including Ra I and II. You’ve posted photographs that I haven’t seen anywhere else online and I would very much like to use them in my paper and presentation. Would you mind sharing your sources with me, or if they’re William Burton and Jim Webster’s personal photographs, could I use them in my work with appropriate references?

    Best,

    Kris

  3. Thor Heyerdahl was and still is the most fantastic ‘Viking’ in our time. With his innovative mind and sense of past cultural perspectives, he managed to build ‘bridges’ between our common history over thousand of years. By crossing the oceans, not as seaman and with few sailors as his international crew onboard Kon-Tiki, Ra I, Ra II and Tigris, he dared doing it – testing and proving his theories.

    Thanks for sharing ever actual photos and memories in bajanthings.com.

    Best regards

    Lotte Starck

  4. HENRY THOR CORANI

    SALUDOS DE BOLIVIA LAGO TITIKAKA LOS CONSTRUCTORES DE BALSAS DE TOTORA
    (Google Translate: GREETINGS FROM BOLIVIA LAKE TITIKAKA THE BUILDERS OF BALSA DE TOTORA)

  5. Hello,
    Great to see this post – my first contact with this expedition was through my dad Paul Burleigh (ham radio operator) who was in regular contact with Ra during the first voyage – Thor Heyerdahl and the Russian doctor Yuri Senkevich came up to our house to make contact to Russia via a ham operator (Chris?) in Norway.
    Of course when Ra II was on it’s way we were all excited about the trip and my dad was in regular contact again – howerver he was away from the island as they got near and I remember going over to Allan and Jill’s on Maxwell coast to listen to the conversation as they neared the island.
    I have B&W negs of the arrival and days after and also my first color photos were taken on the Ra II as it was moored at the Pierhead waiting to go on the dry dock – I need to scan these images and get them online to share – another project to be done!
    All the best.
    Craig

    1. Craig, I look forward to seeing your photos. It’s quite something to see your comments here after so many years, We met a few times during that period and I worked with your brother at Seawell air Services. Even kept his surf board for a time while Uncle Sam called.

  6. I just came across this post and was quite surprised to see the photo of Allan Otway and Pat Toppin with Norman Baker. I remember clearly when RA II came to Barbados as I worked with Allan, at Seawell Air Services and spent time in his ham shack talking to the members of the RA crew as they came across the Atlantic to Barbados. When the RA landed some of the local ham operators, including Allan and Jill got to broadcast from the boat as it was tied in the careenage. They were talking to ham operators from around the world that wanted to log a conversation with the RA II. I managed to get a couple of pictures on the RA when I went to visit Allan. I also recall a reception at the Ottway’s at Crystal Waters or Crystal Lodge, on Maxwell Coast Road. Most of the crew members were there except Thor Heyerdahl (maybe he was at the place near Sam Lords that day). Thanks for bringing back some good memories. I’d be happy to share the pictures I took that day on the RA II.

    I clearly recall one of the crew members, a diver, who talked about sharks not being too dangerous but dumb and about conger eels being quite smart.

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