This week, writer Gill Hoffs shares an excerpt from her book The Lost Story of the William and Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson. Taking us back to the May of 1853 when it took many, many hours and several journeys to evacuate the emigrants abandoned by the William and Mary’s murderous captain and crew on a sinking ship in the middle of the Bahamas. It is hard to imagine the scene, the horrors hidden as the ocean takes hold and the hardships those rescued face once safely ashore.
– Gill Hoffs –
Gill is the author of Wild: a collection (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released The Lost Story of the William and Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016). She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat.
If anyone has any information regarding these shipwrecks and the people involved, they can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on twitter @GillHoffs
The following is excerpted from The Lost Story of the William and Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016, all rights reserved, available here)
At Sea, Thursday 5 May 1853
The vessel now approaching the stricken William and Mary was a wrecking schooner called the Oracle. Captained by 33-year-old Robert ‘Amphibian’ Sands – so-called because of his abilities as a swimmer – the vessel was a godsend to the approximately 175 desperate individuals clinging to life on the wreck, who, as the son of survivor Jan Tuininga later wrote, ‘were nearly dead from disease, thirst and starvation’.
[… It took many, many hours and several journeys to evacuate the emigrants abandoned by the William and Mary’s murderous captain and crew on a sinking ship in the middle of the Bahamas. The wreckers] escaped with their lives and sacrificed significant financial gain in order to rescue complete strangers. They were heroes. Salvage was a perilous and at times deeply unpleasant experience, but without it many who scraped a living in the beautiful islands of the Bahamas would otherwise starve. Two years prior, the Caledonian Mercury of 3 July 1851 contained part of a traveller’s letter regarding the general state of living in the Bahamas and the wrecking trade:
“You may suppose they are rather an unquiet race these wreckers; and after the spoil is shared, there is generally a drunken riot … The other day at March Harbour a wreck occurred. I went up a hill, the usual look-out, to see it. There I found a host of old women snuffling the carcass from afar. I said I thought the vessel was at anchor outside the reef. ‘No,’ said one of the ancients, ‘she’s just where she should be,’ i.e. on the reef … The time here occasionally hangs heavy enough. The mosquitoes make sitting still for any length of time almost impossible; and in summer, I am told, they are a thousand times worse than at present, so that some out of door occupation is very desirable.
… There have been no end of wrecks lately and some of the wreckers have had a fine harvest. One of the vessels cleared 101 dollars for each man. As long as this last[s] they continue on shore and go off to look for more. A few such trips might make them independent, but they are a most improvident race like all who get their living on the deep. In many cases the cargo is recovered by means of divers, so you may suppose their cash is earned hardly enough. Fancy a man diving in 7 fathoms [42 feet] and bringing up a barrel of pork or a box of sugar. This is quite common and the length of time the divers will remain under water is incredible. The other day one of them lost his way in a sunken vessel and forgot to come up again.”
Salvage divers also had to deal with other people’s mortality face to face and sometimes by touch alone if they dived without lights. The Staffordshire Advertiser of 12 March 1853 included a grim piece on the salvage of the Queen Victoria:
“The plate in the Queen Victoria’s cabin has been saved by a diver; but the man protests that nothing in the world should induce him to go down a second time, as the scene in the cabin was the most horrible he had ever witnessed. He thought that he had entered a wax work exhibition, the corpses never having moved from their position since the vessel went down. There were some eighteen or twenty persons in the cabin, one and all of whom appeared to be holding conversation with each other; and the general appearance of the whole scene was so lifelike that he was almost inclined to believe that some were yet living.”
The divers worked hard and deserved every penny they got.
[… The rescued emigrants managed to find oysters at the shoreline and source fresh water, but then assistance arrived in the form of islanders notified by Captain Sands and his crew of their plight, who brought fish, biscuits, and other necessary comforts.] The survivors now stranded on the island of Grand Bahama were lucky to have received any food at all from the inhabitants there. Their lot could have been far worse, as detailed in the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser of 1 May 1852. A Captain Gardiner, described as ‘a gentleman of fortune’, had vanished near the Falkland Islands having joined the Patagonian Missionary Society and ‘gone to some small barren islands off the Horn to enlighten the inhabitants, wild as they were’ and HMS Dido was instructed to search for him. They were horrified by what they found.
“I beheld a sight, the which I trust I shall never witness again. Strewed in different parts of the beach were Capt. G. and two of his party. The first we saw was Capt. G. in a state of decomposition. We supposed it to be him, by there being a watch hanging to his skeleton form; and some distance from him there was another. We proceeded some distance to a cave with a lantern; when we entered there was a deadly smell at the end of the cave, where we found the remains of the others. There were furniture and cooking utensils, as though they had lived there some time. The boats’ crews were allowed to have the clothes, &c., as they found a large chest, containing books and clothing and on the lid of it was nailed his will, stating that the first ship that found them should have them. We buried them with the honours of war. And cut on the wall was this inscription – ‘Proceed on the beach about a mile-and-ahalf; you will find three more; do not delay, for we are starving.’ We made the best of haste and found them dead. It appeared they had been shunned by the natives and had starved to death.”
Considering how little the islanders had and how much they shared with the survivors of the William and Mary, their generosity towards this huge group of complete strangers is striking and commendable.