Welcome today’s guest Gill Hoffs. She grew up in a fishing village on the Scottish coast and has always been fascinated by shipwrecks and the people involved. Her fascination has resulted in a number of books, and as she puts it, “As someone who gets terribly seasick (and now lives inland in Warrington, England) I can’t sail myself, so writing about maritime history is the next best thing.” With that in mind, here is her post:
On Wednesday 5th May 1853 a crew of wreckers sailing through the New Bahama Channel sighted a ship lying low in the water, its distress flag clearly visible. They approached the sinking vessel, called closer by the desperate emigrants splashing around on deck, and evacuated the lot of them, risking their own lives in the process. In doing so, they thwarted an attempt at mass murder.
Six weeks prior, an ordinary American emigrant ship left Liverpool with 208 passengers, heading across the Atlantic for New Orleans. The voyage was beset with problems from the start, due in part to the captain’s failure to engage a ship surgeon (he instead relied on a pamphlet of dubious medical advice which, for example, recommended eating bacon to reduce a high temperature) and his refusal to allow the emigrants their full allotment of provisions. When the William & Mary sailed through a perilous area of sea between the islands of the Bahamas, the captain’s inexperience led to mistakes and ultimately the holing of the hull on two rocks.
Following hours of threats, lies, and secrecy, the cowardly Captain Stinson and most of his crew sneaked away in the least leaky lifeboat after removing the provisions, anchoring the ship, and hiding the distress flag (which the emigrants luckily found). When the passengers realised they were being abandoned to their fate, some swam after the departing lifeboat, grabbing at the sides and begging for help. The crew killed them with hatchets and left their bodies for the sharks, and the captain stood, held his hat aloft, and called “Friends, may you fare well” to the people he was leaving behind and later reported as having died before his eyes.
After two days of keeping the ship afloat the surviving passengers were delighted to see a small wrecking schooner, the Oracle, sailing closer. On board were 34-year-old Captain Robert ‘Amphibian’ Sands, his brother Richard, and their crew Benjamin and James Roberts, John Cash, and Octavius Dorsett. Another wrecking schooner, the Contest, soon joined them. It took many hours to remove all 175, and several trips back and forth to the nearest island to deposit first the women and children and then the men on Grand Bahama. Captain Sands earned his nickname for his swimming prowess and almost drowned while saving the final few from the wreck. He was rewarded with the Silver Medal of the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives from Shipwreck (later to become the RNLI) and became the first overseas recipient of this prestigious award. The Governor of the Bahamas had died shortly after writing to Downing Street, London, seeking some token of merit for the heroic wreckers, so Lt. Governor Nesbitt gave Captain Sands the award in his place, saying at the ceremony,
I have much pleasure in seeing you for the purpose of presenting to you … the Silver Medal … voted to you by that beneficent body in approbation of your exertions in saving from drowning the passengers of the ship ‘William and Mary,’ bound from Liverpool to New Orleans. Your disinterested conduct on this occasion has attracted very general attention, not only in England but in America and contrasting so strongly as it did with the discreditable abandonment of those passengers by the master of the ‘William and Mary,’ it has reflected great honour upon yourself. … I hope that wherever an emigrant vessel, among the many which take this route, may again be unhappily, by the violence of the tempests, variable currents, or other cause be shipwrecked in the Bahamas, the misfortunes of the passengers may be promptly relieved by similar kind-hearted assistance as that which you rendered in the case of the ‘William and Mary’.
Captain Sands continued to salvage wrecks and died in 1892 aged 72. He fathered ten children and his many descendants continue to live in the Bahamas and the USA. The now-renamed Royal National Lifeboat Institution describe the award of a silver medal to someone who wasn’t in British or Irish waters as ‘extremely unusual’ and ‘exceptional’, which seems to sum this man up. His selfless bravery and that of his crew stands out all the more against the despicable actions of Captain Stinson and some of his fellow sailors. The wreckers almost gave their lives for complete strangers who they had no obligation to approach in those treacherous waters, let alone save and Captain Sands’ compassion for the people he rescued, especially a bereaved teenager who lost her baby in the wreck, demonstrated his humanity under pressure. He deserves to be far better known than he is.
If you are interested in reading more about this strange shipwreck, Gill’s book “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” is available. Here is a short synopsis to further entice you:
The loss of the emigrant ship William & Mary made news around the world not once but twice in 1853. First when her American captain reported the vessel lost before his eyes in the shark-infested waters of the Bahamas and the death of almost 200 left on board, then again when the truth emerged – a tale of abandonment, desperation, and the incredible heroism of a wrecker and his crew.
Discover the people involved in this mysterious shipwreck, including
- Captain Timothy Stinson, the callous young mariner who attempted mass murder
- Susannah Diamond, the English 19-year-old hoping for a new life in St. Louis with her family, husband and unborn child
- Izaak Roorda, one of a group of 87 Dutch emigrants seeking to settle in Wisconsin, who found the lifeboat more perilous than the sinking ship
Over 160 years later, Gill Hoffs reveals the terrifying true events that drove one man to murder passengers with a hatchet and others to abandon their family and friends – and a wrecker to risk his life for total strangers.
Gill Hoffs is also 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 & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016). If anyone has any information regarding the wrecks and the people involved, please email Gill Hoffs at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find her on twitter @GillHoffs.
To obtain Gill’s books or to learn more, click on the appropriate link below:
The Lost Story of the William and Mary at Pen and Sword
The Lost Story of the William and Mary at Amazon UK
The Lost Story of the William and Mary at Amazon US
The Sinking of RMS-Tayleur at Pen and Sword
The Sinking of RMS-Tayleur at Amazon UK
The Sinking of RMS-Tayleur at Amazon US
Wild: A Collection at Amazon UK