Attempted Mass Murder at Sea: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson

map-of-route-through-bahamas-lotgevallen-van-den-heer-o-h-bonnema-1853-used-with-kind-permission-of-collectie-tresoar

Map of route through the Bahamas. Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853). Used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar

When 208 passengers boarded the William & Mary in March 1853, they had no idea of the drama that would ensue after the ship set sail from Liverpool for New Orleans, or that violence and murder were in their future. Captained by the relatively inexperienced Timothy Stinson, it soon became clear to the emigrants that they were in a very vulnerable position, not least because the crew refused to give them enough food. Fourteen died as they crossed the Atlantic, a relatively high mortality rate, due in part to Captain Stinson’s failure to engage a ship surgeon for the voyage. Instead, when people were confined to their berths with fever, he consulted a pamphlet he carried in his breast pocket and prescribed them bacon, which did precious little to help those suffering with measles and typhus below deck.

Many captains skimped on surgeons and provisions, and got away with it, but it was when the ship reached the Bahamas that Stinson’s true character – or lack of it – was revealed. He chose to sail through the treacherous shallows of the New Bahama Channel, an area notorious for its hazards and shipwrecks, and the William & Mary was soon impaled on a rock. The ship was washed onto another rock nearby then an enormous wave freed her, allowing the water to pour in through the hole in the hull. They were sinking.

william-and-mary-lotgevallen-van-den-heer-o-h-bonnema-1853-used-with-kind-permission-of-collectie-tresoar

Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853)

Stinson strode about the crowded deck in his slippers, threatening the emigrants with his own desertion, and lying about the depth of water in the hold, doubling it and panicking the passengers. The exhausted emigrants pumped through the night while the crew devised a plan of escape and quietly removed provisions (and themselves) to the least leaky lifeboat. The distress flag was taken down from the mast and hidden, ensuring that any passing sailors would assume all was in hand, and while the passengers were distracted, Stinson changed his slippers for boots and abandoned ship. Some of the unlucky emigrants attempted to follow, swimming for the lifeboat, only to be hacked at with hatchets and murdered before their families’ eyes. The captain stood, raised his hat, and called “Friends, may you fare well” as his crew rowed him to safety.

Stinson’s lifeboat was soon picked up by a ship on its way to New York. He reported the William & Mary as lost before his eyes, then disappeared when journalists pressed for details. The New York Times of 18 May 1853 smelled a rat:

“…the cause [of this wreck] is traceable to culpable negligence and carelessness. Had the officers in charge kept a bright watch for dangers, there is nothing to indicate that the reef might not have been avoided; had the Captain taken more effective measures for the preservation of his passengers and his papers, the loss would have been less serious. And, finally, the silence and speedy exodus of Captain STINSON argues that there is little to be offered in extenuation. That a sea-captain should coldly report that his vessel had ‘gone down’ and ‘it is supposed that all on board perished,’ is altogether too systematic and provokes disagreeable emotions. It was at least due to the public that a statement duly authenticated by the survivors, should have been prepared and published by the Master, before he found it convenient to leave New-York for his home in Bowdoinham. If there is a reason for this silence, or an explanation for this seeming carelessness, the public will be glad to hear it.”

Newspapers gave brutal assessments of his character, and the Irish newspaper the Freeman’s Journal of 31 May 1853 referred to the incident as “convincing proof of the cowardice or insensibility of Captain Stinson”.

Why, in a time of chivalry and strict salvage laws, would this captain and crew have done such a thing? It is impossible to tell for sure after over 160 years have passed, but it appears as if Captain Stinson, whose father-in-law was part-owner of the ship, was attempting to bury all evidence of his mistakes – and save the owners money while he was at it. If the passengers died, little or no compensation would have to be paid out, and by leaving the people in his charge on a sinking ship with no provisions Stinson could be reasonably sure that only his version of events would survive.

He must have been shocked to the core to find his attempt at mass murder had failed.

“No news item of the month has been so worthy of rejoicing over, as the intelligence of the rescue and safety of the emigrant passengers of the ship William and Mary, wrecked amongst the Bahamas on its way from Liverpool to New Orleans. About one hundred and seventy human beings, given up to the waves and monsters of the deep, rescued by wreckers, it seems, while their sinking coffin was tumbling about among rocks and breakers and just ready to make the fatal plunge, are thus happily saved.” (Spirit of the Times, 7 June 1853)

Thanks to the courage of a crew of wreckers who saw the sinking ship two days after the hull was holed, and the perseverance and sheer will to survive of those on board the William & Mary, the majority of the emigrants were saved. The cowardice of Captain Stinson did not kill them, and the story of what happened on this ordinary emigrant ship full of extraordinary people is lost no longer.

The Lost Story of the William&Mary - Gill Hoffs - hi res image.jpgGill Hoffs 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 & 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 gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.

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How Smuggling Helped Shape the English Language

A_painting_of_18th_Century_ships_on_the_River_Torridge

For most of us, our knowledge of smugglers in the 18th and 19th centuries comes from the stereotype we have seen on films and television. We picture the salty, pirate-looking smugglers sneaking into moonlit coves, muskets in their hands and ready to do battle with anybody who gets in their way. Of course, in some cases this was the case. However, my research has led me to understand that, in the main, it really was not as covert or as threatening as all of that. Smuggling at this time is also responsible for many of the phrases that we all blithely use every day without understanding the significance of the words or their original meanings.

In order to raise money for numerous wars, against the French or rebellious American colonies to name but two, the British government levied taxes on all manner of household goods from windows to salt. In an economy where wages were painfully low, and a great majority of the population struggled to pay for food to put on the table, smuggled goods became a necessary evil and were largely untraceable once they entered the country. Shopkeepers and merchants happily sold smuggled goods and their customers were none the wiser. In fact, it is estimated that over three quarters of all of the tea drunk in England and Scotland at the end of the 18th century came into the country illegally on smuggling vessels from the continent.

That meant that smuggling was a well-oiled operation, run by intelligent and savvy businessmen rather than coarse sailors and shady criminals we associate with it. The biggest challenge was evading the King’s Men–the nickname for the Customs and Excise officials–who could seize cargoes, impound boats, and transport those guilty of smuggling to Australia or hang them and display the bodies in gibbets as a warning to others.

drunken_sailors_5912In reality, the chance of capture was minimal. The King’s Men were a ramshackle bunch who were largely based on land. As most smugglers entered our shores on manoeuvrable boats, it gave them a distinct advantage over the hapless excise men and their horses. This was a time when drunks and n’er-do-wells were still PRESS-GANGED into the king’s navy after inadvertently drinking a mug of ale with a shilling hidden at the bottom. Once they had ‘accepted’ the king’s shilling they were forced to go to sea, so had precious little expertise of sailing, or more specifically, sailing in difficult conditions. They were no match for the smugglers.

Smuggling vessels usually landed by night and preferred to operate during bad weather when there was even less chance of being caught. They were often painted black, with black sails, so that they were almost impossible to see in the dark. They did not have a specific landing place worked out in advance, merely a rough area of coast to head towards, and relied on conspirators on shore to guide them to a safe place. This was usually done by shining a light at the boat for it to follow.

You need to bear in mind that street lighting was a newfangled, modern and expensive invention at this time. Very few places were lit after dark and those that were tended to be only the wealthier parts of cities or large towns. The villages that peppered the coast would have been plunged into complete darkness the moment the sun went down. One solitary lantern would stick out like a sore thumb in this gloomy landscape and would easily be enough to guide the ships safely to the shore on the spot where the waiting carts would carry the cargo away to safety.

f147b2_d1c678e930ef4dc5a234733fbe96c792Unfortunately, one lantern on a pitch black stretch of beach would also alert the excise men as well. Therefore, the smugglers and those that helped them had to be resourceful. Instead of a constant light, the smugglers resorted to using a flash to let the boats know that the COAST WAS CLEAR.

This could be achieved by striking a match or creating a spark from a tinderbox. A brighter signal could be achieved by using an old flintlock pistol. Those old guns relied on a gunpowder to fire the bullet. The powder would be placed in the pan and lit. The clever smugglers modified some of their pistols, removing the top chamber of the gun, so that when the powder was lit the subsequent explosion burned brightly for a split second–like a firework. This FLASH IN THE PAN would be over almost as soon as it started but would be bright enough for the boats looking for it to see clearly from many miles away.

f147b2_157130680ada426ba1a24ca7cab57b1eOnce the boats came in to the shore, teams of people would be needed to quickly transport the illegal cargoes inland to be hidden, and later distributed. That meant that contraband, like gin or brandy, had to be packed into containers that were easy enough for one person to carry. Specially adapted barrels (or tubs), called ankers were made expressly for this purpose so that a tubsman–the name given to the men to hauled the cargo up the beaches or cliffs to safety–could carry two barrels easily by draping the rope over his shoulders and hanging the pair of ankers on either side of his body.

As one anker held just over 8 gallons of liquid, each tubsman had to carry an enormous weight, over a large distance very quickly. Sometimes these men even had to scramble over rocks or climb cliffs with such a heavy burden. One can only imagine how this weight slowed them down once they had PUT THE ANKERS ON.

Virginia Heath writes witty, raunchy Regency romances for Harlequin Mills & Boon. That Despicable Rogue is available now and her second novel, Her Enemy at the Altar, comes out in July 2016.

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