The Lost Story of the William and Mary

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  • Author:
    Gill Hoffs
    In the evening of 3rd May 1853, in a storm, the barque 'William and Mary' grounds in the Bahamas. She is carrying a cargo of emigrants, an organised party of Frisians who have journeyed via Lowestoft for, ultimately, Iowa, joined in Liverpool by a variety of people from Scotland, northern and other parts of England but mostly from Ireland. The Frisians describe the others indifferently as 'the savage Irish' and soon barricade themselves off, if only to stop their belongings being stolen. The privations of all on this unhappy, overcrowded and revoltingly insanitary voyage, the poor food and worse water, infant mortality and the travails of childbirth , all are vividly described. The Captain, Mates and other crew make off in the lifeboat, believing that the only remaining boat (the longboat, long allowed to dry right out) is unlikely to be useful and that the ship and her remaining passengers are, perhaps conveniently, doomed.

    We are led into the tale via a description of the miserable causes of Victorian emigration, followed by a picture of how the system worked, particularly from Liverpool. The details of this, and of parallel voyages and shipwrecks which illuminate the central tale, have been researched in extraordinary depth; a couple of hundred newspapers have been scoured via the internet and the author has also traced descendants and witness accounts. This is no mean feat considering how the spelling of surnames, particularly of the Frisians, has been Anglicised or otherwise changed over time.

    My initial take on Captain Stinson saw him as an incompetent seaman and, as Goff apostrophises him, a coward. However when I read how the yards were left to swing, I believe to take their masts by the board, and when this had not happened, the braces and head stays had been cut (p.100), I changed my mind; I believe he knew exactly what he was doing and had planned the whole thing. How he escaped up to a couple of hundred charges of attempted murder, several charges of manslaughter, and others of attempted insurance fraud is to me the core mystery. For he and his father in law were part-owners and the loss of ship (insured for $26,000) and cargo, with only his own word as witness, would have been useful cash in hand; very plausible given the frequent wreckings in the Bahamas that stood between the Atlantic and his destination, New Orleans. The cargo of rails and other 'railway iron' should have made for a quick sinking.

    What went wrong? As it came to pass, not only was the leaking longboat found and its twenty-odd inhabitants rescued, but the ship herself survived long enough for the remainder (less various drownings) to be taken off, ultimately to face the other not inconsiderable hazards of the American pioneer life, and after surviving, on board and ashore, typhus, measles, cholera, malaria and yellow fever, to find the American Dream. Landed, their testimony gave the lie to Stinson. The recorded charity of many others ashore is a redeeming contrast to his villainy.

    As a worked example of what tens of thousands endured (or failed to endure) in order to start a new life in the Golden West, this tale well deserved being written up, and this has been very well done. As cavils, I would have liked direct sourcing of items in the text, and a more readable chart of the Bahamas; and Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor' (quoted but not formally cited) and the Southport Visiter (sic) for 3rd June 1853 are missing from respectively the bibliography and the newspaper list, but those are very minor matters. This is a real-life, gruelling adventure story of the sort that makes fiction redundant.

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