Thursday, April 23, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Wreckers (Bella Bathurst)

The title of this grand survey of nautical true crime presents an ambiguity right up front. Are wreckers people who cause shipwrecks in order to profit from them, or only people who passively take advantage of such shipwrecks as occur? In a sense, the entire book is devoted to teasing out the implications of that question. Bella Bathurst takes us round (literally) the island of Britain in this "Story of Killing Seas and Plundered Shipwrecks, from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day," and in the process we meet not only wreckers under both definitions, but representatives of many other related "breeds": hovellers, salvors, pilots, lifesavers, lighthouse keepers, smugglers, and beachmen. (The Thames River has its own even more colorfully named types: river pirates, day and night plunderers, mudlarks, rat-catchers, and scuffle-hunters.) Many of these, no matter what skullduggery they engaged in, were (and needed to be) exceptional seamen.

Bathurst investigates, tours, and conducts interviews in seven wrecking zones:

  • The Goodwin Sands off Kent in the English Channel
  • The Pentland Firth in the north of Scotland
  • The Scilly Isles
  • The Hebrides on the West Coast of Scotland
  • The Thames
  • Cornwall
  • The East Coast of England (specifically the Norfolk / Suffolk / Essex area)

The geographical detail is delightful. The treacherous Goodwin Sands come and go with the tides:

The island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth, once modestly populated and kind of a Wrecker Central, is now abandoned to the elements:

The "garden isles" of Scilly are guarded by the forbidding Western Rocks:

Off the Scottish island of Mull, a boating George Orwell once nearly went down in the infamous Corryvreckan Whirlpool:

Wrecking has its strongest public associations in Cornwall and in the Scillies, where several generations of photographing Gibsons made beautiful images of disaster, such as the one atop this post, and these:

Museum acquires famed Gibson shipwreck photos

But the Gibsons hardly had a monopoly on striking images of wreck:

Here is a more modern wreck, the RMS Mulheim which grounded at Land's End in Cornwall in 2003:

The chapter on always-picturesque Cornwall in The Wreckers is one of Bathurst's most amusing, as the Cornish persistently try to capitalize economically and touristically on their heritage of wrecking, while simultaneously denying that most of it ever happened. Fact and fiction become hard to disentangle here, as much of Cornwall's reputation for deliberate wrecking (putting out "false lights" and such) is derived second-hand from Daphne Du Maurier's popular 1936 novel Jamaica Inn, and the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock film based on it.

The real Jamaica Inn still exists on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, and is understandably popular with visitors.

"Jamaica Inn2" by Stewart MacInnes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Another piece of popular culture that shaped perceptions of wrecking is Compton Mackenzie's 1947 novel Whisky Galore, along with Alexander Mackendrick's 1949 film adaptation. This story is based on a real incident, the grounding of the cargo ship SS Politician in the Hebrides in 1941. From the wreckers' standpoint, general cargo ships are usually the best prizes, carrying as they do all manner of useful, valuable, and just plain interesting goods. Given that there was a whisky shortage in Scotland in 1941 owing to World War II, the fact that the Politician was carrying several hundred thousand bottles of superb whisky bound for export to the United States was one of those once-in-a-lifetime pieces of good fortune that you just don't argue with.

Wrecking may not be what it once was, but Bathurst points out that it will continue to exist as long as there are ships at sea, and Great Britain still boasts a public official with the nifty title of "Receiver of Wreck." All salvage is supposed to be reported, and this has been the case for a very long time, but the problem has always been getting people to report, and most officials have ultimately looked the other way rather than pressing the point. Although, as Bathurst points out, "There is not a single line in the laws of England or Scotland which supports the notion of 'finders keepers'," the idea is deeply ingrained in the populace and will never disappear.

There is a continuum between casual beachcombing and the sort of actively malicious wrecking that involves false signaling, leaving wreck victims to die while retrieving their goods, and cutting fingers or biting ears off corpses in order to retrieve jewelry. At some point on that continuum, understandable high spirits give way to unforgivable criminality, but identifying the exact spot where the crossing-over takes place is not easy by the lights of law, philosophy, or even common sense. That's part of what makes wrecking a great subject. Bella Bathurst has done full justice to it.

The Wreckers (Bella Bathurst)

A Century of Images: Photographs by the Gibson Family

Jamaica Inn (Daphne Du Maurier)

Jamaica Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray]

Whisky Galore

Whisky Galore (Alexander Mackendrick)

No comments:

Post a Comment