|CLASSIC DIVE BOOKS
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|They were fascinating people
- maybe not 'nice' people but even that is debateable. The wreckers plundered
the ships that were unfortunate to go up on the rocks, taking anything
of use from coal to cargo lumber, general cargo and ship's fittings - anything
that coul;d be of use. Considering their general poverty, who could blamee
them. For some it was a way of life - not just of living but of life, for
without the occasional illegal salvage they would not survive, But did
they lure ships to their untimely end? Did they place false lights on the
shore to confuse the masters? Researchers are told by the local descendants
of those living in 'wreck prone' regions that this would never happen -
but research shows otherwise. And even if a ship was wrecked without the
aid of any resident on land, what was the priority of the wreckers - to
save life or to salvage property. Such was their inhumanity - in some cases
- such was their desperation and destitution that it was property before
life, and indeed, many a sailor and passenger who struggled to shore clinging
to a thin thread of life was summarily dismissed by a heavy hand on the
head in shallow waters.
I have always been fascinated by wreckers as I could not conceive how callous they could be. But was this opinion based on ignorance? How much do we know of what really went on in the past centuries, in remote coastlines where the locals struggled with their subsistence living. I was somewhat aware of our own wreckers not to far south of here, in the eastern islands of Bass Strait, that narrow strip of land between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Whatever happened to the 243 ton Britomart, a three-masted barque which disappeared without trace in December 1939 after departing Melbourne for Hobart. We will never know. There is a dearth of literature on deliberate wrecking on our Australian coastline, but not so in other parts of the world. But Australia shares the guilt of all other nations in plundering and scavaging whatever came ashore from a 'natural' shipwreck. This is well documented in the many books on shipwrecks.
I'll try to gather here any books that come to my attention specifically on wrecking. I should add that the term 'wrecking' encompasses not so much in activity as deliberately luring a ship to shore, but in the 'salvaging' for personal use anything that may arrive on the shore, or indeed, remain on or of the ship. In the present day, or at least recently before historic shipowreck legislation was introduced, that included recreational wrecks divers who took the odd souvenir or two.
Meanwhile at the other
end of the country, the Cornish were supposed to be such accomplished wreckers
that they regarded it not as a crime but as a profession. In fact, if anyone
knew anything at all about the subject, they knew that the Cornish had
been wreckers since birth. The only people who did not know this were the
Cornish themselves, who swore blind that they had been the victims of a
terrible slander and would never have touched a ship in distress. Elsewhere
things were just as bad. From all around Britain I started finding stories
of people deliberately drowning shipwreck victims, stories of shoreline
orgies so dionysian that few participants survived until morning and stories
of wreckers burning the boats of Excise men. There were stories of grand
pianos sitting unplayed in hovels, of crofts fitted with silver candelabra,
and - more recently - of an entire island dresSed in suspiciously identical
shirts. There were stories of false'lights and false foghorns, false harbours,
false rescuers, ,false 'dawns; even stories of entire coastlines rigged
meticulously as stage sets.
Daphne du Maurier.
Doubleday, New York. 1936. Victor Gollancz, London, 1936.
"The coaches avoided Jamaica Inn, hidden in the harsh Cornish moors not far from the coast, for its name was evil, and no man knew what horrors its dark shutters hid." They say that the people of Cornwall have never forgiven Daphne du Maurier for this romantic novel, for it set the reputation of the population as a bunch of rogues and wreckers. Well, as the politicians preach, better to say something bad than nothing at all. "They ran like madmen hither and thither upon the beach, yelling and screaming, demented and inhuman. They waded waist-deep into the breakers, careless of danger, all caution spent; snatching at the bobbing, sodden wreckage borne in on the surging tide. When the first body was washed ashore, mercifully spent and gone, they clustered around it, diving among the remains with questing, groping hands, picking it clean as a bone; and, when they had stripped it bare, tearing even at the smashed fingers in search of rings".Jamaica Inn was Daphne du Maurier' fourth novel, and arguably is the most well known. The central character is Mary Yellen, who is aged 23 when her mother dies, and Mary leaves the quiet village of Helford where she has lived all her life to live with her mother's sister Aunt Patience. Patience's husband Joss is the landlord of 'Jamaica Inn' on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. Not long after arriving Mary discovers that the Inn is the base for ship-wreckers and smugglers, and that her uncle Joss is the ringleader. Mary also meets Jem the younger brother of Joss, and wonders if he is involved. In a drunken state Joss tells Mary that as the leader of the smugglers and wreckers, they lure ships onto the rocks on the coast of Cornwall, not far from the Inn across the moor, of how they murder the people trying to escape the sinking ships, and of how they rob the bodies of the people they have killed and then steal the ship's cargo. Certainly doesn't sound like a great place to go for a holiday! No wonder the Cornish today are not happy - but then, that was two centuries ago. The locals were fine when I visited in 1979. But then, there were no recent shipwrecks on shore!!!
Published by Terence Dalton Ltd, Lavenham, UK, in 1987.
Hardcove; 280 pages.
I know nothing of this book except that it was mentioned in Bella Bathurst's The Wreckers - and is rather expensive for such a modern book. Fact or fiction I do not know but suspect fiction based on fact..
A Story of Killing Seas, False Lights and Plundered Ships.
Harper Collins, London, 2005.
Oh what a remarkable books this is - brilliantly researched and superbly written. It seems to encompass in just this one volume a literary masterpiece within an historic novel, a maritime treatise, a personal travelogue, and a studious evaluation of socio-economic problems that beset the coastal poor of past centuries Great Britain. But this is no novel (as Whisky Galore is, below). This is a most fascinating read of the actvities of several coastal communities around Great Britain, specifically those of the Inner and Outer Henrides, the Scilly Isles, the Cornwall Coast, further north along the west coast and Wales, and the East Coast including the treacherous ever-mobile Goodwin Sands. There is so much about this book that a competent review could take up as many pages as the book itself. Bella Bathurst not only describes 'what happened' but why it happened - why did these coastal fisherfolk and farmers resort to 'wrecking; when an opporunity arose. The answer is pretty obvious but it needs to be evaluated and understood. She quotes the thoughts of the descendants who readily admit to their forebears plundering from the ships and shores, and she does not mind expressing an opinion herself. She incorporates the journey of her research into the book, making it refreshingly personal and adding to the interest and readability of the book. As a published author myself I wish I had the skill Bell Bathurst has with words, and the ability to express herself in such an enlightening and delightful manner. Her description of a garden full of ships figureheads is superb, and her frequent use of intelligent and humerous similie and metaphor add to the colour of her writing. But what of the ships and salvage? There is much to learn, of specific ships but in general, it is in general, a look at the specific areas and the means and wherefor of the locals in their social and economic, mainly the latter, needs. There is also a very interestiung and extensive Epilogue on other wrecks on the other side of the world, the commercial shipwreckers of India, specifically at Bhavnagar. And where do we recreational scuba divers fit in to all of this? We get a mention, a few times, and only briefly; after all, we have poor pickings on the wrecks and only the scraps to look for. One thing Ms Bathurst - we do not use 'oxygen' tanks; those divers you described use normal recreational tanks filled with normal air. Just a minor point in what is a brilliant book. [ps]
[Copy reviewed, as illustrated, is the 2006 paperback].
Chatto and Windus, 1947.
Reprinted by The Reprint Society Ltd, 1951.
Bella Bathurst (The Wreckers) writes: Briefly, Whisky Galore is the comic tale of two small Outer Hebridean islands during the Second World War. Great and Little Todday live according to the timetable of the sea, in which everything - birth, death, work, relationships - is dictated by the ferry schedule and the intermittent arrival of supplies from the mainland. Like most islanders, the inhabitants of the Toddays have also become skilled at making the best of unscheduled deliveries. 'There was hardly a house on Little Todday which did not contain a certain amount of undeclared treasure trove from the sea,' Mackenzie writes. 'Turpentine, cheese, lard, tinned asparagus, salt (very salt) butter, tyres, pit props, paper, tomato juice, machine oi.l, lifebelts, in fact almost everything that could be thought of except spirituous liquors.' This being wartime, the island's inhabitants are subject to the same strict rationing as the rest of the country, and despite their desultory attempts at temperance, are now down to the last few drops of whisky. The ficticious vessel in the plot is that of the SS Politician. The author writes in a special note to the reprint edition: "By a strange coincidence the SS Cabinet Minister was wrecked off Little Todday two years after the SS Politician with a similar cargo was wrecked off Eriskay; but the coincidence stops there, for the rest is pure fiction."
Note that the novel was made into a film of this name on the Island of Burra. It was released in the USA as 'Tight Little Island'. I'm not sure if that is a play on words as being 'tight' in American vernacular means drunk.
Penguin paperback editions; Reprint Society edition [ps].
homepage, link on graphic.
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