When I first arrived on Grand Cayman in the early 70s hitching a ride from Rum Point to Georgetown was an drawn-out task.
Normally the first car that came down road would pull over to offer a ride. That was the good news, however considering the lack of vehicles on the far side at the time, often I’d just sit under a coconut tree (sometimes for hours) before a ride showed up. Then you’d be dropped at the next intersection to wait for the next leg of your journey. One summer day my hitching adventures brought me to the blow holes in the East End area. The blasts of seawater cooled me as I scanned the horizon for my next ride.
Back then I travelled in mini-mokes (if you can remember those), bicycles and when I had enough cash I’d take one of the few taxis available at the time. Just imagine it – Cayman with only five taxis. Nevertheless this particular day I was in for a treat, an old gentleman riding a donkey offered me a lift. Now this was a first, why not I thought. Donkeys were a common sight back then, especially in the far districts.
I straddled the beast and took my place behind the old man; he then dismounted and began to walk. I felt guilty, he must have been forty years older than I, however he demanded that I stay on the donkey and enjoy the ride. And enjoy I did. He wore whompers, khaki style long pants and a long sleeve shirt, which I thought was interesting attire in the blazing sun.
He spoke as slow as he walked and confirmed he was a farmer and part time fisherman who lived in the village of East End. When we reached his small home I offered him a few dollars for the ride, but he refused. I was thirsty so he decapitated fresh green coconut and sent me on my way.
Directly across the road from his home I noticed a large admiralty shaped anchor wedged between the shoreline and the reef. I was fascinated, it had to be from an old pirate ship, I’d only seen such a thing in the movies. I asked the old man about the anchor and he simply replied, “been there for years.”
Later back at Rum Point I asked Bruce Parker about the anchor, he guessed it to be from the Wreck of the Ten-Sails. He told me a fascinating story about ten ships that passed along Cayman East shore in the year 1794. Aboard the lead ship there was a “prince”, and in the dark of night his vessel hit the reef. To warn the other ships of the hazard, the captain ordered a distress signal to be shot from one of his cannons, and so thinking that the prince was in danger the other nine ships turned to the rescue.
The following morning revealed an horrific sight, all ten vessels were lodged into the jagged coral. The East Enders launched their canoes and managed to save the prince and most of the other sailors. On his return home the grateful prince granted perpetual freedom of taxation to all Caymanians for rescuing him.
Wow, what a story, this was the makings of a Hollywood script, the tale was better than “Treasure Island”. Over the years I must have repeated the story a thousand times and each time adding my own little twist to the captivating saga, often embellishing to the point I had forgot the original conjured version as told to me by Bruce Parker.
As years passed I was no longer riding donkeys, yet when I would drive by the old anchor I’d tell my visiting guests the story of the famous wreck. I had become sort of a self-proclaimed expert on the Wreck of the Ten Sails – so I thought. On one such a tour I was once again repeating the Ten Sails saga when I noticed (for the first time) a monument inset near the shore line some miles from the anchor. We pulled over and read the plaque: Maritime Heritage Trail Cayman Islands – This is the site of the Wreck of the Ten Sails.
My jaw dropped. This must be wrong, I thought, whoever erected this sign is at least three miles from the Ten-sails anchor; or so I thought. Had I been wrong all these years? My guests turned to me in a “ please explain yourself” gesture. I didn’t know what to say. I was at that moment a sham historian who had his put his barefoot in his mouth once too many times. I was teased all the way back to Georgetown.
My misperception was not intentional and once I cleaned the egg off my face I decided to give up being a marine archeologist and a tour guide, however every time I’d drive through East End the embarrassing episode plagued me. Finally, in fact just recently, I learned the truth about the anchor with the help of the Penny Denton director of the National Museum.
The anchor belonged to the Inga, a Norwegian ship that wrecked in 1888 in the area of East End known as Old Isaacs, a location first noted on George Gauld’s 1773 Admiralty Chart. A documented account reveals that East End wreckers were aboard the Inga within five minutes after she was foundering. They helped the ship’s crew and quickly negotiated the salvage rights with the Captain.
Another sensational account published in a European newspaper unjustly referred to the wreckers as “savages” who took advantage of the dilemma of the Captain and crew. An official naval inquiry, later published in the Jamaican Gazette revealed the charge as bogus. Though a risky occupation, wrecking (the practice of taking valuables from a shipwreck) was important to the remote communities of the island. When a ship went aground it was a celebration of sort, as if a Home Depot had just hit the reef. A ship filled with rare items such as lumber, nails, rum, and tools seemed godsend.
As for the “Prince” rewarding the Cayman Islanders with indefinite tax immunity, this is obviously a myth – proof is in the bottom line when you import a car or pay $36.00 for a litre of rum.
Thank you to Penny Denton director of the National Museum for keeping me on course in my quest for the facts on the old anchor. All ships wrecked in the Cayman Islands are protected under law as part of our maritime heritage. There are an abundant amount of ship wrecks in the Cayman Islands – for more information visit our National Museum and be pleasantly informed.