A half-remembered tale is passed down through generations. A storm churns up the seabed, revealing the metallic glint of a long-buried cannon. A dedicated researcher uncovers a dusty old document in a forgotten corner of the archives.
The fragments are pieced together and a story begins to emerge.
From the rusted cannons of HMS Convert to the gleaming flanks of the USS Kittiwake, Cayman’s seas are teeming with historically significant shipwrecks.
If we were to pull an imaginary plug and drain the water around this undersea mountain peak, we would be able to look out across a desolate hillside littered with the vestiges of hundreds of doomed ships.
The lure of those wrecks has attracted archaeologists, historians, scuba divers and even treasure hunters to the Cayman Islands.
And while the idea of lost Spanish gold at the bottom of the ocean holds a certain allure, it is the individual stories that have enduring appeal.
“The real treasure is the story,” said Cayman Islands National Museum Director Peggy Leshikar-Denton.
The first surveys
Leshikar-Denton, a marine archaeologist who recently published the definitive history of the 1794 Wreck of the Ten Sail, is one of a number of people working to uncover and illuminate those stories.
She first came to the Cayman Islands as part of a research team from Texas A&M University, who began their work in 1979 at the request of the Cayman Islands government. The group spent consecutive summers on Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands working on the first official survey of Cayman’s wrecks.
They collected oral histories from people on all three islands as part of the research.
“We found so many interesting pieces of information just by riding a bicycle around the Brac with a tape recorder,” she said.
Armed with the cumulative knowledge of generations of Caymanians, the group went out and searched for physical evidence. Leshikar-Denton remembers being pulled behind a boat on a tow-board, mask in the water, scanning the reef for wreckage.
The layman’s idea of a fully intact ship, lying serenely in place on the seabed is, with the exception of artificially sunk wrecks and a handful of anomalous cases, a fantasy. Wreck hunting is more akin to an archaeological survey.
“A shipwreck can be an anchor, it can be ballast rock from early sailing ships, it can be bits of ceramics,” Leshikar-Denton said.
Why so many wrecks?
In her book on the Wreck of the Ten Sail, she describes the Cayman Islands of centuries past as a hazard, a landmark and a source of food. It was used as a navigational point and provisioning grounds by many European seafarers, who plundered its ample turtle population as a source of sustenance. But it was also a dangerous place for mariners.
Encircled by treacherous reefs and pummelled by violent summer storms, it became a graveyard for many ships.
There is some evidence that deliberate wrecking of ships was practised in 19th century Cayman.
Reverend Hope Masterston Waddell made a report to the governor in 1845 highlighting suspicions that ships were being deliberately lured to a premature end.
“The Grand Cayman is a trap for ships and catches more perhaps than any other spot of equal extent in the world,” he wrote in a passage highlighted in Lawson Wood’s diving guide, ‘Shipwrecks of the Cayman Islands’.
Whether by mischief or by accident, there is no doubt that scores, possibly hundreds, of ships were wrecked on Cayman’s reefs, and salvaging them was an important bulwark to the early economy of these islands. Timber beams and other relics of wrecks are still found in some older Caymanian homes today. In parts of the islands, cannons are used as pinch points between roads.
Salvage persisted as a legitimate enterprise through the Second World War and beyond. When the Cali ran aground in George Town Harbour in 1944, carrying 30,000 bags of rice, the cargo was recovered and exported for sale.
On a handful of occasions, wreck hunters have claimed to have found more than just food or furniture.
In his book, Wood recounts the story of a Georgia couple who said they had discovered an emerald-studded cross, a gold chain and a platinum bar dated 1521, while snorkelling off Seven Mile Beach in the 1970s.
The artifacts were said to have been traced back to the Spanish ship Santiago and, if true, were, according to Wood, the first evidence of that ship being lost off the coast of Grand Cayman.
The book also cites an interview with Captain Theo Bodden, transcribed in the Cayman Islands National Archive, relating to a huge amount of gold and silver said to have been removed from a Spanish pirate ship supposedly wrecked off Little Cayman following a bank heist in Colombia.
In another tale from the archives, Wood recounts stories of the discovery of a chest containing a flintlock pistol, an old cutlass, and copper and silver coins in a cave near Pedro Castle.
Such stories may whet the appetite of amateur wreck hunters, but to professional marine archaeologists, they miss the point of the enterprise.
“One thing we always hear from the treasure hunters is you can have the artifacts, we just want the gold,” said Leshikar-Denton.
“That doesn’t make sense, because it is all part of the story.”
Cayman’s Abandoned Wreck Law maintains that any vessel, including its presumed cargo, belongs to the government, once it has lain on the seabed for 50 years or more. While there is scope for prospectors to enter agreements with the government to salvage wrecks in return for half of the value of the items recovered, no such deals have been struck.
Anyone who does salvage a wreck without explicit authorisation can face jail time.
Leshikar-Denton said the aim of the 1979/1980 survey and of the work of the museum and others since then, had been to show that serious archaeological research has more value than treasure hunting.
Wreck of the Ten Sail
On a rocky promontory overlooking the craggy East End reefs, a stone monument records that on 8 Feb. 1794, 10 ships “foundered on the reef near this spot”.
A short distance away, in an overgrown field, a tethered cow grazes beside a pair of rusting cannons. In the undergrowth, an old tin sign claims the weathered guns once belonged to the ships of the Wreck of the Ten Sail.
If the real treasure is the stories, then this one stands above all others as the mother lode.
The full account of Cayman’s most famous shipwreck is told in Leshikar-Denton’s recently released book, ‘Cayman’s 1794 Wreck of the Ten Sail: Peace, War and Peril in the Caribbean’.
She became fascinated with the story during the 1980 survey. She later did her Ph.D research on the subject, unearthing previously unknown details of where and when 10 merchant ships, out of a convoy of 59 vessels, were wrecked in Cayman.
Until the late 1970s, the most reliable account came from Commissioner George Hirst, and was based on an interview with a man named R. Tulloh Coe in 1910.
His recollection of the story handed down was that a fleet of Jamaican merchant ships led by HMS Cordelia had struck the reefs off East End some time in the 1780s.
In her Ph.D research and subsequent book, Leshikar-Denton used a mix of oral histories, underwater archaeological surveys and extensive archival research to uncover the full story.
Perhaps the most significant breakthrough came when she discovered the real identity of the lead ship in the convoy, HMS Convert, and the nine merchant ships that wrecked along with her, in the British archives. The Convert was previously a French ship named L’Inconstante and had been claimed by the British in a battle off Haiti, then known as Saint Domingue, and transformed into a naval frigate.
From there, she discovered the letters of the ship’s captain, John Lawford, transcripts of his subsequent court martial, and the records relating to all the ships in the ill-fated convoy.
In one passage, from an obscure 1794 naval intelligence report in the British Royal Gazette, published in Jamaica, she found the first news report of the disaster. It read, “Thursday night arrived from the Grand Caymanas, Lieutenant Bogue, of His Majesty’s Ship Convert, with the melancholy intelligence of the loss of that frigate, with nine vessels of the fleet under her convoy…”.
The report went on to give the date and time of the wreck and to name all the vessels lost in the disaster, which it attributed to navigational error. Other sources corroborated local stories that Caymanians in canoes had come to the aid of the stricken ships in the wake of the incident.
For Leshikar-Denton, discoveries like these are more valuable than gold. She said the museum’s focus, through its land-based maritime heritage trail and other initiatives, is to illuminate the islands’ rich history.
“Once a ship wrecks on these reefs, it becomes part of Cayman’s history,” she said. “The more we know, the richer the knowledge of who we are emerges.
“We want to educate and empower people with knowledge of who they are [and] where they came from.”