A Story of Killing Seas and Plundered Shipwrecks,
From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day
By Bella Bathurst
Houghton Mifflin. 326 pp. $25
Bella Bathurst quotes the dictionary definition of a "wrecker," in the nautical sense, as "one who tries from shore to bring about shipwreck with a view to profiting by wreckage," or one "who steals such wreckage; a person employed in demolition, or in recovering wrecked ship or its contents." Such an expansive meaning includes not only those who seek to lure ships to their doom and those who appropriate objects from a wrecked ship but even large industrial yards that purchase ships and demolish them for scrap. Bathurst attempts a similarly broad approach in her entertaining if hardly definitive history of British wrecking.
Bathurst's well-received first book, The Lighthouse Stevensons, told the story of the construction of Scottish lighthouses by Robert Louis Stevenson's ancestors. She discovered that the Stevensons had "encountered strong local hostility to the construction of their lighthouses" and found stories of "people deliberately drowning shipwreck victims" and of "false lights and false foghorns, false harbors, false rescuers, false dawns; even stories of entire coastlines rigged meticulously as stage sets," all in an effort to lure ships aground.
These ghoulish stories are Bathurst's central interest in The Wreckers -- probably out of proportion to their actual occurrence. Even in her estimate, no more than one to two percent of British shipping casualties were ever actively caused by those on shore. Because there have been more than 30,000 known wrecks on the British coast, her estimate implies that anywhere from zero to more than 600 ships were deliberately destroyed.
Bathurst acknowledges that if she had relied solely on material "which could be unassailably authenticated," The Wreckers "would have been a very thin volume indeed." At times, therefore she seriously discusses events that only might have occurred. She claims to have done her best to point out where her research moved from the solid to the speculative -- but that line is not always perceptible to the reader.
For example, despite her interest in "showing false lights," she acknowledges that over the centuries there has not been a single conviction for that crime in Britain, and "only one known case which even mentions it." The reader who remembers that assertion will learn some 200 pages later that the "case" is an article in the Shrewsbury Chronicle of 1774, reporting that a Captain Chilcote brought charges against three "opulent inhabitants" of Anglesey for "feloniously plundering" merchandise. Chilcote responded that he "had never accused any person of . . . having put out false lights."
The author displays equally shaky reasoning when discussing modern ships' widespread use of the Global Positioning System. She points out that "advances in technology have inevitably led to advances in misuse of that technology." She quotes an expert who observes it is theoretically possible to "spoof" the satellite system so that a wrecker could send out a false signal more powerful than the real one and lure a ship into danger. But she presents absolutely no evidence that this has actually occurred.
The greater part of Bathurst's book focuses on the centuries-old unequal struggle between the weak forces of law and those who acquire the goods of wrecked ships. Vice admirals, customs officers, justices of the peace, constables, the Home Guard and even the army have tried but failed to prevent the recovery of wrecked merchandise by lifeboat men and shore dwellers. Current British wrecking law is wonderfully arcane, requiring that anything found on a wreck or washed ashore, including dead porpoises, be reported to a Receiver of Wreck. Where there were once 80 such receivers, there is now a single official, a civil servant in her early thirties with a background in marine archeology. A person who fails to report his findings will not be penalized because the law does not require reporting within a particular period, and if the receiver left her office and knocked on the door of an offender, he could escape prosecution by contending that he was about to make a report.
Bathurst recounts some delicious tales, including the true story that inspired Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie's 1947 comic novel. In the book and the film later adapted from it, a ship, containing 50,000 cases of whiskey for export to America, runs ashore in the Hebrides, where the islanders have been wilting under a wartime whiskey shortage. In real life, a vessel carrying 264,000 bottles of the finest malt ran aground on a reef between Barra and South Uist on Feb. 5, 1941. For a few sublime weeks there was so much whiskey available that people drank themselves to stupefaction. "Raiding parties were taking off thirty or forty cases at a time and hiding them as best they could in the fields and barns back home," Bathurst writes. Vast remaining quantities were secreted in rabbit holes and in the center of corn stalks. Less amusing were other real episodes in which villagers drank themselves to death on the beaches.
The best audience for The Wreckers is likely to be those who sail around the British isles and want to be reminded of the dangers that lurk on its coast. For the rest of us, it's a smooth, enjoyable read, as long as we're willing to take entertaining stories at face value without meticulous concern for whether they may be a bit too good to be true. *
Daniel I. Davidson, a Washington lawyer, regularly reviews books for the Economist.