Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Wreckers & the "Legend of Nags Head"

"Wreckers" by E. Duncan, in the
Winter Exhibition at 7, Haymarket
"What even the storm spared will not escape the more ruthless hand of man's fellow-man. We do not see the "wreckers" leaving in their greed, as they have often don, the poor shipwrecked ones unaided, to perish; the painter has spared us that. But on all that is left--the shattered hull, the splintered masts and spars, the tattered sails--they are gathering, more rapacious than the gulls that toss and shriek above them, like birds of prey scenting carrion; like demons round a lost soul. We had hoped that the most diabolical practice of wrecking, which formerly so much prevailed, especially on the Cornish coast, no longer disgraced our civilizations; but it would appear that this is not so, judging by the most recent accounts of wrecking at Deal, and the still worst instance at New Brighton, near the entrance of the Mersey." ~ from The Illustrated London News, January 19, 1867.

Shipwrecks have shaped the destiny of the Outer Banks ever since Native-Americans stood awestruck, as some of the earliest European seafarers met their doom off North Carolina's treacherous capes and attendant shoals in the 1500s. A century later, non-native inhabitants, many castaways themselves, survived almost entirely off the flotsam of foundered vessels. A few were even rumored to have adoped the ways of the wreckers of Britain's Cornish coast, "indulging in proverbial crudity," by neglecting, or even murdering, ill-fated shipwreck victims in order to salvage wreckage with abandon. The practice produced a legend, fanciful but false, of the origin of the name, Nags Head, which was based on how wreckers may have lured wayward ships onto the beach using a lantern, dangling from the neck of a Banker pony--a visually romantic ruse but in practice, unlikely. No navigator worth his salt would ever be fooled by a dimly-lit lantern swinging from a horse's neck, even if his vessel was within a mile or two of Outer Banks breakers. In thick and threatening weather, poor visibility would make the prospect significantly more improbable. Still, there were rumors. ~ from Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks by Kevin P. Duffus


"The main land of North Carolina is separated in most parts from the ocean by a Sound, of different breadths, and a sandy bank, that is about one mile broad and one hundred miles long. This bank is chiefly settled; and the inhabitants, some hundreds in number, are employed in fishing, piloting, or navigating small coastal vessels.

North Carolina has been long noted for the number of ships that are wrecked upon its coast in the vicinity of Cape Hatteras. There is hardly any other coast on which a ship may be cast away with so little danger to the lives of mariners: a circumstance that is fully understood by the masters of old vessels that are well insured. It is known that on the coast of Cornwall in England, on the coast of Ireland, of France, and on every other coast where ships are frequently wrecked, the mariners and passengers are in much danger of being murdered by the inhabitants for the sake of getting their property. The laws of England, where the police is well regulated, have not been able fully to prevent those abominable outrages upon humanity. On the coast of Carolina there has not been an instance of murder. The mariner or passenger, who may have the misfortune to be shipwrecked, is hospitably received. The bankers lend their active assistance in saving the cargo." ~ from The History of North Carolina by Hugh Williamson, 1812

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