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A Day to Remember Those Who Were Lost at Sea

lady-elizabeth-port-stanley

On July 25, 2016 at 9:30am, the Maritime Museum at the Centre for Applied Studies situated in H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, held a short ceremony remembering those BVIslanders who lost their lives in tragedies at sea.

This ceremony was organised by the Virgin Islands Studies Institute, of which the Maritime Museum is a part, hosted on the 90th anniversary of the loss of the Schooner Fancy Me.

Fancy Me was lost in an early season hurricane off the Dominican Republic on July 25, 1926. She was ferrying local Virgin Islanders who had worked harvesting sugar cane and were now on their way home to celebrate the annual Emancipation holidays. There were over 80 people comprising crew and passengers, and 59 of them drowned in what was the worst maritime tragedy to impact our local population. There wasn’t a family that was not touched by this event and for years it has been a controversial and sensitive memory.

Although this ceremony is meant to remember all those who were lost in mishaps at sea, the date of the loss of the Fancy Me has always been put forward as the most appropriate day to set aside to remember them all.

The Fancy Me not only represents the largest loss of life in a single event, but its close proximity to our Emancipation Festival gives it special meaning at a time when many sons and daughters of the soil return home for family reunions.

Virgin Islanders have always relied on the sea for their livelihood; be it fishing, trading, boat-building, or personal transport. The sea can be an unforgiving taskmaster and this long tradition has not been without tragic loss of life and limb. Whole families have been displaced and it is only fitting that a day be set aside as a National Day to remember all of them and the sacrifice they made to bring us to where we are today.

In planning this first of what will be an annual ceremony, we were faced with many challenges not the least of which is that there has never been a record—to my knowledge—of who was lost at sea over the years.

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I have records of different vessels that were lost and—in most cases—crew and passengers, but they are individual and incomplete at best. The great challenge that we are faced with at the Maritime Museum is to compile that list and in chronological order. We don’t even know the complete list of those lost on the Fancy Me.

I have added three additional names over the past years when family members informed me of relatives not on the list. Passenger manifests in the past were not kept in the strict fashion they are today; many people joined a sloop or vessel at the last minute before sailing, and we will never know who they were. When putting together the programme for this year’s event, it was decided to include only those vessels that we had certain knowledge of.

We listed vessels that were lost in a 40-year period between 1902 and 1942. This list included six vessels and 90 souls that were lost. In addition to a concentrated effort through our continued research, our list will soon be on display at the Maritime Museum and a provision made for the public to add names and vessels that might be missing.

There is another aspect to these tragedies which has had a profound effect on my feelings. In most cases when a sloop is lost, there are many members of one family either as crew and/or passengers on board. The loss of one of these vessels often devastates a particular family for generations. I am a sailor and when I research the conditions surrounding the loss of one of these vessels, I can visualise it clearly in my mind. I understand what went wrong and what little chance those on board had of survival. I am not from here, I am not related to any of these people, but when I view the actual event in my mind’s eye and think of the tragic loss to these families, it makes my heart break.

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These feelings only increase my resolve in preserving their memory and honouring their sacrifice.

The ceremony held on July 25 included remarks by the Deputy Premier, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Minister of Education and Culture. There was a hymn and reading from Scripture.

Eternal Father the Navy Hymn was sung by a local primary student and was followed by the names of all those who have perished while a ship’s bell was rung after each name. The ceremony then moved across the street where the Deputy Premier and the Leader of the Opposition placed a wreath in the sea and the commendation was given by Rev. Selwyn Vanterpool.

It was a solemn and fitting ceremony to mark the occasion and we look forward to seeing it grow in the years to come.

Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

Geoffrey is the curator of the Virgin Islands Maritime Museum. He pioneers and takes part in many of the initiatives related to the traditional art of sloop building.
Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

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