With so many reefs and shallow waters surrounding the passageways through the Bahamas, many merchant ships were lost there as trade became established between Europe, the West Indies and the American Colonies. Sailors who encountered a shipwreck would salvage the contents in an activity known as wrecking. From the time that the Bahamas was first settled in 1648 wrecking was an important activity, growing so much that by 1660 when New Providence was settled many captains had dedicated their vessels to it. Rather than a passive, opportunistic activity, however, these seamen pursued wrecking aggressively, regarding all salvage as their property, and they were rumored to kill people who inconveniently survived the shipwrecks. They drove Spanish sailors away from Spanish wrecks, and even took goods that the Spanish had already salvaged. Understandably, the Spanish considered these Bahamian wreckers to be pirates, and retaliated by attacking the wreckers’ ships. The Spanish also made repeated attacks on New Providence to retrieve salvaged property and burned the capital, Charles Town, in 1684. Charles Town was rebuilt and named Nassau in 1695.
After piracy was eliminated from the Bahamas in the early 1720s the Bahamian government established controls over the wreckers, requiring them to carry salvaged goods to Nassau, where they were auctioned. They also required wreckers to have a government license to do so. However, goods which would be useful on a ship or in a wrecker’s home were often diverted with the government officials turning a blind eye to it. The wreckers usually received 40% to 60% of the value of the salvaged goods, and many former pirates turned to wrecking as a legal, and very profitable, profession.
Wrecking continued to be a mainstay of the Bahamian economy through most of the 19th century until improved navigation and the building of lighthouses saw the number of wrecks diminish. In its heyday there were 302 ships and 2,679 men (out of a total population of 27,000) licensed as wreckers in the Bahamas. Salvaged cargo brought into Nassau in 1856 was valued at £96,304, more than half of all imports to the Bahamas, and more than two-thirds of the exports from the Bahamas were salvaged goods.
Wrecking is featured prominently in the novel I am currently working on, Rum & Wrecks, which will be the second book in the Pirates of the Bahamas series now that I am finished writing the prequel, Love, Lust & Passion, and it has been published.