peacetime passages through the Bahamas were convenient for the Spanish to send
merchant vessels, carrying silk and spices which had been brought in by their
pacific fleet, from the Spanish Main back to Europe. Occasionally, some of these ships were
unfortunate enough to become lost on the Bahamian reefs. Since the islands of the Bahamas were owned by
England, any wrecks that occurred there were considered property of the crown
and licensed wreckers, mostly former pirates who would salvage goods from the
wrecks, were paid 60% of the value of the salvaged goods that they brought into
the most frequented Bahamas passages was the Northwest Providence Channel.
Ships could make fast time sailing northwest using the predominantly
southern winds, but they had to take care that they didn’t drift too far east
or they would end up amongst the reefs around Gran Baha. Occasionally the wind
the through the passage shifted westerly and merchant vessels, unable to sail
into the wind, were swept eastward into an area where the treacherous fringe
reef on the south side of Gran Baha connected at the west end of the island, a
place the locals had appropriately named Dead Man’s Reef. A community of
wreckers who lived there set lanterns on shore at night to lure unsuspecting
vessels onto the reefs. For them,
wrecking was simply piracy under a different name.
Spanish eventually took exception to the English policy towards salvaging.
To prevent loss of treasure, they began sending naval escort vessels to
accompany particularly high value cargoes. If one of these merchant ships
should founder, the Spanish navy would be there to immediately salvage it while
forcibly keeping the wreckers away.
the potential for gain so high, smuggler captains with ships carrying at least
ten cannon rose to the challenge by obtaining wrecker licenses from the
authorities in Nassau and were prepared to engage these Spanish naval vessels
if they should encounter them ‘illegally’ salvaging treasure ships in Bahamian
waters. To the British these captains were heroes. To the Spanish
they were pirates.