Cayman’s 1794 Wreck of the Ten Sail: Peace, War, and Peril in the Caribbean , by Margaret E. Leshikar-Denton

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Frederick H. Hanselmann University of Miami Department of Environmental Science and Policy, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences U.S.A. Coral Gables FL

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Margaret E. Leshikar-Denton, Cayman’s 1794 Wreck of the Ten Sail: Peace, War, and Peril in the Caribbean . Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019. xxiv + 289 pp. (Paper US$ 29.95)

While the Wreck of the Ten Sail may not be widely known on an international level, it is a maritime archaeological site of global, regional, and local significance—a symbol of increasing trade and conflict within the overarching umbrella of globalization. Margaret Leshikar-Denton does an excellent job combining oral, historical, and archaeological source material in order to analyze the site of these shipwrecks. Oftentimes, the focus of archaeological and historical studies relies on physical remains and archival information; Leshikar-Denton goes beyond this, beginning the book with oral histories that have been passed down through the generations of Caymanians, and using them to set the stage for the shipwrecks’ importance to local people. Of special note are the poem and the song about the shipwrecks written by locals, underscoring the significance of both the wrecking event and the archaeological site.

The Cayman Islands—largely utilized for provisions due its abundance of sea turtles and fish—were most likely first inhabited as a fishing settlement following the 1655 occupation of Jamaica by Oliver Cromwell’s army. By the late 1660s, the English had established a turtling station on Little Cayman. Into the eighteenth century, all three islands were used as seasonal fishing grounds and a provisioning stop for ships from Jamaica. Throughout the eighteenth century the population grew as the islands maintained commercial and political ties with Jamaica and de facto Britain on a larger scale and the Cayman Islands faced attack from the Spanish. By 1802, there were 11 settlements, two small forts, a militia, and eight to nine seagoing vessels.

Leshikar-Denton then focuses on the history of the main ship involved in the event, a French vessel named L’ Inconstante, situating it within the historical context of the war between Britain and France in the late eighteenth century. She aptly describes both the French and British navies and explains the various uses of the vessels employed. The discussion of ship construction techniques and the types of armament mounted on these vessels lends further insight into the requisite detail and effort in the creation of wooden naval ships. Originally laid down in 1789, L’ Inconstante set off for France’s most important colony in the West Indies, Saint-Domingue, in 1792. L’ Inconstante and its crew arrived in a time of “shifting alliances, confusion, and bloodshed” (p. 48) as a result of the mulattoes’ push for equal status and a series of slave revolts. It patrolled the waters and ports of Saint-Domingue until November 25, 1793, when it was captured by three English naval vessels. Following its capture, the British rechristened the ship HMS Convert and placed it into service in the West Indies. On February 6, 1794 HMS Convert disembarked from Bluefields Bay, Jamaica, leading a fleet of 55 ships to England and three to America on what would result in its final voyage. Two days later, due to a number of factors that Leshikar-Denton neatly outlines, HMS Convert and nine other ships of the fleet ran aground on the breakers near the East End of Grand Cayman. The remainder of the convoy continued the voyage, and the HMS Convert’s captain was court-martialed.

Archaeological efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s yielded a large quantity of data, resulting in the successful location, mapping, artifact sampling, and identification of the remains of HMS Convert, as well as other unidentified vessels from the convoy. Work by Leshikar-Denton and her team resulted in the Wreck of the Ten Sail exhibit at the Cayman Islands National Museum. Public outreach and interpretation are crucial so that we can all learn from our collective past.

Many of the topics in this book are stories in their own right, but it is Leshikar-Denton’s connection of the various events to the shipwrecks that hammers home their significance; her meticulous research shines throughout the book. There are numerous intertwined economic and political narratives on a variety of scales—the war between Britain and France, the mulatto push for equality and the slave revolts on Saint-Domingue, the British naval officers’ competition for prize money through capture, the disagreements among the French officers onboard L’ Inconstante immediately prior to its final engagement, and a disgruntled British captain who missed out on prize money due to a diplomatic mission only to play a major role in the wrecking event, to name just a few. Leshikar-Denton takes the true story of the Wreck of the Ten Sail even further, cementing the site’s importance, not only to the Cayman Islands, but as an international symbol of colonialism, globalization, and burgeoning capitalism.

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