The theme for week #10 of 52 Ancestors (stormy weather) is so fitting to describe the historical backdrop of a schooner in Tortola called the “Fancy- Me”. This brief account will show how a Hurricane back in 1926 impacted a Community, Family and a Caribbean Island to a heartbreaking misfortune.
For this story I invited my cousin Janet Smith, as a Guest Blogger. She has courageously written as well as publicly spoken about the “Fancy-Me” Vessel and its incident. It is not simply a story, it is a courageous effort on her part to write an account of the final voyage and loss of the “Fancy-Me”.
SUCH ARE THE HOURS TO FIND PEACE
When Family Must Live with the Maritime Disaster of the Century
“Such are the hours to find peace”…. No more fitting words could describe the deepest feelings of a man who just days earlier, was only one of 59 of the 89 men and women when he returned home. He had survived the sinking of the Fancy-Me schooner when it succumbed to a hurricane off the coast of Hispaniola on July 25, 1926. The schooner had been built on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands for Jacob Wilson Smith, who, with his sons (and still for many of his descendants), had spent much of their lives in the business of boat building and inter-island transport. “Papa Jake’s” only daughter was Ann Smith. In the mid 1800’s she and her two young sons had moved from the British island of Tortola and made her home on St. Croix in the U. S. Virgin Islands. Through marriage, the Smiths of Tortola is linked to some of the members of the Bough family.
Times were hard throughout the english-speaking Caribbean in the early 1900s. Making a living to support one’s family had grown harder and harder at home. For the men of the island of Tortola and its surrounding British islands, so had employment from the bauxite and alumina industries on the U.S owned island of St. Thomas. For this reason, the men, and sometimes even the women, ventured for months at a time to the Dominican Republic (also known as Santo Domingo) where they could find work cutting sugarcane or working in factories in order to support their families. While some moved permanently with their families to San Pedro de Macoris, most of them returned home when the season ended, and waited for the next sugarcane harvest. Their families waited patiently for the financial support they sent home and for the time they would return home – whether to stay, or to return. It was on one of these trips home – when many were looking forward to celebrating the local emancipation of slavery with the traditional festivities planned for the first Monday in August, that the tragedy that has been marked historically as one that may have affected every family, and in which the loss of life totaled more than that combined for all the hurricanes that have affected the islands to date, occurred.
The brothers, James and Alexander Smith, by then owned their father’s boat – The Fancy-Me. James himself was at the helm when the boat left the Santo Domingo city of Macoris late that Friday. Some say they had hurried to leave. It was hurricane season, and a hurricane was always possible, but those who plied the seas were experts who had come to know what to expect during such weather, and just how to handle their vessels. Among other things, they knew that they could expect calmer waters in the open ocean. But the speed of the development of any storm was never predictable. Passengers were anxious to get home to their families, to celebrate the festivities, and to celebrate the marriage of one of their own, some say. The boat was also loaded with cargo – mostly sugar.…much of which had been placed on top of the boat’s larger of two anchors. If there was to be rough weather, it is possible that this was intended to stabilize the schooner on the high seas, though we can only surmise.
It was usually a trip that lasted four days. On the second day, as the weather worsened, it was necessary to take shelter near Saona, a small island south of Hispaniola. The captain dropped the available, but smaller anchor, which soon gave way with the tossing of the boat in the high, windy waves. Despite his efforts to rid the boat of cargo, and to instruct passengers to help with shifting from their weight in order to balance the boat as it was tossed from side to side, there was much fear and panic as the boat capsized as it was flung against a rock – a rock called El Caballo Blanco (The White Horse). The single lifeboat was soon full and the remaining passengers were therefore left to fend for themselves. It was night-time. They grabbed whatever floating trunks and bits of wood they could, sometimes fighting each other to gain possession in order to stay afloat; and sometimes uniting in the midst of the tragedy, in the hope of saving each other. Many hung on to whatever they could and prayed for a passing vessel that might see, and rescue them. This did happen, and some were taken to the small town of La Romana in Santo Domingo. A few also made it to shore, but more than half of the passengers, including the captain and first mate, both of them members of our Smith family, were lost at sea that night.
It was a tragedy, none the likes of which had ever, or has since been experienced by the small and closely-knit people of the British Virgin Islands. Though the family had always been, and continue to be well respected, everyone had lost someone, or knew someone that was aboard when the Fancy Me went down. Most of us knew of the incident, as we often heard of the loss of the Fancy-Me, but sooner or later would come to realize how little we also knew about it. Feelings ran as deep as the pain that remained, so little was ever said by family members or others within the families that had experienced the tragedy; and blame was hardly spared. Many of us sensed a measure of respect and admiration that was tinged with some distrust as we grew up.
In 1998, one member of the family, with the help of her father who interviewed perhaps the last two survivors, obtained verbatim but almost identical accounts of the incident some fifty years later – as though it had happened yesterday. “ Such Are the Hours to Find Peace: Intimate Accounts of the Loss of the Fancy-Me” recounts those two accounts, together with other accounts as they had been passed on through the years. Dr. Smith’s earlier writing as part of the story of the family, had been released. She described it then as a personal item that closes a loop, but also one from which she hoped that others would come to learn a great deal concerning the history, people and culture of those times.
Janet D. Smith, Ph.D. is a native of the Virgin Islands. She grew up on Tortola with her parents, Wilfred W. Mrs. Cheddena (Nibbs) Smiht. Dr. Smith, a higher education administrator, now lives in Jacksonville, Florida. She has worked at the University of the Virgin Islands as well as at Universities in Ohio, New York and California. Dr. Smith’s earlier writing on the “Fancy Me” is part of a 1992 description of the descendants of Jacob Wilson Smith a family known throughout the Virgin Islands for their citizenship, varied professional and boat building skills.