On March 15, 1819, Captain Robert Sands was born in Hope Town, Abaco to Charles Sands and Elizabeth Malone. His mother Elizabeth is the granddaughter of Hope Town’s matriarch Suzannah Wyannie Malone.
Prior to 1841, he fell in love and married Rhoda Sweeting. The couple established their home in Hope Town, where they reared a large family of at least nine children: Joshua, Richardson Austin, Susan, Rosanna Jane, Henrietta Crompton, Charlotte, Elias Elizabeth, Nettie, and Minnie Rosebell Sands.
Like many fellow Abaconians, Captain Sands made his livelihood off the sea. During this era, the wrecking industry peaked in the Bahamas. Hidden reefs and changing currents presented a navigational challenge to ships that crossed these treacherous and often perilous waters. Merchant vessels sailed through the archipelago to deliver imports from Europe to the United States. Opportunist passengers left European poverty in pursuit of the American dream. Included in this 300+ fleet of Bahamian wrecking vessels was the schooner Oracle and her captain, Roberts Sands.
During 1852 at a shipyard in Maine, a three-masted sailing ship was under construction. The vessel was named the William and Mary in honor of the late 17th century reign of King William and Queen Mary.
In January 1853, the William and Mary with Captain Timothy Stinson at the helm sailed on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to Liverpool, England. On March 24, 1853, she left Liverpool with approximately 200 passengers headed on a two-month voyage to New Orleans. Unfortunately the vessel was equipped with only five lifeboats and no ship’s doctor. Travel slowed due to unpredictable weather conditions, including a hurricane.
During May 1853 while under heavy winds, the vessel navigated the dangerous waters of the Bahamas. She safely passed the Hole-in-the-Wall lighthouse in the early morning, but as conditions worsened the William and Mary “struck on a sunken rock” near Great Isaac Cay around 8:30 p.m.
History notes the cowardice that followed. Three of the five lifeboats were rendered unusable due to the shipwreck. In one of the remaining lifeboats, Captain Stinson and a handful of his crew abandoned the terrified, screaming passengers. When he arrived in America, Captain Stinson fabricated an account that the 200 passengers onboard had perished.
While tired, frantic passengers manned the vessel’s pumps to slow the inevitable destiny, relief was eventually sighted on the horizon’s dawn of May 5th. Nicknamed for his exceptional swimming ability, Abaconian Captain Robert ‘Amphibian’ Sands guided his wrecking schooner towards the foundering vessel. Instead of the ususal focus on salvaged cargo, Captain Sands and his crew spent the following five hours on a human rescue mission. His crew transported as many of the frightened survivors, including 50 children, to Grand Bahama. Captain Sands remained on board to help pump the rushing water.
A detailed account is provided in The Lost Story of the William and Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson by Gill Hoffs.London’s Morning Chronicle describe the heroism.
At age 33, Captain Sands received the Silver Medal of the Royal National Institution for his heroism. Lt. Governor C. R. Nesbitt assisted by Major D’Arcy, the Garrison Commander, made the presentation at Government House.
The Nassau Guardian announced the achievement.
Several years later a lighthouse was constructed on the coral island known as Great Isaac Cay off the coast of Bimini. The structure still stands today.
The wrecking ships the Oracle and the Contest visited a few settlements and after eight days arrived in Nassau. The inhabitants of Nassau rallied together to provide time, money, food, and clothes to the survivors. The Nassau Guardian reported “we have much pleasure in recording the benevolent acts of a committee of ladies of our town, who have been administering to the necessities of the unfortunate emigrants wrecked in the Am. ship William and Mary” (Hoffs, 2016, p. 119).
Special thanks to Marlene Roberts Wilson who introduced me to this amazing account of Abaconian bravery. Her great-grandfather is Captain Amphibian Sands. Marlene descends from his daughter Elilas Elizabeth Sands (1859-1941) who married Adin Roberts, Jr. (1851-1927) – pictured below.Examples of initial accounts reported loss of life as fabricated by Captain Stinson.
Rhode Island’s The Bristol Phenix
Ohio’s The Daily Commercial Register
New York Daily Tribune