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One of the most told stories in the islands history is the story of “The Wreck of the Ten Sails”.
Legend says that one night in November, 1788, the “Cordelia”, the lead ship of a convoy of merchant ships bound from Jamaica to Britain ran aground on the reef at East End. A signal was given off to warn off the other ships, but was misunderstood as a call to follow closer and nine more ships sailed onto the reef. The people of East End are reported to have shown great heroism in ensuring that no lives were lost, and legend further states that one of the lives saved was one of royalty. For this, King George III is said to have granted the islands freedom from conscription, while another report claims that freedom from taxation was bestowed on the people of the islands as a reward. Actual records do not support this story entirely.
After his rescue, Captain Sir John Lawford travelled to George Town, sending a number of distress messages, one of which was to the Governor of Havana, asking for assistance with the remains of the convoy; another was sent to his commander-in-chief, Commodore John Ford. Three days after the wreck, leaders among the inhabitants of Grand Cayman informed Lawford that they were unable to continue to house and feed the numerous merchantmen and sailors. Lawford shipped off as many of the shipwrecked convoy members as he could. Among those to first leave Grand Cayman following the shipwreck were Lady Emilia Cooke and the naval and military officers who were travelling home. Within three weeks, a number of sloops and schooners arrived from Jamaica with provisions and assistance. Lawford and what was left of his crew proceeded to camp on the beach at Gun Bay. During this time, Lawford’s crew attempted to rescue the guns from the submerged ships. While none of the guns were salvaged, the mail carried on Convert was saved, along with a large proportion of the cargo from all the wrecked ships. Among the cargo salvaged from the merchant ships were loads of rum, cotton, and wood.
After Commodore Ford received Lawford’s distress call, a rescue was sent to the shipwrecked remaining on the island. HMS Success, a 32-gun Amazon-class fifth-rate frigate of the British Royal Navy, arrived at Grand Cayman in mid-March 1794, anchored only for a short time before taking Lawford and his crew back to Port Royal.
Legend From the Wreck of 10 Sail
Residents of the Cayman Islands enjoy a tax-free existence; local legend has it that the reason for the absence of taxation is related directly to the Wreck of the Ten Sail. According to the legend, a member of the passenger list for the 10 vessels included a royal prince, one of the sons of Britain’s King George III. The legend further states that when the King was apprised of the bravery on the part of the Caymanians in saving the crews and passengers of the foundering ships, he decided to repay their bravery. The reward became a decree that the people of the Cayman Islands would thereafter be free from war conscription and taxes. There is, however, no documented evidence that the decree was ever issued or that there was a member of the Royal Family on board one of the ships.
Two of the ten memorial stones embedded into ironshore cliff overlooking the Ten Sail wreck site
A picture of the Wreck of the Ten Sails memorial taken from the water.
*Citation and reference:
The Maritime Heritage of the Cayman Islands, pg. 156; Roger C. Smith, 2000 – University Press of Florida