Shipwrecks and Sand dunes: A Brief History of Sable Island

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

‘Unless I’m clean lost, we must now be somewhere near Sable Island. I’m expecting to hear the roar of its breakers any minute, and once the Francis gets amongst them, God help us all!’ These are the words of Captain Reefwell in James Macdonald Oxley’s 1897 adventure story The Wreckers of Sable Island. The Island already had a reputation as a dangerous site of multiple shipwrecks. A search on The Times digital archive for “Sable Island” produces 127 results from 1812 to 1899, most referring to shipwrecks. In 1812, with ‘the wind blowing hard… a heavy sea, and hazy weather’ HMS Barbados struck on the North West bar of Sable Island, and ‘notwithstanding every exertion, was lost’. Much of the ship’s cargo – sugar and rum, was not recovered.[1] Thirty-five years later, the Anglo Saxon was lost off Sable Island, carrying an extensive cargo that included 500 barrels of pork, 5000 barrels of bread, and 25 barrels and boxes of relief for the Great Irish Famine.[2]

Sable Island makes for such a good adventure story because it was dangerous but also physically striking. It is a long, thin sandspit about one hundred miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, uninhabited save for a population of feral horses and grey seals. MacDonald Oxley indulged in an atmospheric, gothic description, calling it ‘that strange island which scarcely lifts itself above the level of the Atlantic. Stories that chilled the blood had from time to time floated up to Halifax… shipwreck following fast upon shipwreck, and no on surviving to tell the tale.’ Despite MacDonald’s melodramatic indulgences, there is a grain of truth in his tale. An article in The Times in September 1842 described how a thirty-five year old sand dune was blown away to reveal ‘a number of small houses, built of timber and planks of a vessel’.[3] Within the houses lay bullets, military shoes, blankets and a penny from the reign of George II dated 1749, along with human remains. An inscribed dog collar enabled contemporaries to identify the bones as a British soldier. In 1872 and 1873 two lighthouses were built on either end of Sable Island and remain in operation today. However, they did not prevent all shipwrecks; an article from January 1920 reported the wreck of the Platea.[4]

Sable Island continues to fascinate to this day. Mary-Louise Byrne studied the dunes of the island, and discovered that over a thirty year period they have moved very little. This is extremely unusual for a barrier island. The feral horses on the island have been studied by ecologists, who believe they may be under threat from extreme weather and inbreeding. Others argue that the horses are thriving and should be removed from the island as they are an invasive species. They are not native to the island, and were introduced by the British in the 1750s.

Although the Island has recently been designated as a National Park Reserve and a there is a limit on the number of tourists that can visit, geographers including Mary-Louise Byrne have voiced concerns on the damage large numbers of visitors may have on dunes and wildlife. The island’s relationship with humans has transformed over the last hundred years. Once a place that inflicted damage upon humans, it has now become a place upon which humans inflict damage. However, the old stories about the island still resonate, in April of this year a group of visitors were prevented from landing due to incremental weather and huge waves, the same swell that Captain Reefwell was so frightened by over one hundred years ago.


[1] London Times, 29 October 1812, 87744.

[2] London Times, 31 May 1847, 19563.

[3] London Times, 17 October 1842, 18091.

[4] London Times, 3 January 1920, 42298.

Featured Image: from page 187 of ‘Atlantic Ocean Pilot. The Seaman’s guide to the navigation of the Atlantic Ocean, with numerous illustrations, charts and plans … To which is added, Notes on the Physical Geography of the Atlantic Ocean. By W. H. Rosser’, British Library.

1 thought on “Shipwrecks and Sand dunes: A Brief History of Sable Island

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