A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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Sable Island

Some two hundred miles to the eastwards of Halifax lies Sable Island. A dried out peak of sand hills and grass, it is the only summit of a chain of banks, stretching from the Great Bank of Newfoundland to the shores of the United States, to rise above the restless surface of the Atlantic. The Nova Scotia Pilot describes the Island as being:

". . . formed of two nearly parallel ridges of sand, shaped by the wind into sand hills, which frequently change their positions; many of these sand hills terminate in steep cliffs, while others are fronted by grass, and terminate in broad benches."

Offshore, Sable Island is flanked by dangerous bars of shifting sand; as the Island itself rises nowhere above eighty feet, is perfectly treeless and presents no marked contrast in colour with the surrounding waters, this bunker of low-lying land and treacherous shallows, lying squarely in the northern route to the American continent, has claimed the forfeit of countless ships and lives. In fog and gales, wounded vessels drove helplessly to destruction without sight or sound of land; in fine weather they ghosted unknowingly into the haze of that indeterminate boundary between land and shore. All seamen have experienced the difficulties of a low landfall on mainland coasts. The dangers of a small isolated sand dune, such as Sable Island, are very much worse. The record of destruction is continuous and, if the incidence of shipwreck has declined with modern aids to navigation, it is, also, unlikely that the Island has claimed its last installment on this grim account.

Photo: Boatwork at Sable Island

Boat work at Sable Island. The use of ship borne helicopters now greatly reduces the work.

It is thought that Cabot was the first recorded human being to sight the Sable Island, but this is pure conjecture as he logged only the passing of two islands which, at safe distance from the decks of a small vessel, he might well have thought the sand hills to be. It is certain, however, that the place was known to fishermen and traders of the early sixteenth century, and it is alleged that French expeditions left cattle there. Troilus de Mesgouez, Marquis de la Roche, is known to have landed there about 1598, leaving some fifty or sixty convicts with a few provisions before he searched for a more suitable place on the neighbouring shores of Acadia. On his return passage to Sable, de la Roche was hard driven by the prevailing westerlies, was unable to beat back, and left his unfortunate men as he made for France with a free sheet. After appalling miseries, living on seals and scraggy cattle, and clothing themselves in uncured skins, some eleven hirsute survivors of quarrelling and hardship were picked up by a relief expedition in 1603.

Apart from fishermen, who for generations had been attracted by walrus and seal, it was mainly shipwrecked seamen who fetched up on the Island until, towards the close of the eighteenth century, the Colonial authorities decided to provide a refuge there. In January 1798, the Governor of Nova Scotia despatched the schooner Black Snake, of Liverpool, N.S., to pick up known cast-away, and to leave a small party to remain over the winter and render assistance towards the future saving of life and property.

Official interest in Sable Island was heightened as a result of a tragic shipwreck in 1799; from this would arise a strange tale which, to this day, is difficult to resolve. It was in that year that His Royal Highness Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent, arrived in Canada as Commander-in-Chief of British North America. Later to become the father of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Kent had previously lived in Canada for some years, perhaps the happiest of a not particularly satisfying life. He liked Canada, and his house may still be seen in Quebec City where he had many friends; the Island of St. John was renamed Prince Edwards Island in his honour.

At the time of his appointment, it had been decided that the Duke of Kent's household staff and effects should arrive ahead of him but, owing to an embargo on shipping caused by British military operations at Den Helder, a landing which remains one of the classic pieces of mismanagement in all the history of war, a ship had not been available when required and the Duke arrived at Halifax ahead of his staff. They eventually sailed in a vessel called the Francis, the party being under the charge of an army surgeon. Dr. Copeland who, with his wife and children, headed a group of officers and servants, including a gardener and coachman complete with coach. The household effects comprised furniture, jewels and plate, and a collection of rare and valuable maps. The Francis never arrived.

About this time, there had been rumours of evil deeds on Sable Island, these tales arising from the activities of pirates and wreckers who, it was alleged, lured ships to their fate and reaped a harvest of ill-gotten gain. In 1801 the Nova Scotia Government appointed commissioners to administer the Island, and a superintendent and four men were installed, complete with portable house and whaleboat. Some time later, the superintendent called for assistance in the removal of a family of bad reputation who had been found there, and an army officer, Captain Torrens, was despatched from the garrison at Halifax to investigate. During this visit it was found that the Francis had stranded on Sable Island, and that every living soul had perished, both passengers an crew. To this point the facts are established, but the tale from now on is not verified.

It appears that Captain Torrens was himself wrecked on Sable Island but, after an exhausting experience he was able to find shelter with his dog, in a hut make from flotsam; while in the hut he was visited by a lady as pale as death, with a long white dress and tangled hair, who held out a hand entwined in seaweed. As the dog recoiled in fear, Captain Torrens noticed that one of the lady's fingers had been cut off and was still dripping with blood. Opening a case of bandages salved from the beach, he was about to help when she suddenly slipped by him and disappeared after a puzzling and eery chase.

A sequel to this strange happening was yet to come. Captain Torrens got back to Nova Scotia, strongly suspecting that some of the Francis people had struggled ashore, possibly with items of jewelry. He eventually tracked down the family who had been deported from the island and, with a view to opening a conversion about the missing valuables, entered their remote cabin wearing a particular gaudy ring which he had purchased for the occasion.

There were only women in the house, the man being away at the Labrador fishing. After some preliminary talk, during which Torrens flashed his ring, a daughter of the family was unable to resist comment saying, with a pout, that it was nothing to the one her father had got from the lady's hand at Sable Island. At this point the mother hastily intervened with some less criminal explanation, at which the girl coloured and became flustered. By now thoroughly alarmed, Torrens questioned the women closely and discovered that the ring had been left for sale with a Halifax watchmaker, who had advanced twenty shillings on the transaction. The watchmaker was found, Captain Torrens purchased the ring for twenty shillings, and instructions were left that, if approached by the wreckers family, they were to be told to:

"bring the finger that was cut off to get it, and then come to me."

No person ever did come to claim the ring.

The ring was eventually identified by the ladies of the Halifax garrison as being the property of Mrs. Copeland, who was lost in the Francis, and it was said to have been returned to her family after further scrutiny and identification by the Duke of Kent.

Variations of this story, and of the missing jewels, are to be heard to this day and the writer, with no previous knowledge of the subject, heard it discussed during the preparation of this work. It is an intriguing narrative, with all the elements of a winters tale. The place to hear it is in Nova Scotia when the fire dies down of an evening, the fog rolls in from sea, and an Atlantic wind rattles the shingles of the roof.

When Captain Torrens was shipwrecked in 1803, he made his way from the rough shelter which had attracted the wraith of Mrs. Copeland, to join up with James Morris, the superintendent appointed by the Nova Scotia Government, and remained with him a whole winter before returning to the mainland. Morris, who was superintendent until his death on the Island in 1809, was a hardy soul, as might have been expected, and he worked successfully at the business of helping those in distress, saving many lives.

His first problem was to provide the minimum essentials of life for his men which, in those days when food and shelter were more difficult to transport than they are today, was by no means assured of success. Even the erection of his prefabricated house, a process which strikes a chord of sympathy in modern ears, was not without difficulty:

"This gave us many struggles . . . but surely the carpenter that framed the house was either in love or stupid, as many pieces were wrong numbered, and no braces of any consequence to the building, which gave me a great deal of trouble."

Morris had been supplied with staple provisions, grass and garden seeds, some livestock and a horse. The superintendents horse was not the first on Sable Island, famed to this day for its wild horses whose origin is uncertain but which is credited to a small herd imported by the Rev. Andrew le Mercier, a Boston Huguenot who had placed a few settles there about 1740. There were times, when the transient population was higher than usual, that horses were used for food and on one occasion the guests remarked that:

"We all chose the horse venison, which was equal, and some say superior to any common beef on the continent."

Photo: Nameboards of a few of the ships lost on Sable Island

Name boards of a few of the ships lost on Sable Island.

Perhaps it has something to do with the air of the Island for again, in 1842 when no particular shortage was in evidence, Morris successor noted that:

"Dec. 10th., we got another fat horse for to eat."

During the period of this first relief establishment, shipping traffic was not as heavy as it would later become but, even then, four ships, four brigs and seven schooners were known to have been cast away on Sable Island and their crews to have been saved by Morris and his men. There were many others whose fate was unknown until the wreckage came ashore:

"Found several pieces of broken boards, new painted, handspikes, tampons for cannon, a stand for a grindstone, trucks for running rigging, spars etc., which gave me reason to suppose some vessel had been lost. Consequently I took a horse and examined every part of the Island on the north and south beaches, but saw nothing more except a potash barrel on the northwest bar, new made, and one head branded First sort Potash, J. Bouthellier, Montreal."

In the years following 1809, many more ships were cast away on Sable Island, and the Nova Scotia Government maintained the relief establishment, with increasingly better facilities until, in 1867, the Dominion Government took over. From the earliest official administration of Sable Island it had been the custom to offset the cost of the humane establishment by auctioning, to the commissioners account, the property salved from ships and sometimes the wreck itself. As late as the 1850s when the Nova Scotia Government employed the iron paddle steamer Druid on the Sable Island supply, her cost was offset by such sales. There have been few, if any, government ships which ever attained the distinction of actually making a profit for their owners.