Published 26th September 2021, 9:30pm
This year has been dedicated to celebrating Cayman’s seafaring heritage. In times gone by, these stories of the sea were passed down from elders or grandparents. The National Archive is pleased to have some of these stories live on in our Oral History programme. Accordingly, we wanted to feature a few of the best-known seafaring stories from our records on the anniversaries of these events.
In July, the Archive featured the story of the disappearance of the Nunoca. Now in September, we will focus on the story of the loss of the Majestic on its 80th anniversary, 27th September 1941. We will aim to present this tragic event in Cayman’s history from several view points, including the survivors, as well as those impacted back home.
The story of the Majestic is first introduced by Mr. Lee Ebanks.
Part1: The Hurricane
In one of our earliest Oral History interviews recorded on June 17th, 1986 and in his book Lest it be Lost, Mr. Lee Alfonso Ebanks of West Bay gives a detailed account of the sinking of the schooner Majestic. He explained that he wished to do so “… to show you what difficulties Caymanians were up against on some of these trips [to the Cays to catch turtles, shark and fish].”
“There was the good schooner Majestic; this was in the year 1941, September. At this time shark hides were in great demand on world markets, and fully equipped Cayman fishermen, went to the feeding grounds on the banks off the coast of Nicaragua for catches of the nurse shark. This species of shark was most sought-after because it has no teeth and could be easily caught in nets made for the purpose. The men who fished for sharks were known as ‘rangers’ and were carried to the fishing grounds, with the catboats and equipment, by vessels that put them out, as I said, on the various little cays, where they built their huts and stayed for the season, a period of several weeks [June – September]. Well, after ample time had passed for fishing, the vessels returned, picked up the ‘rangers’ with their skins and equipment and brought them back as prearranged.
There was one Capt. Steadman Bodden, 82 years of age, I understand, [who] was captain at the time of the 50-ton schooner Majestic…[He was hired by the ship’s owner, Dr. Roy McTaggart, to pick up ‘rangers’ from the cays on the Majestic because the original vessel that had taken the rangers out to the cays, the REMBRO, was delayed on another journey. Capt. Steadman agreed to go instead on the Majestic…to collect the complement of ‘rangers’ from the cays who were preparing for…the return home]... when a hurricane made down. The little schooner was securely…moored off one of the cays, but the weather worsened and differences of opinion arose as to what was to be done. Well, in the final analysis, some of the seamen decided to go ashore on one of the little cays and the captain…Capt. Bodden and some of the others decided that they would stay with the ship. After a while, the weather worsened and the Majestic foundered in the full fury of the ever-worsening weather.
While the men on the little cay battled, battled it out in the mangrove bush, the Majestic went down at her moorings, or drifted away. I’m not too sure which…or parted and drifted away; but she foundered in the storm. Capt. Bodden and some 20 others on board all drowned, while the 19 who went ashore on the little cay managed to survive.
Most of the men lost were of the district of West Bay and among them was a little boy, I understand, five years of age, who had been taken on the trip by his father because he had asthma and he thought that the sea air would cure him. This little fella (fellow) was among those who lost their lives.
Most of the men saved were from the district of East End, because I think one of the very stalwart seamen, one Dixon from East End, actually succeeded in coaxing them to follow him, and he was the one who took the lead in…in taking the chance on the cay. And they were actually saved. And in time, these ‘rangers’, the survivors, were picked up and brought home by two other schooners that were also weathering the storm out, I think, at Mosquito Cay. [These were] the REMBRO, under Capt. McNeil Conolly, and the schooner Lydia E. Wilson, under Capt. Robert Ebanks. …In due course they [picked up] and took the stranded seamen back to their home in Cayman. In some cases, as many as three members of the same family were lost. So that was a sad story of the loss of the Majestic which will be remembered by Caymanians for a long time to come.”
Part 2: Memories of Survivors
The story of the sinking of the Majestic provides a vivid picture of the dangers faced by these seafarers of this era. It reminds us of the bravery, ingenuity and huge risks faced by all those who participated in these industries and the subsequent heartbreak, loss and hardship associated with these occupations.
At the time of the storm, Vernal Ebanks was a young 14-year-old on his third trip to the cays. On earlier trips he had been taught by his father, to cook for the crew of the schooners that transported the ‘rangers’ to the cays to fish for turtle, fish or sharks. Once at the cays, the men would select a spot to set up crude campsites and fish from for 8 to 10 weeks at a time. To give you an idea of the hardship faced by families of our seamen, one need not look any farther than at Mr. Vernal’s life story. Seven weeks before the Majestic disaster, his father suffered a stroke on board a ship on which he was fishing for fish and lobster to take to Panama. News of his passing took a month to reach his family in Cayman. Vernal himself received this sad news while away fishing in the cays. His late father’s family would go on to lose another three brothers, Mr. Vernal’s uncles.
Mr. Vernal recalls that the night, before the storm, they noticed that the ‘elements’ to the north and northeast of them became coal black. The Captain noted that he did not like the way that things looked. However, the seas remained nice and smooth when they went to bed. When they awoke the next morning however, they found that the wind was blowing hard to the southeast. By about 9 am, concern was growing amongst many of the crew and they began to debate if the weather was really a hurricane or just ‘bad weather’? The Captain firmly asserted his opinion that “… it’s just squally weather” and made the decision to remain with the ship while encouraging most of the crew to do the same. Others in the group feared that it was much more serious and Mr. Vernal shared that he ‘knew that it was really a hurricane.’
Mr. Varion Ebanks shares his father’s memories from those who went ashore. ‘…As they went ashore, the tide rose so high that the boats lodged in the tops of the mangrove trees. They remained crammed together in the three boats all night exposed to the wind and rain. The boats quickly filled with water and these men found themselves sitting in waist deep water inside their smaller boats for hours until the storm subsided.
Sadly, from this vantage point they witnessed the demise of the Majestic as it was battered by the hurricane force winds and waves. In spite of the valiant efforts of the captain and seamen on board who could be seen trying every tactic possible to save the ship and themselves, the Majestic eventually parted and 23 men/souls were lost that tragic night.’
Part 3 – Community Impact
Before the days of radios or phones, loved ones were waiting anxiously for word of the overdue Majestic When the Wilson sailed in, the sad news of the loss of the Majestic began to spread.
The loss sent shock waves through Cayman leaving many families in want as their main breadwinners were no more.
Vinola Ebanks who was only nine at that time, lost her father and four brothers on the Majestic: (two brothers by her mother & father and two of her father’s from a previous marriage). In her words: “Oh my poor mother! I tell you, the grief that she went through….that was the day that her world had come to an end!” She went on to describe the hardship faced and how she worked to help her mother cope from then onwards.
In order to make ends meet for the family, Ms. Vinola walked 9 miles once a week to and from George Town to collect a week’s supply of groceries kindly made available to the family by Dr. Roy McTaggart, the owner of the Majestic. In order to supplement their income, she described how in time she would sell eggs and live chickens to people in George Town on route.
This quick snapshot paints a picture of Cayman’s early seafaring years when most of the Nation’s population relied almost solely on the unique industries of fishing for turtles, sharks and fish. Funded by local merchants, these brave island seamen traveled far from their shores to meet the world-wide demand for turtle and sharks that existed at this time. In the process, these hardy islanders managed to eke out a livelihood for their families while becoming admired and renowned for the skills and abilities they developed pursuing their trades.
There are others in our collections who spoke about the Majestic, we have only highlighted a few. To research this topic and others, please contact the National Archive at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Facsimile of Government Notice, Cayman Islands National Archive.