The forgotten island disaster

Vatersay beach, scene of the islands' 'forgotten disaster', where the Annie Jane wrecked in in a storm in 1853 with the loss of 350 lives.

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A new book reveals the ‘untold story’ of the wreck of the Annie Jane, a ‘forgotten island disaster’ off the Isle of Vatersay which claimed hundreds of lives.

At almost midnight on September 28 1853, the Annie Jane was wrecked in a horrendous storm and driven ashore on the small island of Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides, with the loss of up to 350 passengers and crew.

On a walk on Vatersay during the millennium, Lewis author Allan F Murray encountered a tall granite obelisk, paid for by Robert Macfie, which reads: ‘On September 28, 1853, the ship Annie Jane, with emigrants from Liverpool to Quebec, was totally wrecked in this bay and three fourths of the crew and passengers, numbering about 350 men, women and children, were drowned and their bodies interred here. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it. [Rev. XX 12].’

‘Looking round that peaceful place, it was hard to believe that something traumatic had ever occurred there. I turned to my companion and declared I was going to find out the story behind the tragedy.’

A single booklet, entitled Shipwrecked on Vatersay, drew him even more into the story. ‘A new ship; an aborted, disastrous first voyage; a fractious legal case to try to recover passage money; reluctant passengers who had to take passage again because it was that or starve in Liverpool.

‘Then the second voyage, a near mutiny, and the captain, William Mason, holding the passengers off with a revolver: ‘Quebec or the bottom,’ he said. The carnage and chaos of the shipwreck, and up to 350 dead strewn all along that beach, and the 102 survivors being given reluctant hospitality on the small, remote island of Vatersay, some of them for up to a fortnight, being told to mind the pigs as they slept in the sty.

‘Then came the looting of the wreck and the bodies, the trip back to civilisation, with some of the survivors taking a month to return to their homes. Subsequently, the public outcry, then an official inquiry in Liverpool and the controversial result.
‘Then this accidental monument, not put up by government, emigrant organisation or relatives of the deceased, but out of the goodness of one individual.
‘Without it, the disaster would have been forgotten.’

Mr Murray’s research discovered two eyewitness accounts, one from a ‘ragged school’ orphan being sent to Canada to begin a new life, published in late 1853 in the Ragged School Magazine, and a 19-year-old man, Marc Ami, a cabin-class passenger, whose memoir Le Naufrage de l’ Annie Jane was written in 1856, but not published until 1891 in Quebec.
The publisher said the book is a fitting memorial to the brave emigrants who did not make it.

For the first time, the names of those who perished and survived one of the worst shipwrecks in British maritime history is recorded for posterity.

The Wreck of the Annie Jane: the Forgotten Island Disaster will be released on Tuesday November 28 at Stornoway Library.