The Maritime History of the Virgin Islands: In this post, you’re going to learn a little information about the HMS Santa Monica, originally a Spanish frigate that hit a submerged rock off of Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands.
She eventually sunk in Round Bay, St. John shortly after.
Her tragic story adds to the rich maritime history of the US Virgin Islands, formerly known as the Danish West Indies.
This account is a fascinating tale of ingenuity where the captain and crew were able to survive despite being unable to thwart the amount of water that was pouring into the ship.
It happened thirty-two years after the discovery of one of the largest buried treasures found on nearby Norman Island.
You can imagine the town gossip when the news spread to the neighboring islands.
The Sinking of HMS Santa Monica
In 1782, His Majesty’s frigate, HMS Santa Monica was sailing along the island’s southern shore when she suddenly hit an uncharted rock that shook the crew on the top deck.
The submerged pinnacle was located two miles southwest of Norman Island’s western coast and rose from the depths to within nine feet of the surface.
On April 18, 1782, Captain Willkie of the Mary delivered the despatch to Bristol with the ‘disagreeable intelligence’.
‘The Santa Monica was lost, but the people have been saved.’
John Linzee, an experienced naval officer, was the captain of the Santa Monica.
His leadership was credited with saving much of the stores, and cargo, and all but one of the crew members.
HMS Santa Monica
According to a research report by East Carolina University, the vessel was on patrol from Antigua with orders to retaliate against five American ships that had recently attempted to raid Tortola.
While in convoy, Santa Monica “struck heavy four times and in the space of two minutes, she bulged on an unknown rock.”
The 202-man crew employed five pumps and forty buckets to stop the rushing water from filling the hull.
To save the ship, Captain Linzee had to make a quick decision, so he ran the 145-foot vessel towards the shore on the island of St. John.
Despite their best efforts, the ship broke up rapidly, removing any hope of making repairs.
Snorkelling Over a Shipwreck
There she sat on the bottom for over 188 years, until the summer of 1970, when an employee of the Caribbean Research Institute at the College of the Virgin Islands discovered the ships’ remains while snorkelling.
John Roy, to whom the credit was given, spotted the remnants lying in 25 feet of water, approximately 100 yards offshore in Round Bay.
Excavation of the site began the following year to learn about the archaeological history of the artifacts.
It’s no surprise they found evidence of looting, but the team was able to safeguard some of the pottery, glass bottles, and various metal fittings from the ship for preservation.
Their discovery fit the profile they surmised of a vessel being beached in an emergency.
- What remains today is a treasure trove…. a time capsule cemented in crustations on the bottom that have frozen the historical fragments together forever.
- Perhaps in the future, technology will reveal the full story behind the terrifying experience the crew endured as they struggled to keep their ship afloat on that fateful day.
The story of the HMS Santa Monica adds a rich chapter to the island’s history and deserves a prominent place in the history books.
You can read more about this story and more in Vintage Norman Island: True Treasure Tales available on amazon.
☞ Signed copies are available here!