Wreckers in the Dark

Social Ills & Opposition to Safe Harbor Lights

In 2000 Bella Bathurst won a Somerset Maugham Award for her unusual book, The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Lighthouses saved tens of thousands of lives during a time when sea transport was key to the economy of the British Empire. According to the Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, there are at least 33,000 known wrecks around the British coastline. In the late 1700s a campaign was launched to build lighthouses along the coast of England to guide ships away from treacherous waters.

In researching her book, Bathurst discovered something so surprising that it inspired further research and a subsequent book, The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas and Plundered Shipwrecks, from the 18th Century to the Present Day (2005). She learned that many coast dwellers in England, especially wreckers—as those who made off with shipwrecked goods were called—vigorously opposed the lighthouses and sometimes even resorted to sabotage. This was because they "had a vested interest in ensuring that ships continued being destroyed. Many coastal villages staked their livelihoods on the exotic plunder to be found in dead and dying ships; the wrecker saw their looting as a perk of nautical life and bitterly resented any attempts to interfere. . . . [W]reckers were furious at the prospect of a safer sea."

Wreckers sometimes refused to aid a floundering ship and even went so far as to place false lights to guide ships into danger. Sometimes they killed wreck survivors.

Moderns will shake their heads at the wreckers' violence and opposition to the increased safety brought by lighthouses. Yet many people today oppose measures to make life's seas safer for children because they benefit from child endangerment. Consider how many occupations are tied to the shipwreck of the modern family: no-fault divorce and child custody lawyers; mental health counselors; "comprehensive" sex education instructors; drug, alcohol, and sex addiction professionals—not to mention all the jobs related to the high crime and incarceration rates among men raised without fathers—and so on.

Is there an effective way to address such social ills? In an op-ed appearing in The (Philadelphia) Inquirer last August, law professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander suggest that "the causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture. That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. . . . Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime. These basic cultural precepts reigned from the 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities."1

The benefits of such behavior are manifold: "Among those who currently follow the old precepts, regardless of their level of education or affluence, the homicide rate is tiny, opioid addiction is rare, and poverty rates are low. Those who [decide to re-embrace and] live by the simple rules that most people used to accept may not end up rich or hold elite jobs, but their lives will go far better than they do now. All schools and neighborhoods would be much safer and more pleasant."

Now, you would think Wax and Alexander would be applauded for shining a clear light on our social maladies, but many have viciously denounced them. Their critics are furious at the prospect of making the seas safer for young people and prefer the perilous status quo. As before, the wreckers need to be opposed, and more lighthouses need to be built. Salvo strives to shine a light in dark places. 

is the executive editor of Salvo and the  Director of Publications for the Fellowship of St. James.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #43, Winter 2017 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo43/wreckers-in-the-dark


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