Sombrero Island — a distant light | On this day

A small speck of land at the northern end of the Leewards, Sombrero Island is known to few — but has a surprisngly colourful history. James Ferguson tells tales of shipwrecks, guano mines, and the 150-year-old lighthouse that saved countless sailors’ lives in the dangerous Anegada Passage

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

As dusk fell on the evening of 1 January, 1868, Europe-bound ships passing warily through the infamous Anegada Passage — the forty-mile stretch of water separating the British Virgin Islands from the northern tip of the Leewards — may have been surprised to see the regular and reassuring flashes of a distant lighthouse on their starboard side. A white glow appeared directly across the dark water every sixty seconds before fading away into the night. Some ships, it is said, sounded their sirens in appreciation as they headed out of the Caribbean Sea into the Atlantic. Once a dangerous place of hidden reefs and unpredictable currents, the Anegada Passage was suddenly a great deal safer.

The site of the beacon was a tiny, arid outcrop at the northernmost tip of the Leeward archipelago, one of the most remote of the Caribbean’s seven thousand islands and a minuscule outpost of the British Empire. Named Sombrero Island because it resembled a Mexican hat in shape, this ninety-acre islet had no fresh water, almost no vegetation, and a large population of lizards and seabirds. It was considered part of the (relatively) larger colony of Anguilla and had belonged to Britain since 1714.

The lighthouse, made of steel girders and shipped across the Atlantic from London, was assembled and situated on Sombrero’s highest point, forty feet above sea level. An engraving of 1875 shows an Eiffel Tower–like construction standing on a base, topped by a lantern room. It burned kerosene and was operated by a staff of four lighthouse keepers, who worked shifts at night to keep the light shining before it was extinguished at dawn.

Sombrero was undeniably isolated, lying thirty-four miles northwest of Anguilla, but it had known irregular human habitation since the early nineteenth century. A British sailor marooned for stealing beer had survived his ordeal by being spotted by a passing American ship. It was then discovered by British geologists that vast accretions of seabird droppings had formed nitrate-rich guano deposits. News of this find reached the United States, and in 1856 an American company began extracting the fertiliser and exporting it back to the plantations of the South. Workers were required for the gruelling mining operation, and an exclusively black workforce was recruited from neighbouring islands. In its heyday, the operation employed two hundred men, accommodated in ramshackle huts and reliant on supplies brought from St Martin. As there was no port or beach, the guano had to be shovelled into barges which then transferred their cargo to boats lying off the island.

MORE LIKE THIS:   Winston Duke: “I’m unfinished” | Own words

Just like the extraction process, the social situation was unsustainable. A violent dispute over wages broke out in August 1860, and, according to The New York Times, one of the workers “hurled a tremendous lump of guano at [a white foreman’s] head, crushed his skull with the blow, and left him for dead on the ground.” The workers then took over the island, plundering the stores, until order was finally restored. Seven years later, an international court ruled that the US company had illegally occupied the island, and sovereignty — together with the guano mine — was restored to Britain. Extraction continued until supplies ran out in 1890 and the mine was closed. Little remains of this nitrate mini-boom, apart from a few scattered industrial ruins, a worker’s tombstone, and the gouged, cratered landscape.

 

For twenty-two years, the lighthouse keepers had shared the island with a fractious community of miners and overseers, but now they were left on their own. The lighthouse itself was administered by Trinity House in London, the organisation charged with UK maritime safety. In 1931, improvements were made to its light power and it was given a solid concrete base. This proved ineffective, however, when Hurricane Donna smashed into Sombrero in September 1960, and damaged it beyond repair. It was demolished and replaced by a similar-looking skeletal structure mounted on a concrete base, inaugurated in July 1962. It was 126 feet high, requiring the keepers to climb 163 steps to reach the lantern room at the top.

The lives of the lighthouse keepers from the 1970s are evocatively recreated in an article entitled “Marooned” by Sarah Harrison in The Anguillian. Interviewing the recently retired Sam Richardson in 2013, she captures the strange, lonely existence of those men:

Perhaps understandably for someone who spent thirty-one years adrift in the middle of the ocean with only four companions, Sam likes to talk. He was part of a team that consisted of a Principal Keeper, two assistant keepers and a cook. They would each spend six weeks on Sombrero and two weeks leave back on Anguilla. According to Sam, those six weeks flew by. Unless you got to brooding, that is. “Sometimes it could get a little boring if you started to think too much” . . . For recreation, the keepers snorkelled and fished. Once Sam saw a large shark while snorkelling, which, thankfully, was not interested in him. They listened to the radio, played cards or dominoes, and star-gazed. 

This way of life was to end, to Sam’s regret, in September 2001, when a third, automated lighthouse was donated to Anguilla’s government by Trinity House and installed alongside the now disused concrete bases of the two previous structures. Looking rather like a white space rocket ready for take-off, this fifty-foot unmanned facility emits a white flash every ten seconds, powered by solar energy.

MORE LIKE THIS:   Linton Kwesi Johnson: Revalueshanary Voice

Sombrero Island continues to provide a vital maritime service, exactly 150 years after the first London-built lighthouse began guiding shipping through the feared Anegada Passage. Today it is uninhabited, visited occasionally for maintenance checks or by divers or ornithologists, who must climb steep metal stairs from a dinghy to reach flat ground. The site is eerily atmospheric, with crashing waves and the noise of breeding boobies and terns filling the air.

Twenty years ago, in 1998, there were reports that the now-defunct Beal Aerospace company wanted to lease the island as a test rocket launch pad — but, thankfully, the plans came to nothing. And that will probably remain the case, as one of Sombrero’s distinct disadvantages — along with its precipitous cliffs and lunar appearance — is the fact that at only forty feet above sea level, it is occasionally swamped by large waves during storms or hurricanes, leaving only the lighthouse standing above water.