The Heroism of William Jackman

On 9 October 1867, in Spotted Island Harbour, Labrador, Captain William Jackman secured his vessel ahead of a vicious storm and went ashore to visit his old friend, John Holwell. Before the day ended, events transpired that earned Jackman a place in Newfoundland history — and legend.

History and legend are closely aligned; history refers to events as they happened. It takes careful study of many sources to ascertain the truth. Legend differs from history in its accounting; legend is based on actual events but becomes altered over time.

Jackman conducted a daring rescue that cold October day. His story exists where history and legend intersect. Though his story of selflessness and heroism is little-known, the details are becoming murky.

Spotted Island Harbour, where Jackman first sighted the Sea Clipper, being dashed to pieces on a reef on 9 October 1867 (courtesy Von E. Levan).

After his “mug-up” with Holwell, Jackman wanted some air. The two men walked along the coast, though the expected gale was blowing up.

Hearing a gunshot, they rushed to the top of a hill. They saw a schooner floundering on a reef 152 m from shore. Some versions of the story place the vessel 365 m from shore. It was the fishing schooner Sea Clipper. Jackman and Holwell could see its crew and passengers at the rail; some accounts have them clinging to the shrouds.

It is evident where history crosses over to legend — it is unlikely that they could have seen people aboard a boat over 300 m away in the lashing waters of a brutal storm. But this is the stuff from which legends are made. How much more dramatic the story becomes with the ship far from shore!

The Clipper had 27 people aboard, an unlikely number for a fishing schooner, but it was an ill-fated vessel. It had run down another boat, the Loon, earlier in the day but managed to save the passengers and crew before the Loon sank.

Holwell ran for help. Jackman stayed to keep watch, knowing the impossibility of getting a lifeboat to the schooner that would certainly break up within a couple of hours. Impulsively, Jackman shed his clothes and rushed into the frigid water. He tried to swim, but the waves pushed him back. He swam under water, surfacing every few strokes to breathe, and reached the floundering boat.

Taking the first man on his back, Jackman was surprised to discover that the waves helped him reach shore. He plunged into the waves again. By the time Holwell returned with help, Jackman had rescued 11 people.

In some renditions of the story, Jackman, alone on the beach and guided by some fisher’s instinct, saw the ship and, knowing that none knew of its fate, set out to save the desperate souls clinging to the luckless vessel and sent the first rescued man for help.

The rescuers brought a dory, but the sea was too rough for its use. They tied coils of rope together. Jackman tied the end around his waist, swam out to the boat and tied the other end to the rail. With the rope and assistance from shore, he was able to swim back and forth for over two hours, until he had rescued all but one.

In 1992 Canada Post commemorated William Jackman's legendary heroism by issuing a stamp as part of their "Legendary Hero's" series

When he had stumbled onto the beach, seemingly for the last time, the hushed crowd couldn’t believe what they had witnessed. Jackman was finishing a cup of tea when someone said there was still someone aboard, the cook of the Loon, who had been injured in the collision with the Clipper. Jackman set out again, though the crowd objected; the woman was probably dead already.

For the 27th time, Jackman entered the raging surf. He reached the ship and found the woman lying in the water. Some stories have her in her berth, about to breathe her last breath. Jackman managed to bring the woman to shore, but she died two days later. Other accounts say the woman lived only long enough to kiss Jackman goodbye.

The British Royal Humane Society awarded Jackman a silver medal. He died in 1877, aged 39, the result, many said, “of the strain his superhuman exertions had placed on his heart.”

Jackman is not a well-known hero. Though some lament that none have “risen to record the deed in immortal verse,” Jackman has been remembered in a rather discordant ballad entitled “The Man Who Saved the Day.” The Captain William Jackman Memorial Hospital in Labrador City was named in his honour in 1965 (it was closed in 2014 and replaced the following year by theLabrador West Health Centre).

A daring man, a desperate situation, and heroic deeds; this is the stuff of which legends — and history — are made.