When the S.S. Vestris, a British-owned ship sailing from New York to the Río de la Plata in South America, sank off the coast of Virginia on November 12, 1928, at least 111 people died. The disaster dominated newspaper headlines throughout the holiday season and into the following year, with public outrage mounting as survivors revealed the botched handling of the ship’s evacuation. The dead included 28 women and 13 children, most of whom were aboard the first lifeboats to leave the ship. Some of these smaller vessels spilled their occupants into the ocean after sustaining damage, while another remained attached to the Vestris and eventually sank with it. “Women and children were first—to drown,” Time magazine noted in a scathing report.
In addition to unaddressed stability issues, the Vestris was overloaded with cargo, which it carried to generate extra income. When the ship encountered a storm on the second day of its voyage, it began listing and taking on water. The situation was dire, but Captain William J. Carey didn’t send out a distress call until the following morning. By the time the evacuation order was issued later that day, the ship was listing so severely that the lifeboats loaded with women and children had to be lowered down from 50 to 60 feet above the water.
Amid the many accusations of incompetence and negligence that followed the wreck, stories of heroism stood out. The actions of Lionel Licorish, a 23-year-old sailor from Barbados, were particularly impressive. According to the New York Times, Licorish spotted an extra lifeboat strapped to the deck and unfastened it, ensuring it would float free after the ship sank. Once in the water, he tracked down a pair of oars and a sail, then spent the next 14 hours keeping the vessel afloat in stormy conditions and swimming through shark-infested waters to rescue between 16 and 20 people. He used a flashlight to signal for help in Morse code—a system he needed to know to fulfill his duties as the Vestris’ quartermaster—and rowed the lifeboat over to the rescuing ship when it arrived. As Licorish later said, he “would never like for anybody at all in the world to experience” what he had gone through that night, and he personally “would never like to experience it again” either.
After the disaster, multiple survivors described Licorish’s heroism to reporters; a man named Alfredo Ramos described him as “the only member of the crew who exerted himself on our behalf.” Carey, who went down with his ship, received most of the blame for the tragedy. Had he sent out a distress signal when the ship first started sinking, the evacuation would probably have been more organized, and everyone on board might have been saved. “It can only be assumed that he failed to fully realize the great danger to his passengers and ship,” a judge later concluded.
Carey and his crew also garnered criticism for the chaotic manner in which they loaded the Vestris’ lifeboats. The officers did not “seem to measure up to the standard that we would expect to be present in a British ship,” steamship inspector Dickinson Hoover told the Times. Today, safety drill requirements on passenger ships are much more stringent, in large part due to the Vestris and other maritime disasters.
After the accident, Licorish stayed in New York City, where he and most of the other Vestris survivors were taken by rescuers. He became an instant celebrity. Mayor James J. Walker recognized Licorish at City Hall, and hundreds of New Yorkers attended a reception in his honor in Harlem.
At a time when Jim Crow policies were the norm in much of the United States, the widespread acclaim Licorish received was significant. Being hailed as an exceptional member of a purportedly “inferior” race—as many white Americans viewed Black people at the time—was its own form of racism. But such praise could still aid progress, says David Wright, a literary scholar at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of Fire on the Beach, a 2002 book about the all-Black Pea Island life-saving crew, which performed rescues off the coast of North Carolina from 1880 to 1947. “The racism is clear, but the Pea Island crew had a stature in the community that mattered,” Wright says.
At the City Hall ceremony honoring Licorish, Walker voiced his opposition to racial discrimination. “When you left that ship and reached out your hands to save someone else’s life, it is fair and reasonable to suppose that no one asked what race you belonged to,” the mayor said. “That was all right out there in the raging waters. That was fine when the ship was going down. But I am rather inclined to believe that if we did a little more while the ship was sailing safely … this would be a greater country than it is today.”
As the Chicago Defender pointed out, few Black Americans had access to the kind of nautical training that Licorish had received as a resident of Barbados, then part of the British West Indies. The newspaper added, “Those who manage to get the training are given no opportunity to develop it and to use it on American ships.” For the most part, Black Americans who worked on commercial ships in the early 20th century were relegated to the lowest crew positions. “They were galley stewards, or they were firemen in the engine room, shoveling coal,” says maritime historian Jeffrey Bolster.
This racial hierarchy also existed on the Vestris. When white crew members came under scrutiny after the wreck, some accused their Black colleagues of not doing enough to help. One white engineer even tried to take credit for saving the people rescued by Licorish, but he had no evidence to back up this assertion. Indeed, numerous Vestris passengers, including the captain of a different ship, supported Licorish’s version of events. Charles Tuttle, the attorney who oversaw a federal investigation of the accident, agreed, saying, “The story of Lionel Licorish is a story of a hero of the sea.”
His reputation affirmed, Licorish embarked on a multicity tour that included appearances at several vaudeville theaters. Billed as the “hero of the Vestris disaster,” he went onstage in his sailor’s uniform and matter-of-factly recounted his role in the shipwreck. Licorish “has no stage tricks to heighten interest in his tale,” the Boston Globe reported. “He tells of his heroism much as if he were making a report of everyday activities, and he looks very much embarrassed while facing his audiences.”
These theater engagements took Licorish as far north as Bangor, Maine, and as far west as Chicago. But the publicity tour ended after a few months, and by 1930, Licorish was back in Barbados. There, he got married and soon resumed his work as a sailor.
After 1929, Licorish’s name rarely appeared in the news. Still, his actions weren’t entirely forgotten. In October 1930, the writer Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn published a poem titled “Ballad of the Golden Hands of Lionel Licorish,” praising the quartermaster’s efforts “to navigate those tumbling waves / As if they all lay still.” Then, in 1933, a surprising story surfaced: Licorish had been charged with smuggling in British Guyana. Newspapers offered few details about the case but used it to portray Licorish as a disgraced hero, with one writing that his glory had “fluttered and sank like the ship on which he performed his greatest deeds.”
Nine years later, in April 1942, a brief Associated Press article noted that Licorish was among the missing crew members of a British ship that sank in the Atlantic Ocean. A cargo ship called the S.S. Traveller, it was torpedoed by a German submarine while transporting supplies and explosives to England that January. Licorish and the other 51 people on board the ship were all killed. Just 36 years old at the time of his death, the Vestris hero was survived by his wife and their 2-year-old daughter.
Licorish was one of more than 29,000 sailors killed while serving in the British “Merchant Navy” during World War II, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that his death didn’t receive more attention. Like many celebrities, his fame arrived quickly and didn’t last long. Still, his cultural significance shouldn’t be discounted. He was a Black maritime hero with high-level boating and swimming skills, active at a time when the U.S. Navy barred Black Americans from enlisting. He was also, by all accounts, humble, kind and brave. While others tended to use flowery language when describing Licorish’s heroics, he spoke about his actions with “an unvaried absence of exaggeration,” in the words of the Times. As he once said, “I saved 20 passengers, all that I could, which I thought was my duty.”