Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. ‘Ghost Galleon’ a Treasure Trove of History, Archaeology

 

In 1997, San Francisco-based Edward Von der Porten, a noted marine archaeologist, learned of an unknown Manila galleon wreck on California’s coast. The discovery led to a hunt for the wreck and 20 years studying it.

Von der Porten’s “Ghost Galleon: The Discovery and Archaeology of the San Juanillo on the Shores of Baja California” captures the result of that effort.

One of Von der Porten’s study areas was Chinese porcelain, a frequent cargo in the Manila galleons. These returned to Mexico with Far East goods: porcelains, silks, beeswax and spices. He previously studied the porcelains captured from the Spanish but abandoned by Francis Drake near San Francisco Bay. When he saw a photograph of a plate described as “excavated from an unpublished site off the California coast,” he recognized it as from a wrecked Manila Galleon. He sought out the discoverers of the plate, who showed him where they had found it.

The site, in Baja, California, yielded hundreds more Chinese porcelain potsherds on Von der Porten’s first expedition. The mix of different styles indicated it was one of the earliest galleons in this trade. Study could yield much knowledge about the Manila galleons, 16th-century China and the Philippines.

The book describes Von der Porten’s two-decade effort extracting the secrets of the wrecked galleon, including its identity. He visited the site at least every other year, studying the objects discovered. Readers follow as he pieces together the ship’s name, its history and its cargo from the fragments of porcelain, blocks of wax and metal fragments.

“Ghost Galleon” contains chapters describing the ship, its background and the 16th-century transpacific trade. It’s an adventure, describing the ups and down of both the San Juanillo’s crew and the archaeologists trying to untangle its mysteries.

It’s also a family story. Von der Porten was accompanied by his wife, a son, a grandson, and daughters-in-law on the numerous expeditions (the grandson eventually became a marine archaeologist). Lavishly illustrated, “Ghost Galleon” is a marvelous tale for those fascinated by old ships or stories of people working together on a hunt of discovery.

“Ghost Galleon: The Discovery and Archaeology of the San Juanillo on the Shores of Baja California” by Edward P. Von der Porten, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 248 pages, $60

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Published in History, Literature
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There are 10 comments.

  1. RightAngles Member

    Oh this reminded me of Noyes’s “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.”

    • #1
    • January 19, 2020, at 2:01 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  2. Seawriter Member
    Seawriter

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Oh this reminded me of Noyes’s “The moon was a ghostly galleon/Tossed upon cloudy seas.”

    This time the ghostly galleon got tossed on a desert coast. The author speculates the crew was near death through scurvy and starvation when the ship ran aground. 

    • #2
    • January 19, 2020, at 2:27 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  3. RightAngles Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Oh this reminded me of Noyes’s “The moon was a ghostly galleon/Tossed upon cloudy seas.”

    This time the ghostly galleon got tossed on a desert coast. The author speculates the crew was near death through scurvy and starvation when the ship ran aground.

    It’s pretty amazing to think of the risk those men took back then. (I just realized I quoted the poem wrong there isn’t a line break)

    • #3
    • January 19, 2020, at 3:28 PM PST
    • 1 like
  4. Arahant Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    The author speculates the crew was near death through scurvy and starvation when the ship ran aground.

    Those early days of world travel could be rough, especially since they didn’t know what caused things like scurvy.

    • #4
    • January 19, 2020, at 3:46 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    The author speculates the crew was near death through scurvy and starvation when the ship ran aground.

    Those early days of world travel could be rough, especially since they didn’t know what caused things like scurvy.

    Back in the days when longitude was largely a matter of dead reckoning, approaching a coast was a perilous endeavor. You could fetch up on shore with little warning.

    • #5
    • January 19, 2020, at 3:54 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    Percival (View Comment):
    Back in the days when longitude was largely a matter of dead reckoning, approaching a coast was a perilous endeavor. You could fetch up on shore with little warning.

    It could even be the wrong shore.

    • #6
    • January 19, 2020, at 4:13 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    Back in the days when longitude was largely a matter of dead reckoning, approaching a coast was a perilous endeavor. You could fetch up on shore with little warning.

    It could even be the wrong shore.

    I was reading about the Honda Point disaster this last week. Nine US Navy destroyers ran aground at Honda Point, California in heavy fog in 1923. Seven of them were lost. Twenty three sailors died. There were radio navigation aids. Those aids were brand new and weren’t entirely trusted.

    • #7
    • January 19, 2020, at 4:21 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  8. Seawriter Member
    Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Those early days of world travel could be rough, especially since they didn’t know what caused things like scurvy.

    Actually, they knew what cured it as early as the 1500s, but dismissed the cure as “an old wive’s tale” and unscientific. The idea of drinking or eating spruce beer or citrus did not fit the then-modern medical theories of the day.

    • #8
    • January 19, 2020, at 4:22 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  9. Arahant Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Actually, they knew what cured it as early as the 1500s, but dismissed the cure as “an old wives’ tale” and unscientific. The idea of drinking or eating spruce beer or citrus did not fit the then-modern medical theories of the day.

    True, and being aboard a ship where they went by old wives’ tales saved a number of men.

    • #9
    • January 19, 2020, at 4:26 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  10. Boss Mongo Member

    Very cool. Thanks, Seawriter.

    • #10
    • January 29, 2020, at 5:52 PM PST
    • 1 like