Tag: Maritime History

The Little Ship That Did


By the 1820s the transatlantic slave trade was largely outlawed.  Great Britain and the US were early adaptors of its abolition. France and Spain were still winking at it (largely to twit Britain). Brazil would not outlaw the trade until 1831. Regardless, transatlantic transportation of slaves illegally continued.

“The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade,” by A.E. Rooks tells of a ship instrumental in closing down this illegal traffic. Never a formally-commissioned warship in the Royal Navy, it was the vessel of Britain’s West Africa Squadron most feared by slave traders.

Rooks carries the story from Black Joke’s incorporation into the Royal Navy in 1827 through its disposal a five years later. Its career was brief, but as Rooks shows, its impact was profound.

To the Uttermost Depths and Back


During the decades humans first reached outer space, they were also reaching for the ocean’s uttermost depths.  They even managed to reach those depths before placing a man in orbit.

“Opening the Great Depths: The Bathyscaph Trieste and Pioneers of Undersea Exploration,” by Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mathers tells that story.  It is a history of Trieste. It also fits Trieste into its historical context.

The authors reveal an unexpected origin for the bathyscaph: high altitude ballooning. Its initiator, Swiss academic Auguste Piccard made his name in the 1920s setting altitude records in free-flight balloons. His purpose was scientific, measuring cosmic rays at stratospheric altitudes. He was equally interested in plumbing the ocean’s depths. He used concepts developed for balloons in designing the bathyscaph, an ocean-plumbing balloon. Gasoline substituted for hydrogen to provide buoyancy, iron shot provided ballast, with the crew in a pressurized spherical compartment.

The New York-Based Slave Trade


One of history’s curious episodes was a rise in transatlantic slave trading based in the United States in 1850 that continued through 1863. It occurred despite the abolition of the slave trade by Great Britain in 1807. The United States followed in 1808, with a long decline in illegal slave trading by US ships between 1808 and 1850.

“The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage,” by John Harris, tells the story of this resurgence in the slave trade, including the reasons behind it.

The Hermione Mutiny Retold


The 1797 mutiny aboard HMS Hermione was the most violent in the history of the British Royal Navy. The ship’s officers and senior warrant officers were butchered. Worse, the crew turned the ship over to the Spanish, a nation with which Great Britain was then at war. The mutiny became the stuff of legend.

“Mutiny on the Spanish Main: HMS Hermione and the Royal Navy’s Revenge,” by Angus Kostram provides a new account of the mutiny, the events leading up to it and its aftermath. It is the first book-length retelling of the story in nearly 50 years.

The mutiny occurred during the French Wars of Revolution, following the 1789 French Revolution. It was triggered by the 1793 execution of the French monarch. Hermione, a 32-gun frigate armed with a main battery of 12-pound guns was sent to the West Indies to support British efforts there, including at Saint Dominique (today’s Haiti). Hermione participated in the three-sided conflict between French Royalists, French Revolutionaries, and the black slaves of the sugar island.

The History, Heritage, and Future of an American Sea


The Gulf of Mexico is America’s sea. The wealth of two continents, from gold and silver in the sixteenth century to petroleum in the twenty-first, passes through its waters. It has provided food and recreation for those in the countries around it.

“The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History,” by John S. Sledge, is a comprehensive history of the Gulf, from its earliest times to the present.

A prologue explains the author’s personal connections with the Gulf of Mexico followed by a brief introduction describing the Gulf’s physical and biological attributes. Sledge then plunges into the past. He starts with pre-Columbian history, describing the various native peoples that lived along the Gulf’s periphery. A varied lot, they ranged from the primitive Arawak living on the islands, to the sophisticated culture of the Missippian People and the Aztec and Incan civilizations.

Minority Success in a Hard, Dirty Trade  


Whaling in the 18th through early 20th centuries was dangerous, required long stretches isolated from family and community, and required participants to live in squalor. Despite potentially high pay, few jobs were harder or less attractive. Except perhaps, slavery.

“Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy,” by Skip Finley, examines the lives of men who became whalers because it beat the alternatives. These included blacks, both runaway slaves and free-born, Native Americans, and Cape Verdeans: men marked by the color of their skin.

They turned to whaling because all other alternatives were worse. Finley reveals life on a whaling ship between 1750 and 1930: brutish, a cross between working on an oil rig and a slaughterhouse with the additional fillip of wretched food, crowded housing, and round-the-clock hours. It was also dangerous. There were many ways to die whaling and even more ways to get crippled.

This Week’s Book Review: Seapower States


Free markets and representative government combined to create unprecedented wealth since 1800. During the 20th century, three major conflicts were won by the coalition better representing those two traits.

“Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World,” by Andrew Lambert examines the roles maritime cultures play fostering progress. Lambert holds that nations depending on seapower must necessarily favor free trade and possess representative governments.

He examines five nations that became world powers through embracing maritime culture and seapower: Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Netherlands, and Britain. All five gained power through trade — and more importantly, exchange of ideas. He argues they achieved this because all five had decentralized, representative governments made up of people whose livelihood depended on trade. This allowed the best ideas and the best leaders to rise to the top.

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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.) My review normally appears Sunday. When it appears, I post the previous week’s review on Ricochet. Seawriter Book Review Long-forgotten memoir offers fascinating view of life at sea Posted: Saturday, […]

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 A sort-of, kind-of Houston meet-up opportunity. I will be speaking at the Houston Maritime Museum on April 12 as part of their History Lecture Series. The topic is Texas Shipwrecks: Texas Maritime History Seen Through Its Shipwrecks. In addition to the talk, it will be a launch party for my latest book, Texas Shipwrecks. Preview Open

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