maritime history


April 10th 1912: Titanic sets sail

On this day in 1912, the RMS Titanic, set sail from Southampton on her maiden and only voyage; the intended destination was New York, but the ship never made it across the Atlantic. The Titanic was the largest passenger liner the world had ever seen, and was remarkable for its opulence, which attracted notable dignitaries to its debut voyage. The vessel was built at Belfast for White Star Line, and was intended to trump the company’s rivals at Cunard. It was lauded as an ‘unsinkable’ ship, but subsequent examinations have suggested some fatal flaws in the ship’s design plus a lack of lifeboats, which only could accommodate half the passengers. Just four days after setting sail, on April 14th at around 11.40pm, the Titanic hit an iceberg. The collision caused a massive gash in the ship’s hull, dooming the vessel to sink. As the opulent ship filled with water and slowly sank, its over two thousand passengers rushed to lifeboats, but the evacuation was haphazard, with lifeboats being lowered not at full capacity. There are numerous famous stories of the ship’s final hours, including the elderly Straus couple who stayed in their cabin to die together, the violin players continuing to perform as the ship sank, and Benjamin Guggenheim who changed into his formal dress and declared “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”  The Titanic finally sank at around 2.20am, leaving thousands to die of hypothermia in the freezing ocean. Over 1,500 people died in the tragedy, with around 700 survivors being rescued by the Cunard’s Carpathia. The demise of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic shocked the world, and the story of the tragic fate of a symbol of early twentieth century optimism continues to captivate the public mind.

wine-loving-vagabond submitted to medievalpoc:

William Hogarth
Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin,1745
Oil on canvas.
National Maritime Museum, London

The painting was commissioned by Graham to commemorate one of his naval battles. It features Graham along side the ship’s clerk and chaplain, and two servants, one of which plays the pipe and tabor. The relaxed ambiance of the painting contrasts heavily with the other works on naval subjects. 

Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1280.

The maritime plan of most of human civilization during our period went as follows:

  1. Get boats.
  2. Put weapons on boats.
  3. Conquer neighboring countries either by military force or by overwhelming trade dominance.
  4. Instagram shots of you in front of London/Indrapura/Mogadishu.
  5. Go home.

The Polynesians, on the other hand, appeared to have a different plan:

  1. Build canoes.
  2. Sail out into the open ocean for four thousand miles.
  3. ???
  4. Sweet, Hawai'i!

As the world looked on in tolerant, baffled wonder for thousands of years [sidebar on Vikings], Polynesians repeated steps 1-4, especially step 3, which when you peeled off the little sticker with the question marks turned out to be “employ an array of sophisticated navigational techniques which remain in cultural transmission and even active use today. Also, when you reach an island, use an equally sophisticated array of terraforming techniques to make an unfamiliar landscape ecologically viable for human life. Also, eat a balanced diet, because scurvy is for white people.”

The Polynesians did their eastern Pacific exploration around our period, and may have settled Easter Island and Hawai'i around then, too, if not a little earlier. Polynesian colonies were set up on little stubs of volcanic rock, hideously isolated archipelagos, even sub-polar islands. They probably hung out with medieval Peruvians, or at least, they made enough American contact to get ahold of sweet potatoes. [Sidebar on sweet potatoes.] And they found New Zealand, and settled in, and those who stuck around became the Māori.

And then hundreds of years later the islands of the Polynesian triangle were conquered by Europeans and the Europeans did their damndest to put that little ??? sticker back on the four-part plan, because, you know, people without shirts could not possibly be world explorers. But we do not have to listen to them. When I said those navigational techniques are still in use today, I mean literally, today, because in August of this year a group of Maori sailors took off from New Zealand for Rapa Nui, the last leg of the Polynesian triangle that no one’s completed in the modern era, and according to their website they should be landing, in, like, twelve hours, if they haven’t already. 


clevercorgi asked:

Not intending to ask you to do research for me, but have you seen anything on "lascars" in the British Navy in the 1800s? I've been having some difficulty finding good resources on this subject, beyond basic info regarding their existence.

Well, your best bet is usually going to start with a google books search with your terms:

You can also check the Wikipedia page, not for the content but for the references and resources:

Which looks like this:

So you can look those up and see if they have any worth.

I found this website for a research project at the University of Southampton with a few more references:

  • Balachandran, G. 2007, South Asian Seafarers and Their Worlds c.1870-1930s. In J. H Bentley, R. Bridenthal and K. Wigen (eds.) Seascapes: Maritime Histories, Littoral Cultures, and Transoceanic Exchanges. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Fisher, M H. 2006. Working across the Seas: Indian Maritime Labourers in India, Britain, and in Between, 1600-1857. International Review of Social History, 51 (s14):21-45.
  • Tabili, L. 1994. “We Ask for British Justice”: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Visram, R. 1986. The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947: Ayahs, Lascars and Princes. London: Pluto.

There’s also general-ish maritime history research toolkit sites like “More Than A List of Crew” that might have something of value for you.

 I can’t do the research for you, as you say, but feel free to chase down those leads to wherever the rabbithole takes you!!

Good luck.

Isidor and Ida Straus
On the night of the sinking, Isidor and Ida Straus were seen standing near Lifeboat No. 8 in the company of Mrs. Straus’s maid, Ellen Bird. Although the officer in charge of the lifeboat was willing to allow the elderly couple to board the lifeboat with Miss Bird, Isidor Straus refused to go so as long as there were women and children still remaining on the ship. He urged his wife to board, but she refused, saying, “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.” Her words were witnessed by those already in Lifeboat No. 8 as well as many others who were on the boat deck at the time. Isidor and Ida were last seen standing arm in arm on the deck.


December 4th 1872: Mary Celeste found

On this day in 1872, the American ship the Mary Celeste was found unmanned in the Atlantic Ocean by the British brig Dei Gratia. The ship seemed to be abandoned (one lifeboat was missing), despite the fact that the weather was fine and the ship was still seaworthy, with no sign of a struggle. There was over six months worth of food and water on board and the personal belongings of passengers and crew were still there. All of the ship’s papers were missing, except for the captain’s logbook. Many possible explanations have been suggested, but the mystery of the Mary Celeste remains unsolved. The Mary Celeste is thus considered the archetypal ‘ghost ship’.


RMS Carpathia Sinks After Being Struck by U-boat Torpedo

17 July 1918

On this day in British history, 17 July 1918, RMS Carpathia sank off the coast of Ireland after being torpedoed by a German U-boat. Carpathia was a Cunard Line transatlantic passenger steamship built by Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson. Carpathia made her maiden voyage in 1903 and became famous for rescuing the survivors of RMS Titanic after it struck an iceberg and sank on 15 April 1912. Carpathia was used during WWI to transport American and Canadian troops across the Atlantic. 

On the summer morning of 17 July she was torpedoed in the Celtic Sea by the Imperial German Navy submarine U-55. Of three torpedoes fired at the ship, one impacted the port side while the other penetrated the engine room, killing two firemen and three trimmers. All 57 passengers and 218 surviving crew members boarded the lifeboats as the vessel sank. U-55 surfaced and fired a third torpedo into the ship and was approaching the lifeboats when the Azalea-class sloop HMS Snowdrop arrived on the scene and drove away the submarine with gunfire before picking up the survivors from Carpathia.

There was peace, and the world had an even tenor to it’s way. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it’s eyes and awake, but woke it with a start. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15, 1912.
—  Jack Thayre, Titanic Survivor

Wreck of the Sub Marine Explorer - San Telmo, Panama

The recently discovered Wreck of the Sub Marine Explorer, the first submersible that was capable of diving and rising without help from the surface, completes a story of marine science discovery that saw multiple deaths due to decompression sickness. 

Finished in 1866 by German inventor Julius Kroehl, the Sub Marine Explorer was a wonder of contemporary naval design. Despite being hand-powered, the long, “cigar-shaped” vessel contained pressurized working compartments for passengers and a sophisticated-for-the-time ballast system which allowed the ship to take on water to sink and use pressurized air to rise. The Explorer was known to dive more than 100 feet below the surface for hours at a time, an unmitigated success save for the strange “fever” that seemed to afflict the sailors after dives. The boat ran proof of concept trials for just one year until Kroehl himself died of the mysterious fever which is now known to have been violent decompression sickness, otherwise called “the bends.”   

Despite the universal sickness that afflicted the early passengers of the vessel, its revolutionary operating technology caused critics to overlook the strange illness and the ship was set to work as a diving ship among Panama’s Pearl Islands. However the fatal sickness continued to claim the lives of the submarine’s crew and soon the historic ship was simply lost and forgotten.

However the severely rusting hull of the Sub Marine Explorer was finally rediscovered in 2001 by randomly passing archeologist, James Delgado. The ship is in a severe state of decay after more than a century of neglect, but joint efforts from America and Panama are being discussed to preserve the important, if deadly, piece of maritime history. 

Visit the Wreck of the Sub Marine Explorer on Atlas Obscura!

Horatio Nelson is Born

29 September 1758

Horatio Nelson was born on this day in history, 29 September 1758. He was a British flag officer famous for his service in the Royal Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. He was noted for his inspirational leadership and superb grasp of strategy and unconventional tactics, which resulted in a number of decisive naval victories. He was wounded several times in combat, losing one arm in the unsuccessful attempt to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife and the sight in one eye in Corsica. Of his several victories, the best known and most notable was the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, during which he was shot and killed.



Illustration showing the equivalent number of planes and airships you could buy for the cost of a single Dreadnought battleship.

In their day (c.1905-1920) Dreadnoughts were super weapons, the equivalent of an aircraft carrier today.  They were faster, better armed and more advanced than any previous warship.  During the first two decades of the 20th century they became the centre of an arms race between the world’s most powerful navies.   When the Royal Navy first commissioned HMS Dreadnought in 1906 (see image #3) - they rendered every other ship in the world obsolete.  They were however, very, very expensive to build costing approximately £2,000,000 which when adjusted for inflation is roughly equal to £207,000,000 today.  

The just-launched HMS Dreadnought, 10th February 1906  (Source)

The primary difference between Dreadnought and earlier vessels which became known as ‘pre-dreadnoughts’ was the number of heavy guns Dreadnought carried.  Previously capital ships had been armed with a range of guns in various calibres from small deck guns, medium 6 and 8 inch turrets and a main armament of normally two 10 or 12 inch guns. Dreadnoughts replaced this array of various calibre guns with more heavy guns ranging between 9 and 12 inches.  The Lord Nelson class battleship which was replaced by the Dreadnought class for example carried two small 3-pounder deck guns, twenty-four quick firing 12-pounders, a medium armament of eight 9.2 inch guns and a main armament of four 12 inch guns. HMS Dreadnought however, boasted a main armament of ten 12 inch guns and twenty-seven 12-pounder deck guns as secondary armament. (see image #2)

The Dreadnoughts other major advantage was its improved steam-turbine powerplant which was able to give a top speed of 21 knots, making it the fastest battleship of that size when she was launched.  

With the launch of HMS Dreadnought Britain and Germany became embroiled in an arms race of who could build the most Dreadnoughts, By 1912, Britain was considering backing down due to the massive cost of building the battleships.  However, the British public, whipped up by the press, were outraged at the prospect of being overtaken by Imperial Germany and refused to lose face demanding construction of Dreadnoughts continue.  

Germany launched her first DreadnoughtSMS Nassau, in 1908.  The US launched USS South Carolina the same year and in 1911, France commissioned the Courbet.  By 1914, Britain had designed six classes of Dreadnoughts with 34 ships in commission in August 1914, while lagged behind Germany with 24 Dreadnoughts in commission.  

SMS Nassau (source)

The illustration above was published in a June 1911 edition of The Illustrated London News, the diagram itself was originally published in the Scientific American journal - the Dreadnought is actually the Delaware class USS North Dakota - hence the US ensign. The illustration shows how many aircraft can be bought for the equivalent cost of commissioning a new Dreadnought.  The illustration claims that '52 Dirigibles and 235 Aeroplanes’ could be bought in place of a new battleship.

Dreadnoughts remained the World’s most powerful naval vessels until the late 1920s when they themselves were made obsolete by newer faster, better armoured Battlecruisers.


Illustration & Article Source

Image One Source

Image Two Source

Rise of the Dreadnought Battleship, 1906 to 1914, ed. G. Smith (Source)


February 14th 1779: Captain Cook dies

On this day in 1779, the British explorer James Cook died aged fifty in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Cook is famous for his ‘discovery’ of Australia in 1770, where he landed at Botany Bay and claimed the island for Great Britain. This set the stage for further exploration of the nation and settlement by the British, initially using the island as a penal colony. This colonisation was accompanied with a campaign of violence and persecution against the indigenous Australians, and has left a legacy that is still felt today in modern Australia. After his seminal voyage to Australia, Cook continued his travels and undertook three voyages in total. On the third voyage, Cook landed in Hawaii where the indigenous islanders allegedly initially worshipped him as a god, as his arrival fit the story of the return of their deity Lono. In February 1779, a small group of Hawaiians stole one of Cook’s small boats, and Cook attempted to take their leader hostage in retaliation. The relations between Cook and his men with the indigenous Hawaiians were therefore no longer amicable. Tensions came to a head when the Hawaiians attacked Cook as he was on his way to kidnap the king, and in the fray the explorer was stabbed and subsequently died. Cook’s body was prepared and buried per Hawaiian tradition, a sign that the islanders continued to hold the captain in some measure of esteem. Several of Cook’s sailors also died in the altercation, while the remaining crew continued with the voyage, returning to Britain in October 1780.