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. 

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December 4th 1872: Mary Celeste found

On this day in 1872, at around one o’clock in the afternoon, the American ship the Mary Celeste was found unmanned in the Atlantic Ocean. Captained by Benjamin Briggs, the ship departed from New York on November 7th 1872, on course to sail to Genoa, Italy, carrying $35,000 worth of alcohol. Almost one month after the Mary Celeste began its voyage, a brigantine merchant ship, the Dei Gratia, sighted a strange vessel off the coast of Portugal. A boarding party discovered the ship abandoned, with one lifeboat missing, and evidence of damage to the ship’s pumps. However, the Mary Celeste was still seaworthy, and there was no sign of a struggle. The cargo was also intact, along with over six months worth of food and water, and the personal belongings of passengers and crew. All of the ship’s papers were missing, except for the captain’s logbook. An investigation into the mystery yielded no answers, and since 1872 speculation has been rife as to the fate of the Mary Celeste and her crew. Various proposed theories for why Briggs abandoned ship include piracy, mutiny, seaquakes, and, perhaps most plausibly, that the alcohol barrels emitted strong fumes which panicked the crew, who hurried into a lifeboat and were blown away by a strong wind. However, none of these theories have been proved, and the mystery of the Mary Celeste remains unsolved; the case has entered the popular imagination as the archetypal ‘ghost ship’.

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.


but-wait-theres-more submitted to medievalpoc:

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, 1778

I don’t know if you’ve featured this one before, but I keep talking excitedly to my Dad about this blog and he’d found this painting in a book he’s got, so thought I’d submit it here as I think it’s pretty neat. :) I hope it’s suitable for submission. Thank you for doing such great work, it’s really made me think deeply and more critically about history.

Wow! I haven’t featured this painting here before, and I’ve actually never seen it. The story at the link is rather interesting and unusual:

John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark was inspired by an event that took place in Havana, Cuba, in 1749. Fourteen-year-old Brook Watson, an orphan serving as a crew member on a trading ship, was attacked by a shark while swimming alone in the harbor. His shipmates, who had been waiting on board to escort their captain ashore, launched a valiant rescue effort.


In April 1778, while Copley’s painting was on exhibit in London’s Royal Academy, a detailed description of these horrific events was published in a London newspaper. The text, believed to have been penned by Brook Watson himself, describes the scene in excruciating detail, ultimately reassuring readers that thanks to the surgeon’s skill, “after suffering an amputation of the limb, a little below the knee, the youth received a perfect cure in about three months.”

Watson eventually became a successful merchant in London. It is likely he commissioned the painting from Copley, whom he probably knew through members of the artist’s family. Copley and Watson probably met in London during the summer of 1774, when the artist was passing through London on his way to Italy. On August 17, he wrote, “To Morrow I… Dine with a Mr. Watson.”

Watson eventually became a minor noble, and incredibly, made sure his missing leg was part of his coat of arms:

The Black sailor who threw him a rope remains nameless, but it’s a good thing for Watson he was there. Black sailors were fairly common in the British Navy (Billy Waters among the most famous, and also an amputee), and on private ships and enterprises in the 18th and 19th centuries. You can watch a video about sailors of color in the British Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar here.


1800s Week!

Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault

Le Radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Medusa)

France (1819)

The Louvre Museum, Paris.

The Raft of the Medusa—a major work in French 19th-century painting—is generally regarded as an icon of Romanticism. It depicts an event whose human and political aspects greatly interested Géricault: the wreck of a French frigate off the coast of Senegal in 1816, with over 150 soldiers on board. The painter researched the story in detail and made numerous sketches before deciding on his definitive composition, which illustrates the hope of rescue.

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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.

Pre-Dreadnought (1880-1910) ships are so interesting.  They’re a mishmash of ideas from traditional ships of the line, monitors and iron clads.  They often had unusual weapons fitted such as bow rams and underwater torpedo tubes.  They carried a bewildering array of different sized guns ranging from small deck guns through small 4pdr turret guns to huge 14 inch guns mounted amidships.  

I think this is a broadside photograph of the French warship Carnot (1891).