Danmark

“We have decided to send the Corvette Galathea to the East Indian Islands and particularly the Nicobar Islands, over which We hold Sovereignty, in order to perform scientific Survey of the natural Products of this Group of Islands and their use for Cultivation and Trade.” ~King Christian VIII

 

In the early 1840s Danish King Christian VIII decided to embark upon an ambitious expedition of discovery and scientific research. King Christian ordered the Danish Navy to outfit a ship for an around the world adventure which would be part vanity project, part scientific voyage and part geopolitical gambit. On June 24, 1845, the 43 meter corvette Galathea departed Copenhagen on what would become a nearly two year voyage. Stuffed aboard the Galathea were 36 cannon, provisions for a year and 231 sailors, scientists and officers. Incredibly, the voyage cost the Danish treasury ~3% of its annual expenditures – by comparison NASA’s Apollo project was ~4% of the US federal budget.

Sailing south, the Galathea rounded the Horn of Africa and visited the Danish colonies at Tranquebar on the west coast of India. The expedition then called at the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka. After a stopover in China to improve Sino-Danish trading ties, the Galathea headed for the Sandwich Islands (modern day Hawaii). Departing the Sandwich Islands, the Galathea and her crew made a couple stops in South America before sailing around Cape Horn for home.

During the course of the expedition, the Galathea’s science team gathered 93 boxes of organic and inorganic specimens as well as 21 boxes of local material culture and a large collection of objects from Java. Among the collection were 368 dragonflies from 107 different species with 37 of these unknown to scientists of the day. Sadly, the expedition’s royal sponsor perished shortly after the voyage returned in 1847 and Prussia and Denmark descended into conflict. These two events stifled the processing and publication of the expedition’s results and many of the boxes of specimens remained unopened for several years.

paraguay navy
In the midst of the 1864-1870 Paraguayan War, the Paraguayan Navy launched a bold assault on the larger Brazilian Navy while it lay at anchor on the Riachuelo River. On the morning of June 11, 1865 a Paraguayan force of nine ships and seven armed barges approached the slumbering Brazilian fleet. The original plan was to board the Brazilian vessels while their crews were still ashore asleep, however, at the last minute the Paraguayan commander deviated from the plan and opened fire on the Brazilian ships from a distance. This proved to be a devastating mistake as the Brazilians were able to quickly rally, board their vessels and bring their superior firepower to bear on the smaller Paraguayan force.

The Paraguayan fleet positioned itself so as to trap the Brazilian fleet in the river. The move proved pointless, though, as the superior Brazilian fleet audaciously steamed at the Paraguayans and rammed and sank several of the Paraguay vessels. By the time the smoke cleared, the Brazilians had lost only a single vessel while sinking four of the nine Paraguayan ships and all seven of their armed barges. The victory helped the Brazilians and their allies turn the tide of the war as Paraguay had enjoyed multiple victories early in the war. In all, nearly 1,000 souls perished in the early morning battle.

On the night of June 9, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Navy dispatched a task force of two dreadnoughts from their naval base at Pola to loosen the strangle hold the Allied navies had on the Austro-Hungarian coastline. The two dreadnoughts, Svent Istvan and Tegetthoff were to rendezvous with two other units and engage their Italian counterparts the next day. Unfortunately for the Austro-Hungarians, two Italian patrol boats spotted the Svent Istvan and Tegetthoff as they steamed down the coast early in the morning on June 10. The two patrol boats launched a torpedo attack on the two vessels and one of the boats, MAS 15, successfully struck the Szent Istvan with two torpedoes amidships.

The Austro-Hungarian crew worked frantically to repair the damage, but were unable to control the flooding either via counter-flooding or plugging the holes. The ship quickly lost power as the boilers were doused by the rising seawater. Despite additional efforts to ground the ship and to keep the ship aright by swinging her turrets around, the ship capsized three hours later and plunged to the bottom of the sea. Due to its having taken three hours to sink, the death toll was relatively low with only 89 crew members losing their lives. With its sinking, the Svent Istvan gained the ignominious distinction of being the only dreadnought to have been caught on film while sinking during World War I.

New Zealand Shipwreck

On May 4, 1866, the American built barque General Grant departed Melbourne, Australia for London with 58 passengers and 25 crew. Among the passengers were several miners returning home and the cargo manifest listed an official load of 2,576 ounces of gold. Nine days out of Melbourne, the General Grant came upon the Auckland Islands, however, weather conditions prevented the ship’s crew from rounding the islands. Late in the evening, the ship collided with the island’s cliffs and drifted into a large cave where it eventually sank from the main mast being driven through the ship’s bottom from being tossed into the roof of the cave.

Despite the ship’s being beaten against the roof of the cave by a rising tide, the passengers and crew chose to spend a perilous night aboard the vessel and try to escape in the morning. Only fifteen souls of the 83 aboard were able to leave the vessel safely and they soon found themselves on the aptly named Disappointment Island before rowing on to Port Ross. For the next nine months the survivors watched and waited for a passing ship to rescue them, but none came. Exasperated, four of the fifteen attempted to sail for New Zealand but were never heard from again after leaving Port Ross on January 22, 1867. Nearly eight months later the survivors were finally rescued by the brig Amherst.

The General Grant was not done taking lives, though, as 29 salvors died in their vain attempts to locate the ship and its cargo of gold. To this day the ship remains undiscovered with her $3,000,000+ gold cargo lying somewhere at the bottom of a treacherous cave on Auckland Island.

ship bombingThe late 19th century and early 20th century were the heyday of luxury trans-Atlantic steamship travel. Among the numerous liners plying the waters between New York City and Liverpool was the RMS Umbria, a Cunard luxury liner. Launched in 1884 the Umbria and her sister ship Etruria were named for regions of Italy and reflected the Victorian obsession with all things Egyptian, Greek or Roman. The two vessels were the last liners built for the Cunard line with auxiliary masts that could be rigged for sailing. Additionally, they were designed for easy conversion to armed merchant cruisers in the event of war. Both Umbria and Etruria held the westbound Blue Riband at points in their careers for being the fastest vessels on the Europe to New York journey.

Arguably the most intriguing anecdote in the Umbria‘s career was her being the target of a bomb plot by the Italian Mafia. On May 9, 1903, a letter was delivered to the New York police claiming a bomb had been placed aboard the Umbria. Incidentally, the chivalrous bombers claimed they had originally planned to target the RMS Oceanic but changed targets because Oceanic contained too many women and children. The police acted swiftly to prevent Umbria from sailing and a search of the ship revealed a 3×2 foot box filled with 100lbs. of dynamite and a fuse. The bomb was defused and police traced it back to the Mafia Society in Chicago. The ship sailed for Liverpool after only a short delay.

By the time of her scrapping in 1910, the Umbria had served the Empire twice as a troop ferry and auxiliary warship, been disabled in the North Atlantic, grounded herself on the wreck of a coal barge and even sunk another steam ship in a collision.

Amethyst Incident

Sunset on the Yangtze River
CC Image Courtesy of Dan Nelson on Flickr

On April 20, 1949, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Amethyst was cruising up China’s mighty Yangtze River as hundreds of western gunboats had done over the previous century. The Amethyst had been ordered to relieve HMS Consort which was guarding the British Embassy and British interests at the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing. Around 9:30am, without warning, a People’s Liberation Army artillery battery opened fire on the vessel. The PLA battery rained a deadly barrage of shells on the ship, quickly disabling her and mortally wounding her captain, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner. The vessel quickly found herself aground and unable to return fire due to the geometry of her grounding and damage sustained in the initial barrage to her fire control mechanisms. Non-essential personnel were ordered to evacuate the frigate, but the PLA began targeting the small boats with artillery and snipers. By the time the firing ceased at 11am, 22 Royal Navy sailors and officers lay dead with another 31 wounded.

HMS Consort arrived at 11am to lend her support and quickly suppressed the PLA fire. Unable to take the Amethyst in tow, the Consort concentrated on lashing out at the gathering horde of PLA soldiers. Another ten sailors were killed and three wounded during the Consort’s efforts. Not until later that night was Amethyst refloated, however, she was unable to escape and thus began a tense ten week siege during which the PLA refused to allow supplies to reach the vessel.

Finally, on the night of July 30th, the Amethyst slipped her chains and snuck down the Yangtze behind a passenger ship. Sadly the PLA, in their efforts to sink the Amethyst, sank the passenger ship with heavy civilian casualties. After a short sail of two days under escort from another Royal Navy vessel, the Amethyst arrived in the British colony of Hong Kong. The Amethyst had been trapped 101 days and upon her arrival famously signaled “Have rejoined the Fleet south of Woo Sung. No damage or casualties. God Save the King.”

For those to whom the British Empire represented, despite its flaws, a force for the rule of law and economic development, the Amethyst Incident represented the beginning of the sunset on Her Majesty’s Government’s influence in China. For those who viewed the expulsion of foreigners as the beginning of a great socialist experiment, the incident instilled pride which, unless one were a party elite, was crushed in the years following “Liberation” as Frank Dikotter has so eloquently elucidated in his latest book The Tragedy of Liberation.

Jack Cheevers

The events surrounding the capture of the USS Pueblo, a US Navy spy ship, rank among the most ignominious in the storied history of the United States Navy. Jack Cheevers’ book Act of War brings to life the capture of the Pueblo, the torture and humiliation of her crew at the hands of the North Korean government and the efforts to secure their return to the United States. Relying on period documents, interviews with crew members and government records, Cheevers reconstructs for readers not just the “exciting” parts of the capture and torture, but also the bureaucratic decision making that led to the capture of the Pueblo.

Cheevers devotes special attention to the captain of the Pueblo Commander Lloyd Bucher, his background, the agonizing decisions he had to make while under fire and his subsequent pariah status within the US Navy. One of the strongest aspects of the book is how the reader is presented with the facts of the capture of the Pueblo and allowed to decide on his or her own where the blame should lie for the capture of the Pueblo and whether more should have been done to prevent her capture. While not a light beach read, Act of War is an enlightening tome worthy of one’s time, especially given the continued saber rattling by an increasingly unhinged North Korean regime.