Archives For 18th Century

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Eric Jay Dolin, whose previous work includes Leviathan and When America Met China, has generated yet another meticulously researched and well narrated piece of nautical history. Focusing on America’s lighthouses from inception to the current day, Brilliant Beacons is a sweeping, majestic piece that encompasses technology, material culture, engineering, personal histories and the strategic role lighthouses have played in America’s development and growth over the last three plus centuries.

Writing with the passion of someone who has long had a love affair with the sea and her incredible stories, Dolin draws the reader in with the origins of American lighthouse design and tirelessly waltzes through topics that lesser authors would render dry and boring. This is the second of Dolin’s books reviewed on this site and both have held particular meaning for me. The first being When America Met China, which, for someone who majored in Chinese language at America’s ninth oldest university, was of particular interest and is a phenomenal read. Having grown up in North Carolina, I have always had an affinity for lighthouses, especially given that I was a young teenager when the iconic Cape Hatteras light house was moved 1,500 feet to save it from being engulfed by the ravaging waves of the Atlantic. Thus, the subject of Brilliant Beacons more than intrigued me and, while I didn’t have the opportunity to read it at the beach, I read the first 25% from my home overlooking the Port of Tampa and the remaining 75% on a round-trip flight to New York City, a city forever linked with the sea.

Overall, Dolin’s narrative style enables the reader to make quick work of the book’s 400 plus pages. Saying Brilliant Beacons is the perfect beach read might sound a little cliche, however, the book is both illuminating and entertaining and the timing of its release at the height of the summer months could not have been better planned. Pick up Dolin’s latest and read away, you will be glad you did.

 

Glorious Misadventures

Glorious Misadventures, by Owen Matthews, is a fascinating glimpse into a little remembered aspect of American history – the Russian colonization of what is now Alaska and California. Matthews details how, spurred on by eccentric Russian nobleman Nikolai Rezanov, the Russian-American Company established outposts throughout the American Pacific coast. Flowing between America and Russia, the book weaves a tragic tale of initial success but ultimate failure as Rezanov’s dreams are undone by his own flaws and environmental conditions. For history buffs looking to learn more about the settling of the American West or Russia’s colonial history in the western hemisphere, Glorious Misadventures is a great read.

slaveryThe Telegraph is reporting that a combined British and Dutch group of explorers are mobilizing for an expedition to South America to locate the wreck of the Dutch slave ship Leusden. Widely believed to be the deadliest disaster to befall a slave ship, the Leusden ran aground on January 1, 1738 with a “cargo” of nearly 700 African captives. Prior to the early 19th century crusade of William Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists to outlaw the slave trade, slave ships regularly plied the waters between Africa and the New World exchanging human cargos for sugarcane, molasses, silver, gold and other valuables. Although the trade was outlawed in 1807, it was only the iron fist of Royal Navy enforcement that prevented the horrific trade from continuing to occur.

The Leusden, a Dutch West Indiaman, departed Ghana on November 19, 1737 after having waited six months to collect a full cargo. The ship had an uneventful passage until she was dragged ashore by a strong tidal current. Tragically, while the ship was aground, the rudder broke off and water flooded into the crowded confines of the hold. Abandoning ship, the crew left the 664 Africans trapped below-deck where they all perished as the sea clawed the Leusden and her 664 souls into her dark depths.

In less than two months, the British and Dutch team hope to return to the site of the sinking off the coast of Suriname and conduct an in-depth survey of the wreck. The team has narrowed their search area and intend to use side-scan sonar to locate and survey the wreck. Not only would the discovery be archaeologically important, but it would also serve to highlight the heroism of men like William Wilberforce, Lord Grenville and Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox who passionately fought to end the disgusting and repugnant trade in human flesh.

L'Insurgente

USS Constellation Defeats L’Insurgente

Though largely forgotten today, in the closing years of the 18th century, the newly formed United States Navy fought an unofficial war with the French Navy. Dubbed the Quasi-War, the conflict gave the fledgling US Navy the opportunity to cut its teeth in preparation for later conflicts with the Barbary Pirates and the Royal Navy. Fittingly, the US Navy’s first victory also belonged to its first warship, USS Constellation.

While sailing off the coast of Nevis in the Caribbean on February 9, the Constellation came upon an unidentified frigate and immediately gave chase. Over the course of the next hour and a half the two vessels danced across the sea in a deadly waltz. As the vessels attempted to outmaneuver one another, a gale came up and damaged the L’Insurgente’s main topmast which enabled the undamaged Constellation to gain on the French ship. In an engagement lasting less than an hour and a half, the Constellation made quick work of the French and the L’Insurgente struck her colors. Marking the first victory of the US Navy, the French vessel was commissioned the USS Insurgent and the Constellation’s commander, Commodore Thomas Truxton, and her crew were celebrated as heroes upon their return.

Mississippi

The Mississippi River is the fourth longest river in the world with a watershed encompassing all or parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces – 1.2 million square miles worth. 1,200,000 square miles is a lot of territory to cover and yet in his latest book, Old Man River, Paul Schneider provides readers with a sweeping overview of the river from its geological origins to the taming of the river by the modern US Army Corps of Engineers. Schneider serves up a veritable feast with an appetizer of geology, a second course of pre-historic and Indian tales, a main course of 19th and 20th century stories spiced with liberal helpings of Mike Fink, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain and finished off with a dessert of modern events.

Interspersed throughout historical tales of floods, Indian raids and keelboats, Schneider weaves in his own odyssey on the Mississippi and her tributaries. From kayaking the Ohio alone to drifting down the Mississippi with his son, Schneider brings to life the various locales he visits. For those who have spent any amount of time living on the River, Schneider’s book will especially resonate as he perfectly captures the feelings and color of the River’s varying culture. Although a couple passages inadvertently come across as elitist and preachy, overall Old Man River is a beautiful ode to one of America’s defining geographic landmarks. For those looking to lazily drift from the breadbasket plains states past Mark Twain’s Hannibal, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium, the antebellum homes of Natchez, the bluffs of Vicksburg where the blood of men in blue and gray flowed and down to the Cajun culture of the Delta, Old Man River is a highly recommended read.

British warshipOne of the worst maritime disasters to strike Great Britain and the Royal Navy in home waters occurred off Portsmouth on August 28, 1782. The HMS Royal George, a 100 gun ship of the line, had just returned from North American waters and was preparing to accompany HMS Victory to Gibraltar when it capsized just off the entrance of Portsmouth harbor. Compounding the disaster was the fact that more than hundreds of women and children had boarded the vessel to visit with friends and family. The Royal George had been careened on its side for maintenance and the sea quickly engulfed the vessel through open gun ports. More than 900 died in the tragic accident including 360 women and children.

For nearly 50 years the ship lay intact in shallow waters near the entrance until two enterprising divers contrived a plan to remove the ship’s remains which were now a hazard to navigation. From 1834 to 1836, the divers, brothers Charles and John Deane, attempted unsuccessfully to salvage the vessel. Although failing, the brothers did discover the wreck of the Mary Rose which would later be successfully raised and preserved in the early 1980s. Several years later, from 1839-1844, the Royal Engineers performed salvage efforts on the vessel and raised many of her bronze cannon and other items. These cannon were later melted down and used to craft part of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. As a final exclamation mark in the story of the Royal George, the Royal Engineers detonated a massive controlled explosion that shattered windows ashore as far as two to three miles away from the wreck site.

Battle of the Nile

August 1, 2013 — 3 Comments
Aboukir Bay

Battle of the Nile by Thomas George Webster
CC Image Courtesy of Black County Museums on Flickr

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.

Two hundred fifteen years ago today, Admiral Horatio Nelson pounced upon the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Egypt. By early morning the next day, Nelson and his fleet had captured or destroyed nearly every French ship and ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s dreams of a French Egypt and the destruction of Britain’s colonial holdings in India. Alternatively called the Battle of the Nile or the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the action would later be immortalized in the poem Casabiana by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, the first stanza of which is above.

For two months in the summer of 1798, Nelson fruitlessly tracked the French fleet across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the French used the time to capture the island of Malta and land an army of troops and scholars in Egypt. Although the French troops eventually were defeated, the scholars scored a victory for the ages when they discovered the Rosetta Stone.

After finally catching up with the French fleet in Egypt, Nelson wasted no time in daringly dividing his forces and launching an attack on the French fleet. Dividing his forces allowed the British fleet to engulf the French in a deadly crossfire and after three hours much of the French fleet had been destroyed. Capping the battle was the violent destruction of the French flagship L’Orient caused by a fire reaching one of the ship’s magazines.