Archives For 18th Century

Bering Strait

Vitus Bering

Today marks the 288th anniversary of Russian Tsar Peter I ordering Danish explorer Vitus Bering to explore the eastern reaches of the Russian Empire in the area of Kamchatka (“That place you can attack Alaska from” in Risk). This expedition, along with a second, gave the world a better understanding of the far eastern regions of Russia and western reaches of North America.

Vitus Jonassen Bering was born on August 5, 1681 in Denmark and first went to sea at age 18 which was relatively late for the time period. Bering joined the Russian Navy in 1704 and after twenty years of lackluster service, Bering was tapped by Peter the Great to lead the Kamchatka expedition described above. Due to his service in the Russian Navy, Bering also came to be known as Ivan Ivanovich Bering (not to be confused with Ivan Denisovich or Ivan Drago).

Bering and a team of 34 men embarked on their voyage of discovery in February of 1725 and spent the next five years searching for a land connection between Russia and North America. During their voyage, the expedition also prepared charts of the region and Bering was promoted to the noble rank of Captain Commander for his exploits.

Thirteen years later Bering set forth on yet another expedition to the area. During this second voyage, Bering was able to sail within sight of Alaska and discover part of the Aleutian Island chain. Sadly, Bering perished before the expedition could return to St. Petersburg and his remains were interred on what is now Bering Island. Even though Bering accomplished very few “firsts,” he was widely associated with the region which he explored and thus it is unsurprising that Captain James Cook named the strait between Alaska and Russia the Bering Strait.

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Captain Cook

HMB Endeavour
CC Image Courtesy of Alex Bikfalvi on Flickr

Launched in 1993, HMB Endeavour is a faithful recreation of the bark used by Lieutenant James Cook on his expedition to Australia and New Zealand from 1768 – 1771. Cook and his crew explored various parts of Australia and New Zealand, gave Botany Bay its name and even ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Returning home a hero, Cook led two more expeditions of discovery before his death at the hands of natives in the Hawaiian Islands. The Endeavour continued in his majesty’s service as a troop transport before being sold into private hands. Renamed Lord Sandwich the bark was eventually scuttled as a blockship off Providence, Rhode Island during the American Revolution.

Having sailed over 170,000 nautical miles and visited 29 countries, the bark now calls the Australian National Maritime Museum home. Located in Sydney, the Australian National Maritime Museum has more than a half dozen museum ships including the patrol vessel HMAS Advance, submarine HMAS Onslow, destroyer HMAS Vampire, and barque James Craig. The bark is open for tours and more information can be found here.

clipper shipWhen America First Met China provides readers with a fast paced and highly readable account of America’s first commercial encounters with China. Author Eric Jay Dolin traces the origins of America’s trade with China in the years following the end of the American Revolution through the tumultuous period of the Opium Wars and concludes with the role of Chinese laborers in tying the nation together with the Transcontinental Railroad.

Throughout the book, Dolin introduces the various American, British and Chinese personalities who made the early China trade one of the most colorful periods in maritime history. Men such as Robert Morris, Samuel Shaw, Dr. Peter Parker (no relation to Spiderman), Amasa Delano (a distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Charles Elliot, Lin Zexu, and Howqua all come to life through Dolin’s writing. Many of the men, while not household names today, made lasting contributions to American trade, prestige and foreign relations. For instance, a gift from one of the personalities involved in the early China trade, Stephen Girard, helped establish Girard College in Philadelphia – a school for white male orphans which has since become a full scholarship grade 1 – 12 school for children of low-income single parent families.

Additionally, the products involved in the China trade – tea, fur, silk, opium, sandalwood and beche-de-mer are all described in detail. The reader is given a thorough understanding of the economics and production techniques of each commodity without being driven to boredom. Having previously written about both whaling and the fur trade, Dolin is experienced in describing the details of 19th century industries.

Overall, Dolin does an excellent job of detailing the origins of America’s commercial trade with China and its ebb and flow through the post-Civil War Reconstruction years. The numerous illustrations of period engravings, sketches and paintings help the reader better grasp the locations, ships and products involved in the China trade. When America First Met China is accessible to readers with any level of knowledge about maritime or Chinese history and is worth the read.

Bonhomme Richard

Battle of Flamborough Head
Photo: US Navy, Painting by Thomas Mitchell

One of the most famous battles in the US Navy’s history occurred 233 years ago today on September 23, 1779. Captain John Paul Jones and his converted East Indiaman USS Bonhomme Richard along with USS Alliance attacked a British convoy protected by HMS Serapis and Countess of Scarborough. In what became known as the Battle of Flamborough Head, Jones and his crew engaged the Serapis in a ship-to-ship duel. Captain Pearson of the Serapis demanded Jones’ surrender and in reply he uttered the now famous words, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Though outgunned, Jones’ superior  fighting skills carried the day and the Serapis eventually struck its colors. Despite having defeated the British forces (Countess of Scarborough struck her colors as well), the Bonhomme Richard sank the next morning and Jones transferred his flag to the Serapis. Jones’ victory was not the last in which an American naval force engaged British forces while penning a famous phrase

The wreck of the Bonhomme Richard is considered one of the crown jewels of shipwrecks and has been the subject of several discovery expeditions. Unfortunately none have been able to locate the wreck and its final resting place off Flamborough Head remains a mystery. John Paul Jones is considered the father of the American Navy and his words “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way” are just as famous in naval circles as “I have not yet begun to fight.” Sadly, Jones never held a significant sea command in the US Navy after the Battle of Flamborough Head and died an Admiral in the Russian Navy.

jolly roger

CC Image Pirated From Scott Vandehey on Flickr

To recognize International Talk Like a Pirate Day, here are a few piratical items of note…

Captain Morgan, the Diageo owned rum distiller, funded excavations at the site of the real Admiral Morgan’s shipwreck this summer. No word if any rum has been found aboard the wreck or if the salvage crew were cited for operating an ROV under the influence.

Excavations continue on both Captain Sam Bellamy’s Whydah and Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Artifacts from both wrecks can be viewed at their respective museums in Provincetown, Massachusetts and Beaufort, North Carolina.

According to the Maritime Executive, there were 17 pirate attacks just last month. This month, pirates even fired upon an Italian naval helicopter. A map of pirate attacks in 2012 can be viewed here.

Last year, 35 people lost their lives while being held hostage by Somali pirates. As of August 30, there were 11 vessels and 188 hostages being held by Somali pirates. In addition to the human costs of piracy, experts estimate that the financial costs of piracy was around $6.6 – 6.9 billion in 2011 alone.

Piracy along the coast of Somalia has become such a problem that one of the primary reasons for the 2007 creation of the US’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) was the fighting of piracy. It’s rumored that the servicemen of AFRICOM will star in Disney’s upcoming film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Somali Tides.

Aagtekerke

CC Image courtesy of Enrique Ruiz Crespo on Flickr

Australian shipwreck diver Hugh Edwards believes he has located the wreck of the 18th century Dutch East Indiaman Aagtekerke in waters off the Abrolhos Islands in Western Australia. Lost in 1726, the Aagtekerke was en route from Africa to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia). This isn’t the first wreck Edwards has discovered in his 50+ year diving career. In 1963, Edwards located the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia which had wrecked on its maiden voyage in 1629. Over a period of four years from 1970 – 1974, marine archaeologists worked to recover and preserve artifacts from the Batavia and they are now housed in the Western Australia Museum in Perth. The author intends to make a site visit to the museum in the near future and will post his findings when he does so. Additionally, a replica of the Batavia serves as a museum ship in Leylstad, Netherlands.

In the same year Edwards found the Batavia, he located another Dutch East Indiaman, the Zeewyck, which had sunk in 1727. In subsequent trips to the wreck site Edwards discovered several artifacts including an elephant tusk that didn’t coincide with the historical record for the Zeewyck. After nearly 50 years of piecing together various clues, Edwards has come to the conclusion that the Zeewyck and the Aagtekerke sank within 300 meters of one another and their debris field intermixed. Translated journal entries from survivors of the Zeewyck indicate that they had come across debris from another shipwreck when their own ship sank and the presence of the elephant tusk (the Aagtekerke was carrying 214 tusks and the Zeewyck none) seem to confirm his thesis.

Edwards is continuing to explore the site and is hoping to locate the ~30,000 silver coins believed to be among the Aagtekerke’s cargo. Under Australian law, any artifacts raised from the site would belong to the Australian government, however, under generally recognized principles of admiralty/salvage law, Edwards might be entitled to a salvage award for any artifacts he recovers.

Ci Xi Marble Boat

CC Image courtesy of Kevin Poh on Flickr

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the end of the Boxer Rebellion. Inspired by anti-imperialist sentiment and religious mysticism, the Boxers were a nationalist Chinese group which rose up against Westerners across China in late 1899. Thousands of Chinese Christian converts, Western missionaries and other Western ex-pats were slaughtered in the ensuing violence. The Rebellion culminated in a 55 day siege of the foreign embassies in Peking which was finally lifted when 20,000 troops from Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US fought their way into Peking.

In a strange twist, the Boxer Rebellion owes much to the marble edifice pictured above – the Marble Boat on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Peking. Originally built in 1755, the structure was renovated in 1893 by order of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi with funds intended for modernizing the Chinese navy. Instead of funding the construction of a modern navy that could have kept Western forces at bay and prevented the further divvying up of China between competing Western nations, the Chinese built a ship useful only for delighting courtesans and guests of the Empress.