Archives For 19th Century

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.

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.

Petropavlosk

April 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

Russian battleship

On April 13, 1904 the Russian battleships Petropavlovsk and Poltava, four cruisers and an escort of destroyers sallied forth from Port Arthur to attack the Japanese fleet that had besieged the Russian port. The Japanese forces fell back beyond the reach of Russian shore batteries and as a result the Russian admiral, Stepan Makarov, ordered the squadron to return to Port Arthur. As the squadron steamed back to port, the Petropavlovsk struck two Japanese mines in quick succession and sank almost immediately. The loss of the Petropavlovsk devastated the Russian defenses as not only did it lose one of its most capable ships, but Admiral Makarov and a total of 27 officers and 652 sailors perished in the sinking.

Commissioned in 1898, the Petropavlovsk was armed with four 12-inch guns with a secondary battery of twelve 6-inch guns. The vessel saw service in the Boxer Rebellion and by the time the Russo-Japanese war broke out had been with Russia’s Far Eastern Squadron five years. The ship was succeeded by another battleship of the same name in 1911 which served the Imperial Russian Navy in World War I as well as the Soviet Navy in World War Two before being scrapped in 1953.

War of 1812

Award winning author George C. Daughan’s latest book, The Shining Sea, is a timely narrative of the voyage of David Porter and the USS Essex from October 1812 until March 1814. As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 continues, Daughan’s book does an excellent job presenting the reader with an exciting tale of adventure on the high seas, a failed attempt at nation-building, diplomacy in South America and the South Pacific and, ultimately, the dangers of man’s hubris. Two particular points where Daughan’s work shines is his thorough but brief background to the War of 1812 as well as his vivid and readable descriptions of Porter’s voyage. Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of how the War of 1812 came about, Daughan provides just enough background to bring the reader up to speed and then sets sail on Porter’s epic adventure. By the same token, Daughan avoids the trap of making the work too dense with nautical terminology and sailing jargon and instead focuses on the incredible actions of Porter and his men.

For twenty-first century readers, imagining a world where a merchant raider could disappear into the mists of the sea for months at a time and leave the entire British Admiralty perplexed is something near unthinkable, but this is exactly what David Porter did with the Essex. Porter and his men laid waste to the British whaling fleet in the South Pacific in a feat only rivaled in its completeness by James Waddell fifty years later in the CSS Shenandoah. Also foreign to twenty-first century readers is Porter’s ability to act without constant communication with his chain of communication. In an age when the President can watch a raid in Abottabad, Pakistan in real-time, the ability to act under only the loosest of orders is a stunning reflection of the weight of command and responsibility assigned to ship captains. Functioning as a double-edged sword, this responsibility allows for both innovation but also the opportunity for poor decision making. Daughan’s conclusion to The Shining Sea makes light of this double-edged sword and will leave the reader both entertained and cautioned against man’s failings.

Finland Shipwreck Champagne
CC Image courtesy of David Parsons on Flickr

UPDATE 3/27/14 The Aland regional government has been reprimanded by the Deputy Chancellor of Justice for the sale of champagne in 2011 and 2012. The sale occurred before the government received a permit from the National Board of Antiquities. Although the permit had been applied for, it had not yet been granted. Additionally, the export licenses required for the sale are governed by the very authorities who conducted the sale and pocketed the proceeds. The Deputy Chancellor of Justice is alleging this dual role violates both national and EU law on the export of cultural artifacts.

ORIGINAL POST 9/5/12

According to the German publication Deutsche Welle, another 8 bottles from a 168 bottle collection of champagne are set to go under the auctioneers hammer. The champagne was discovered two years ago by diver and (ironically enough) brewery owner Christian Ekström. Ekström was exploring a wrecked schooner off the coast of the Åland Islands when he came upon the bottles at the site. Researchers believe the schooner sank in the 1840s making Ekström’s find the oldest champagne ever found. Now, two years after the discovery, 10 of the bottles have been sold at auction with one, a Veuve Clicquot, selling for a record breaking $26,700. Authorities on the Åland Islands plan to hold auctions of the champagne over the next few years as a method of bringing tourists to the area.

Ekström’s find isn’t the first fermented treasure trove found in the Baltic as there have been both beer and other champagne caches discovered in recent years. The discovery and re-creation of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey, though, is still perhap the most noteworthy alcoholic find of the past few years.

message in a bottle

Sister Ship of SS Naronic

“Feb.  19, 1893- Naronic sinking. All hands praying. God have mercy on us.”  ~L. Winsel

On February 11, 1893, the White Star Line steamer SS Naronic departed Liverpool for New York with 74 crew as well as 3,600 tons of general cargo. Built in 1892 by Harland and Wolff, the same company that would build the ill-fated Titanic, the Naronic measured 470 feet in length and had twin coal fired reciprocating engines capable of propelling her through the waves at a steady 13 knots. Although the ship had been built as a cattle vessel, additional passenger accommodations were added to permit her to earn extra revenue on non-New York routes.

After landing her pilot at Point Lynas, Wales, the Naronic sailed for New York and entered the mists of history as neither she nor any of her crew members were ever seen again. On March 3, a bottle washed ashore in Bay Ridge, New York with the contents “Feb. 19, 1893 – Naronic sinking. All hands praying. God have mercy on us.” The note was signed by a L. Winsel, but there was no L. Winsel on the Naronic’s manifest – the closest name being John L. Watson. Three more bottles were found over the next six months – one in Virginia, another in the Irish Channel and a fourth in the Mersey River. None were signed by identifiable members of the ship’s crew, but two contained generally the same story – the ship had struck an iceberg in a storm and sunk over the course of a few hours.

A subsequent British Board of Trade inquiry dismissed the iceberg theory as not fitting the weather patterns, but local reports in New York placed icebergs in the general vicinity of where the Naronic was sailing. Two separate reports were made of ships sighting lifeboats from the Naronic but the exact location or cause of her sinking has never been determined – it was even speculated that the ship was the casualty of a terrorist bombing.

Royal Navy

HMS Liverpool
CC Image Courtesy of Jonathan Jordan on Flickr

On Friday, the UK Ministry of Defence announced the solicitation of bids for the scrapping of two of its Type 42 destroyers, HMS Liverpool and HMS Manchester. Both ships were launched in 1978, commissioned in 1982 and saw service the First Gulf War. The scrapping of their sister ship HMS Edinburgh was announced last year and drew record crowds when she was open for tours in Liverpool for the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic in May 2013.

Today the Type 42s have been replaced by the Type 45s in their fleet air defense role. Unfortunately for the United Kingdom, NATO, the US and all who rely on the US, the UK and their allies to ensure the freedom of the seas, the vessels are being replaced at a ratio of 2:1 with only six joining the fleet. While only two of the six Type 45s have officially joined the Royal Navy’s fleet, one, HMS Dauntless has already been deployed to the Falklands to ensure the continued liberty of the Falkland Islands. While the Type 45s are vastly more capable than the Type 42s they replace, the Royal Navy will lose the quality that comes with quantity and be forced to further rely on allies and “hope” as a strategic defense policy. All the while, many of the Royal Navy’s vessels, including the carrier HMS Ark Royal, face transformation from mighty vessels of war to lowly razor blades.

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.