Archives For Merchant Vessels

Mardi Gras Shipwreck

CC Image Courtesy of Andy Castro on Flickr

Mardi Gras is often associated with images of raucous partying and parades in New Orleans, Louisiana. However, for archaeologists and conservationists with the Louisiana State Archaeology Department, Mardi Gras represents an ongoing shipwreck recovery project. First located by surveyors for an oil and gas concern, the Marid Gras Shipwreck was named for the Mardi Gras pipeline that runs near where it was discovered.

Although excavations began more than 5 years ago, none of the wreck’s artifacts have been made available for public viewing until recently. Last month, the West Baton Rouge Museum opened an exhibit featuring some of the wreck’s preserved artifacts on loan from the Louisiana State Archaeology Department.

Artifacts recovered from the site as well as shipping records have led researchers to believe the ship sank during the War of 1812. Specifically, there is circumstantial evidence pointing to the ship being the Rapid, a privateer operating out of New Orleans, which sank in a squall after being pursued by the HMS Herald. Regardless of the ship’s identity, its artifacts are helping archaeologists better understand 19th century life at sea as well as educating the general public while on exhibit. Information about visiting the museum can be found at the museum’s website.

alaskan ferry

Kalakala Ferry Today
CC Image Courtesy of rbanks on Flickr

Once a majestic art deco ship shuttling passengers across Puget Sound, the Kalakala is today rusting away at her moorings in Tacoma, Washington. For nearly a decade, owner Steve Rodrigues has attempted to restore the ship to her former glory, but has faced serious funding issues and legal troubles with the US Coast Guard and the state of Washington. Unless someone with deep pockets steps up soon, the ship is most likely destined for the breakers yard.

Originally built in 1926, the Kalakala has had a colorful history and began life as the Peralta, a traditionally styled ferry operating in San Francisco, California. In 1933, a fire at Peralta’s terminal wrecked the ship’s superstructure and, instead of rebuilding the vessel in its prior form, the ship was graced with a sleek art deco superstructure to become the world’s first art deco ship.

Kalakala entered service in 1935, but a design defect obstructed the view of the bow from the bridge and the ship was plagued with poor handling in the tight confines of ferry terminals. Kalakala continued ferrying passengers around Washington and British Columbia until 1967. The vessel then sailed to Alaska where she was purposely run aground and converted into a shrimp processing plant on dry land. In 1982, the Kalakala’s owners declared bankruptcy. Thus began a 30 year dance of legal maneuvering and fundraising during which the vessel was moved back to Washington and efforts launched to restore the ship.

art deco ship

Kalakala Ferry in 1958
CC Image Courtesy of kitchener.lord on Flickr

Portimao shipwreck

Portimao, Portugal
CC Image Courtesy of Juan Antonio Canales on Flickr

Last week, archaeologists began dive operations on a wreck in the Arade River near Portimao, Portugal. Amphora have previously been discovered at the wreck site, pointing to the ship having sunk during from Roman times. The survey of the site is the first in a series of expeditions to the ship planned for the next 3 to 4 years. Archaeologists are hoping to learn more about Portimao’s role in Roman trade routes. Dives are also planned to wrecks discovered in the 1990’s that are believed to be Spanish ships from the 17th century.

The surveying of the wreck site coincides with the deliberate sinking of two decommissioned Portuguese warships to create artificial reefs. Local authorities are hoping to make Portimao a diving tourism site and the warships, which will eventually be joined by two more ships, into an underwater diving resort.

Vikings in America

Baffin Island
CC Image Courtesy of Mike Beauregard on Flickr

National Geographic reports that archaeologists working in Tanfield Valley on Baffin Island have uncovered evidence pointing to a second Viking camp in North America. Canadian archaeologists led by Memorial University adjunct professor Patricia Sutherland began excavations in the area in 2001. While excavating the ruins of an ancient building on the island, Sutherland and her crew found whetstones with traces of a copper alloy known to be used by Viking metalsmiths, but not natives of the region. Items with Viking origins have previously been found on the island including Viking yarn, tally sticks and whetstones.

Sutherland’s latest discovery solidifies evidence for Viking contact with the peoples of Baffin Island and provides further foundation for her assertion that a northern transatlantic trade route existed between the Vikings and Arctic natives. The high demand in northern Europe for ivory and furs would have provided significant economic incentive for the Vikings to trade with Arctic natives.

Archaeologists first discovered evidence of Viking contact with North America at L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960. Numerous modern day adventurers have utilized Viking ships and navigation techniques to sail from the Vikings’ Scandinavian homeland to various points in North America. The feat was even accomplished 120 years ago when Norwegian Magnus Anderson built and sailed a Viking longship replica from Norway to Chicago for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition. The ship is now on display in Chicago, Illinois.

hms dasher

Ardrossan, Scotland
CC Image Courtesy of Gordon Cowan on Flickr

Next week British archaeologists will excavate a possible mass grave of British sailors in Ardrossan, Scotland. The sailors believed buried there served aboard HMS Dasher, a British escort carrier which sunk in 1943 during World War II. Some have alleged that the mass grave is the result of a government cover-up.

Dasher was originally laid down as the merchant vessel Rio de Janiero, however, the exigent circumstances of wartime prompted her conversion into an escort carrier. Escort carriers were small aircraft carriers designed to provide air cover for convoys as they crossed the North Atlantic. Additionally, the diminutive carriers saw action in the Pacific Theater, most notably during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Dasher could embark 15 aircraft which helped substantially lessen the risk of attack by U-boats or the Luftwaffe. The ship sank under mysterious circumstances on March 27, 1943 and 379 of her 528 man crew lost their lives. Various theories have been put forth as to what caused the ship to sink among them design defects or a plane wrecking upon landing. Following the sinking, the British government acted quickly to prevent news of the ship’s loss from spreading and weakening wartime morale. Among the actions taken were the burying of the majority of the sailors in a mass grave and a gag order being issued to the local press.

Earlier this year the British government announced it would make public documents surrounding the loss of the Dasher. Hopefully the release of these documents along with the excavation and reburial of the sailors will lay to rest a tragic and controversial event in the history of the Royal Navy. Today, a new HMS Dasher serves the Royal Navy as a coastal training vessel.

chinese porcelain

Blue & White Yuan Dynasty Porcelain

Vietnamese authorities are attempting to protect a 14th century shipwreck discovered earlier this year in the province of Quang Ngai. Local fishermen originally found the wreck and salvaged some of its Yuan dynasty porcelain cargo. Authorities quickly swooped in and confiscated the recovered porcelain. Now, locals are determined to profit from the wreck by salvaging it themselves.

Last Saturday, Vietnamese police guarding the wreck were attacked by a throng of 60 fishermen. Two policemen were injured after the fishermen pelted the guards with rocks and swarmed their boats and vehicles. The mob freed a fisherman the authorities were attempting to arrest and hundreds of police eventually had to be called in to quell the violence. The police presence will most likely continue for the 3 months it is predicted to take to salvage the wreck.

America's Cup

America Replica
CC Image Courtesy of Greg Bishop on Flickr

The America’s Cup yacht race has a storied history including a connection to the American Civil War. The race traces its origins to 1851 when the newly built American yacht America bested Britain’s finest yachts in the Royal Yacht Squadron’s annual 100 Guinea Cup.  Bringing the trophy back to the New York Yacht Club, America became the namesake for the America’s Cup – a race that is older than even the modern-era Olympics. Today the race is held in various port cities around the world.

Following the 100 Guinea Cup, the America was sold between various parties and eventually found itself in the hands of the Confederate Navy. Instead of using the ship as a blockade runner or merchant raider, the Confederates scuttled the ship as a block ship to prevent the Union Navy’s capture of Jacksonville, Florida. Despite their efforts, the Union captured Jacksonville and raised and repaired the yacht. Intending to utilize the yacht’s immense speed, the Union armed the ship as a blockader and assigned her to patrol the approaches to Charleston harbor. The yacht was successful on October 12, 1862 when it captured the blockade runner David Crockett.

In March 1863, America caught the CSS Georgiana attempting to run the blockade and helped direct other vessels into a chase that ended with the grounding and destruction of the Georgiana. Historians continue to dispute whether the Georgiana was intended to be fitted out as a merchant raider or was merely another blockade runner. Georgiana’s remains were re-discovered in 1965 and limited excavations have been carried out on the site. America completed her wartime service, slid into obscurity and was eventually scrapped in 1945. Today a replica of the yacht offers guests sailing trips throughout the San Diego bay area and is berthed at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Odysseus' and the sirens

CC Image Courtesy of Ken & Nyetta on Flickr

The Mediterranean Sea continues to give up the secrets it harbors from Greek and Roman times. This week, archaeologists working in Turkey discovered the well-preserved remains of 2 Roman-era shipwrecks. Excavations have been ongoing in the area since 1995 and are being performed by Italian archaeologists. The site was once the location of a Roman trading city named Elaiussa Sebaste which was founded in the 2nd century BC. One ship is from the Roman Imperial period and the other from around 500 AD. They both contain cargoes of amphorae and marble. Archaeologists hope that further excavations and study will supply insight into Roman trading patterns between Elaiussa Sebaste, Syria, Egypt and the Anatolian peninsula.

Work on a third wreck, this one from around 350 BC, is likely to assist archaeologists in their understanding of Greek shipbuilding techniques. Dubbed the Mazotos Wreck, the ship was discovered in 2006 and archaeological work began in 2007. This year the team found that approximately 45 feet of planking as well as the ship’s keel have been preserved and are useful for study. The ship was carrying ~1,000 jugs of wine when it sank and the remains of its cargo have helped researchers better understand the trade of ancient Greece.

These are not the only discoveries made this year in ancient Greek and Roman maritime archaeology. Earlier this year, surveyors for a gas pipeline discovered a Roman era wreck that dispelled the belief that Roman trading vessels hugged the shoreline and did not traverse open water. Robert Ballard also discovered two wrecks off the coast of Cyprus. With the continuation of exploration operations on the Antikythera Mechanism wreck, there could be even more revelations to come as the year draws to a close.

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.

african ferry

CC Image Courtesy of Yaamboo on Wikimedia Commons

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the capsizing of the Sengalese ship, M/V Le Joola, on September 26, 2002. Le Joola was a government owned roll-on, roll-off ferry which operated between Senegalese ports on the Atlantic Ocean. At the time of its sinking, ferry travel was a popular option because a civil war made the land route prohibitively dangerous. The ferry’s maximum capacity was approximately 550, however, there were nearly 2,000 passengers aboard the ship when it capsized 35 kilometers off the Gambian coast.

A combination of overcrowding and gross neglect (the ship had only recently returned to service after a multi-year hiatus) contributed to the ship’s capsizing although the exact cause of the sinking has never been conclusively proven. It was also alleged that political considerations regarding the appeasement of separatist groups within Senegal encouraged the Senegalese government to return the ferry to service before it was fully seaworthy.

Sadly, only ~60 of the nearly 2,000 souls aboard survived and an exact body count has never been determined. The disaster is one of the worst sinkings in history with more lives lost than that of RMS Titanic, however it pales in comparison to the ~9,000 lives lost aboard the M/V Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945. The ship’s sinking continues to have ramifications today with survivors and victims’ families demanding a new inquiry into the causes of the sinking.