Archives For Revolutionary War

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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.

 

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george washington

Portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale
Washington & Lee University

Today marks the official celebration of Washington’s Birthday (aka Presidents’ Day). Lighthorse Harry Lee described George Washington as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” a fitting description for a man who personally shaped many of America’s first martial and political traditions. While George Washington and tales of cherry trees, providential safety in battle and his wooden false teeth are typical textbook fare, less well known is the story behind the Washington family’s emigration to the colonies.

Born around 1633 in England, George Washington’s great-great grandfather Lawrence Washington embarked aboard the Seahorse in 1656 to trade tobacco with Virginian colonists. As the Seahorse neared the Virginia coastline, the ship was caught in a storm and wrecked near The Clifts, a plantation owned by one Nathanael Pope (part of the plantation later became the Lee family home of Stratford Hall). Instead of returning to England, young Lawrence grew enamored with Nathanael’s daughter Anne and married her in 1658. Lawrence served his adopted colony of Virginia in her militia as well a the House of Burgesses and died with 8,500 acres to his name. Thus, if it weren’t for a shipwreck and a beguiling Southern belle, an English born George Washington may very well have been leading British and Hessian troops against the colonists in 1776.

As this year’s recovery season winds down, noted exploration company Odyssey Marine is wrapping up two deep water recoveries (the SS Gairsoppa and SS Mantola) and currently on hold with the excavation of HMS Victory.  The 2012 season marked several firsts for Odyssey – the completion of a shipwreck salvage under government contract, the validation of their deepwater recovery methods and the beginnings of legitimacy for their role in “academic” archaeology with their efforts on the HMS Victory. What lies ahead for Odyssey is a question of much debate.  Below are five of the most discussed targets for Odyssey along with pros and cons for each.

1.  Merchant Royal – widely believed to be the target of Odyssey’s “Atlas” search, the Merchant Royal went down in a storm off Great Britain in 1641 with a cargo of gold and silver valued around ~1 billion in current dollars. This is the Holy Grail of shipwrecks and would be an incredible find both for the monetary and publicity windfall. Apart from the difficulty involved in locating the wreck, there are no significant cons to recovering the Merchant Royal.

2.  Prins Frederik – sunk in 1890 after a collision with the Marpessa in the Bay of Biscay, this Dutch mail steamer carried 400,000 silver rijksdaalders in its bullion room. Disputes over the actual location of the ship (and thus who was to blame for the collision) have created a wide search area and significantly affect the depth of water it could be located in – 500 feet if where the captain of the Prins Frederik claimed or 6,000 feet if where the captain of the Marpessa claimed. A British company claimed to have found the wreck in shallow water in 1994 which could generate legal issues for Odyssey if it is indeed the Prins Frederik. Odyssey could also face legal claims from insurers who paid out on claims or the Dutch government as the cargo was for payment of colonial forces in Indonesia. The Prins Frederik would be an excellent target for an arrangement similar to the Gairsoppa and Mantola where the Dutch government receives a portion of the proceeds after expenses.

3.  I-52 – re-discovered in 1995 by Paul Tidwell, the I-52 was sunk by American naval forces in 1944 while en route from Japan to Nazi Germany. The I-52 was carrying 2.2 tons of gold and now sits in 17,000 feet of water. While Odyssey’s deepwater recovery methods would enable recovery of the wreck, apart from a multi-party agreement on salvage rights between Tidwell, the Japanese government and Odyssey no recovery is possible. Tidwell has also stated he is pursuing recovery of the sub and it is doubtful Odyssey would be brought in on the deal.

4.  Port Nicholson – a British freighter loaded with $3 billion in platinum, the Port Nicholson was torpedoed off the coast of Massachusetts in 1942 and was located in 2008 by Sub Sea Research.  Sub Sea Research gained title to the ship in 2009 and planned recovery in 2012. No word has emerged on whether or not the group has been successful in their salvage and there are doubts as to whether the platinum even exists onboard.  If Sub Sea is unable to recover the wreck due to a lack of expertise or funding, then a collaboration with Odyssey would benefit both parties and be the most valuable recovery yet, surpassing even Odyssey’s Black Swan recovery (and subsequent loss).

5.  Bonhomme Richard – John Paul Jones’ famous flagship went down after his epic battle with HMS Serapis. The past few years have seen renewed efforts to find the ship, but any recovery would be limited by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Because the Bonhomme Richard was an American warship it cannot be salvaged without the permission of the US government. An arrangement with the US government similar to that of the HMS Victory one is a possibility, but doubtful because the upside isn’t nearly as high as it is for other wrecks.

There are dozens of other wrecks Odyssey could be pursuing – the company claims to have dozens of high value shipwreck targets in its proprietary database. Based on Odyssey’s stated business model of pursuing high value targets with easily ascertainable legal ownership and inaccessible to normal salvors, Odyssey will most likely pursue deepwater commodity shipwrecks where the cargo can be quickly monetized and not the storied Spanish Galleons of treasure hunting lore.

Disclosure: I am an Odyssey Marine shareholder.

A little known fact of the Revolutionary War is that Captain James Cook’s bark, HMB Endeavour, was purposely sunk by the Royal Navy in the waters off Providence, RI. British leaders ordered the ship, along with ~13 other transports, scuttled to prevent Continental and French forces from entering the harbor. The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project recently launched a $300,000 fundraising effort to finance operations to identify HMB Endeavour from among eight Revolutionary War era shipwrecks it has previously discovered.

HMB Endeavour is most widely associated with Captain James Cook’s 18th century expeditions throughout the Pacific Ocean and exploration of Australia.  A full-size replica was built in 1993 and serves as a floating exhibit of the Australian National Maritime Museum.  Also designed for exploration, NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour, was named in honor of Captain Cook and his ship.  Following Captain Cook’s voyages, the Royal Navy sold off the bark and it was renamed Lord Sandwich (incidentally, Captain Cook named what is today Hawaii as the Sandwich Islands in honor of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, the then First Lord of the Admiralty).  Lord Sandwich was contracted in 1776 by the Royal Navy as a transport and was employed as a prison ship prior to being scuttled in 1778.