“Against Captain’s Orders” at National Maritime Museum

The ShipIndex team is traveling through Europe for a few weeks. I had initially planned to post one little maritime thing each day, but that has, alas fallen by the wayside. It’s certainly not for a lack of maritime-related items I’ve seen, but more a lack of time sitting at the computer, rather than exploring exploring exploring.

So, now that I’m on a two-hour train ride in France, perhaps I can write some entries of particular maritime relevance.

About a week ago (ten days? four days? Who knows when you’re traveling) my wife and I took my son (11 years old) and nephew (12) to the Royal Museums at Greenwich, home of the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark, and the Queen’s House.

As an aside, we started the day with a visit to the Sky Garden, the viewing platform at the top of the Fenchurch Street building known as the “walkie-talkie building”. This a new place to visit in London, and it’s not super-easy to do, because you need to make reservations in advance if you want to go up there for free. I think you can also go up if you agree to buy some food at the cafe, and I was surprised to see that the prices are quite reasonable, so that could also be a good option. The views from here are great – and maritime, too, if you consider the views of the Thames, and of HMS Belfast, and Tower Bridge, and more on the river.

ViewFromSkyGarden

But then we went on to Greenwich, where we visited the Cutty Sark and saw the production of “Against Captain’s Orders” at the National Maritime Museum.

I love what the folks at Cutty Sark have done with the ship in its recent renovation. I have read long-time ship enthusiasts express dismay at the work, but I honestly don’t know why. The glass around the ship shows where the waterline was – something that isn’t easily done when a ship is permanently out of water. The new event space under the ship, at the bottom of the drydock, is really impressive. The ability to see what the ship is like from underneath is just great. You get an idea of the size of the thing, and you can see what sort of work went into creating this ship long ago. And the idea of creating such a remarkable and unique event space is also great – any historic ship needs some way of generating revenue for any of the work it plans to do, so I see nothing wrong with this. Especially when it is such an amazing layout.

CuttySark   BelowCuttySark

We then went on to the 4pm performance of “Against Captain’s Orders”, a production by Punchdrunk Entertainment for the National Maritime Museum. I don’t know anything about who put this together, but they did a great, great thing. I’m also not going to tell you much of anything about the content of the production itself, since that would ruin the “Adventure”.

It’s a very active performance; you spend time running from room to room. You have to have a child (6-12 years old) to attend – so it was a good thing I had my son and nephew with me. I made it clear to them that they were simply my ticket to see the show, but they did enjoy it a great deal. It can be a bit scary for the youngest kids, though we saw one of the ‘curators’ give a young girl a small electric candle, and we wondered if they’d done that because they thought she might be a bit scared. The performance really does adapt to the audience.

The performance uses important pieces from the museum’s collections to encourage kids to think about the stories behind them, and how they might create their own Adventures (I’ll say we were on board HMS Adventure during the experience) from items of historic significance and historic value.

I honestly think every museum curator, especially at living history museums, should find a child to take to this show, before it closes. I think they’d all come away with crazy new ideas about how to engage kids with the unique or special items they have in their own collection. Even more so, theater groups should see what Punchdrunk is doing, and figure out how they could propose or create such productions for museums or other cultural institutions in their community. The level of detail that appeared here was pretty unreal; we didn’t have anywhere close to enough time to absorb all of it, or pick up all the in-jokes on the walls.

The entire show was about 45-50 minutes long; the only change I would have liked to see would have been some better conclusion, where we could applaud or somehow recognize the two ‘curators’ (really actors) – they sort of left and we didn’t realize that they weren’t coming back. So I’d say to them here, if I could reach them, that the performance really was great, and they did a fantastic job of making it so.

All in all, it was a great experience and I hope its model can be used in many other locations in the future.

Lots More Book Content Just Added

Since my last update on new content, in mid-March, I’ve added indexes to over two dozen new monographs and one new online collection. I have a lot more content to process and add, and I’ll just keep plugging away at it, as best I can.

The exciting thing (for me) is that this gets the total number of citations to over 3.4 million now. Especially with print resources, it takes a long time to really move that dial. But I feel like I did, and I’ll keep at it. Now, 3.5 million is next…

There are parts of multi-volume naval histories of the US and Britain, several more Navy Records Society volumes, some passenger list books, and some good non-Anglo/American content, as well. The new content is as follows:

USS Constitution — Preservation 200 Years Ago, and Today

Two hundred years ago today, a note appeared in the National Intelligencer, a newspaper in Washington, DC, calling on the government to preserve USS Constitution, even then known as “Old Ironsides”.

A transcription of the piece appears below:

 

Column from May 23, 1815, edition of National Intelligencer, on the importance of preserving USS Constitution

May 23, 1815, edition of National Intelligencer, on preserving USS Constitution

Our National Ship, the Constitution, is once more arrived.

Let us keep “Old Iron Sides” at home. She has, literally, become a Nation’s Ship, and should be preserved. Not as a “sheer bulk, in ordinary” (for she is no ordinary vessel); but, in honorable pomp, as a glorious Monument of her own, and our other Naval Victories.

She has “done her duty“; and we can therefore afford to preserve her from future dangers.

Let a dry dock, such as are used in Holland, and other parts of Europe, be contracted for her reception, at the Metropolis of the United States. Let a suitable and appropriate building be erected over her, to secure her from the weather; and other measures used to preserve her from decay: that our children, and children’s children, may view this stately monument of our National Triumphs.

The decks of this noble Ship have witnessed peculiarly striking instances of superiority and success over her enemies — When in battle, the skill and courage of her officers and crew, have invariably brought her victory: and when pursued by a superior force (frequently happening) the superior seamanship of her different commanders has completely baffled the efforts of her foes, and preserved her for new and splendid triumphs!

“She has done her duty”; she had done ENOUGH!

Let us preserve her as a precious model, as an example for future imitations of her illustrious performances!

 ——————————

Just five days ago, on May 18, Constitution once again went into dry dock, as the author of this piece called for 200 years ago, to be further conserved and restored, so she will continue to be around for our children’s children, and more.

This time-lapse video shows the ship’s movement into position:

 

And the Navy’s website about USS Constitution has much more about the ship’s history, and how she was, in fact, saved, many times, in the past two hundred years.

 

20 Ways the Shipping Container has Changed the World

Shipping containers have fundamentally changed the way of the world since their conception in 1956. They perform the thankless task of transporting billions of tons of cargo each and every year. We know how important shipping containers are but not many of us know their origins.

An infographic called “20 Ways The Shipping Container Took Over The World”, produced by Containerhomeplans.org, show us precisely how the shipping container has become so popular. For example, as you read this approximately 20 million containers are traveling across the ocean. And over 90% of everything your purchase has been transported using a shipping container.

20WaysShippingContainer

Click above to see the complete infographic

Much of the information in this infographic has come from Mark Levinson’s book, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. A more recent book on the subject is Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. I’ve read the latter; it was great. I haven’t yet read the former.

All of this change has only taken 60 years, as back in 1955 0% of cargo was transported using containers. Have a look at the infographic to find out even more about how shipping containers have changed the world!

New Content Added: 17 Books, One Web Source

I’ve added more new monographic (and one web: Blue World Web Museum) content, and I’ve still got tons more to work through and add soon. In any case, the following have all been added since the list that I posted on February 27.

This upload includes two volumes from two major multi-volume sets of naval history: Clowes’ The Royal Navy, and the US Navy’s Naval Documents of the American Revolution. Additional volumes will follow for both sets; it seemed silly to hold onto them until all the files were completely finished.

New Content Added for Over a Dozen Titles

Recently, I’ve been preparing a lot of new content to add to the database. The first evidence of that went into the database today. Ships mentioned in the indexes to the following resource were added to the subscription database today:

This is just a start; many more, including several multi-volume sets, will be added very soon.

Applying Old Data to New Technologies – The Quasi-War

Here is a very cool combination of early modern historical data and very modern technology. ShipIndex exhibited at the American Historical Association conference in New York City at the very start of 2015, and while there I met Abby Mullen, a graduate student at Northeastern University, studying with William Fowler.

At the conference, I learned that Ms. Mullen has an interest in maritime & naval history, as any right-minded person should, but after the conference I learned she’s done some really cool work in tracking naval battles and the taking of ships by privateers during the Quasi-War of 1798-1800. She took all of the information she’d gathered, and mapped all of it, then put it all online at http://abbymullen.org/projects/Quasi-War/.

QW_Captures

As she explains in her description of this image, “This screenshot shows most of the encounters between American and French vessels. Green is a French capture; red is an American; brown is an encounter that did not result in a capture either way.” Note the grey almost-rectangle in the left-center. That’s a separate chart, from the late 18th century, which she has adapted and stretched to reflect our improved geographic knowledge of the region.

Plus, she wrote up how she collected the data, she posted the data on her page, and talked about the challenges of converting historical data — especially the historical map/chart she chose to plot the data upon — to a modern format and with modern specificity. She also highlighted the limitations of the data she collected, and described other activities she’d like to see done, if possible.

This is a great application of historical data in a modern setting. Check it out!

How do you get a 458′ long, by 50′ wide, ship through a 270′ long, by 45′ wide, canal?

So many ships have so many great stories. I’d like to start highlighting a few of them. Here’s a start:

Toward the end of World War I, the US government needed all the shipping tonnage it could obtain, to move resources to Europe. It looked to the Great Lakes for freighters available there, and among the ones it found there, the last it took was the largest of all, the Charles R. Van Hise. The Van Hise was built in 1900, and was 458 feet long, and 50 feet wide. To get any of these ships from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic meant taking them around Niagara Falls, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The way to do that is through the Welland Canal . At the start of the First World War, the Canal had 26 locks, each 270 feet long and 45 feet wide. Most ships that were taken by the US Shipping Board were too long to travel through these locks, so they were cut in half amidships, each end had a bulkhead added to the cut side, and each half was towed through the locks separately. They were then put back together once they’d arrived in Lake Ontario, before heading up the St Lawrence Seaway and on to the Atlantic.

WellandCanal

The Van Hise, however, was not only too long, but also too wide: the locks were 45 feet wide but the Van Hise measured in at 50 feet. In a remarkable feat of engineering that has not been repeated, the ship was first cut in half admiships, like previous ships had been. Then she was rotated on her side, using some internal tanks and added pontoons. Since she wasn’t particularly deep, she could be turned on her side, and with her port side now acting as her keel, she was narrow enough to fit through the locks.

This excellent story (via Google Books) in the March 1919 issue of Popular Science describes how the process was done. The forward section passed through the first lock, as a test, in early December 1918, and the aft section, which was at this point waiting in Buffalo, was to follow in the spring of 1919. Each piece would then be towed through the other locks of the Welland Canal, to get to Lake Ontario. But hostilities had ended, and the need for the ship was negated. So the bow was towed back through the southern-most lock, back to Lake Erie, and the two halves were rejoined at Ashtabula, were the ship was also extended in size.

PopSci VanHise ArticleVan Hise went back to work, and then went through a variety of name changes – A. E. R. Schneider, S. B. Way, J. M. Oag, and finally, in 1936, Captain C. D. Secord. More work continued to change her profile, but she kept working the lakes, up until 1967. In 1968, she was sold to a Montreal scrapping firm who resold her, and in August 1968 she was towed to Spain to be broken up.

So how did she get through the Welland Canal to head out on her final voyage? Canal construction, running from 1913 to 1932, had reduced the number of locks from 26 to eight, and significantly increased them all in size, to 766 feet long and 80 feet wide – plenty wide enough for the Van Hise’s trip to the breaking yard, nearly 70 years after she’d been launched.

 

Sources: The story of this remarkable ship first appeared on the MARHST-L discussion list in January 2015. Posters included links to the Popular Science article (linked above), and this extended history of the ship’s life, on the Maritime History of the Great Lakes site. This page from the Great Lakes Maritime Database came via ShipIndex.org, and has this image of a dozen or so men standing on the Van Hise’s starboard-side-acting-as-deck. tbnms1ic_0146613_005_F_VANHISECHARLESR_375_229_full_0Other links from within ShipIndex.org led me to an entry at Bowling Green’s Great Lakes Vessel Online Index, as well as manuscript records for Captain C.D. Secord at Milwaukee County Library System, an image hosted by York University.

(For information on how I tracked down those manuscript records — which is not a simple process — read my entries on making the most of WorldCat record, here.)

Tracking Shipwreck Survivors

I got a note the other day from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, directing me to a resource about tracking shipwreck survivors. It’s an online publication, titled The Shipwrecked Passenger Book: Sailing Westbound from Europe for the Americas, 1817-1875, by Frank A. Biebel. It’s available for free here, hosted by FamilySearch. It will also be available on the NYG&BS website soon, in the members area.

The publication tracks 339 identified shipwrecks, and, to the best of the author’s ability, includes as much information as can be found regarding the wrecks and the recovery and repatriation of those on board. Biebel provides citations for whatever he was able to find, in newspapers, books, and more.

He also provides a few fascinating stories. In the case of the William Nelson, sailing to New York in the summer of 1865, a violent fever passed through the immigrants on board, while off the coast of Newfoundland. The captain decided to fumigate the areas where the sick had been by dipping red-hot irons in tar, and then swinging them around the space. Somehow, this was supposed to clean the air. Near the completion of this project, an iron fell into a tar-pail, and it caught fire. The passenger overseeing this fumigation process tried to smother the blaze with a mattress, but it exploded (!) and with each roll of the ship flaming tar spread throughout the area belowdecks. In moments flames raced up the hatchway, “running up the mainmast and rigging like fiery serpents.”

The captain got a number of boats launched, but only about 87 passengers, from among 448 originally on board, survived. Survivors were picked up by the steamship Lafayette and a Russian bark, and eventually taken to New York.

While this story and others in the volume are fascinating, one of the most important contributions is in the discussion toward the very end of the book. The author, after looking through so many records and tracking down all kinds of data, provides the following very useful synthesis (p. 616):

Survivors were often picked up at sea or otherwise came aboard a vessel that reached a U.S. port; for that, they were likely deeply grateful. At port, the rescuing captain or master filed a manifest as required by law. But, the survivor’s ancestors, the family historians of today, may sometimes not be pleased.

The U.S. Passenger Act of 1819 which required the recording on an arriving ship manifest of those passengers who boarded at a foreign port made no provision for shipwrecks, including possible survivors. Nor, do I know of any (U.S.) legislation prior to 1875 which accounted for this gap. And, apparently, contemporary social norms did not touch upon the subject. Thus, adding survivor names to his manifest was solely at the whim of the rescuing captain.

The result is that in doing this work, I encountered the full range of possibilities. A rescuing master’s manifest may have nothing at all of the shipwreck and its passengers, the only confirmation of survivors aboard coming from newspaper accounts (strangely enough, sometimes from an interview with the rescuing master himself). At the more desirable extreme, a captain may have mentioned the shipwreck and recorded survivor information as ifthey were his own passengers.

It may be of little help, but even though there was ”nothing at all,” if the name of the rescuing ship was known, it is included in the shipwreck information found when accessing any of the 339 listed wrecks.

I added the ships mentioned in this book to the ShipIndex.org database yesterday, but I particularly wanted to point out the value that Biebel provides by offering some analysis of what happened, across many different situations, with regard to shipwrecked immigrants.

Giving ShipIndex.org as a Gift

Looking for a last-minute gift for a maritime historian or a genealogist?

Consider access to the nearly 3.4 million citations in ShipIndex.org!

You can give a genealogist three months of access to the premium database for just $22. Or give a historian access to the premium database for six months for $35. Or give a maritime history fanatic access for a year, for just $65! This is a one-time payment, via PayPal (and yes, you can use a credit card through the PayPal site).

To make it happen, send a note to gifts@shipindex.org. We’ll need the following information:

  • The recipient’s email address
  • When you’d like access to begin, and for how long

We’ll create a pdf certificate that you can print out or email to the recipient. It will include a username and a temporary password, plus information on how to access the database.

This can be a great gift, for any occasion — from a holiday or birthday gift to a retirement or ‘Thank You’ recognition.