Category Archives: Maritime History

This Day in History, 1620 – Mayflower Set Sail

On this day in 1620 (old style; September 16, in new style), Mayflower sailed from Southampton, England. She arrived in the hook of Cape Cod on November 11. The rest is, as they say, history.

Nathaniel Philbrick published his book about the ship in 2006; it’s titled Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. My feeling was that the book should have been titled “King Philip’s War,” since it was much more about the interactions between the settlers and the Native Americans they encountered once they arrived, than it was about the voyage or the vessel, but very little is known about those subjects. Nevertheless, it made for an interesting story.

If you have other opinions about the book, please don’t hesitate to share.

This Day in History, 1939 – First British Ship Sunk by Germans

On September 3, 1939, the British passenger liner SS Athenia was sunk by the German sub U-30. This was the first British ship sunk in World War II, and because it was a passenger vessel, rather than a cargo ship, it was a violation of existing treaties between Germany and England. In fact, the Germans did not admit to sinking Athenia until well after the end of the war. Many didn’t believe that the Germans would have sunk a passenger liner, as there was much to lose, and little to gain, by doing so.

118 people lost their lives, from more than 1100 on board, and much that loss occurred during the rescue. Because the seas were calm, many vessels were able to assist Athenia, and most did so successfully. A Norwegian vessel, Knute Nelson, caused about 50 deaths when it suddenly steamed full speed ahead, sucking a full lifeboat that was aside it into its propeller.

This Day in History, 1601 – Dutch complete circumnavigation of the world

On this day in 1601, Olivier van Noort arrived back in Rotterdam, becoming the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the globe. He left in July 1598, with four ships, but arrived back home just over three years later with only one vessel – Mauritius. He also returned with just 45 of the 248 who left with him.

While he was the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the globe, a fair number of other explorers already had. Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage of 1519 to 1522, of course, was the first — though Magellan himself didn’t survive the voyage. Magellan sailed with five ships – Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria, and Santiago – and only Victoria survived, under the leadership of Juan Sebastian Elcano.

Between 1580 and 1589, Martín Ignacio de Loyola circumnavigated the globe in both directions, becoming the first person to do that.

Letters from Battle of Trafalgar, via Caird Library, National Maritime Museum

The Caird Library Blog, from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England,  has a nice entry from earlier this month about the letters of young George Perceval, whose first action as an 11-year-old sailor was in the Battle of Trafalgar, on board HMS Orion. Later, as the blog author writes, “The next letter in the collection is written on Christmas Day, and George was PER-1-20Bound Book0105.jpgobviously greatly enjoying his wait for the new ship – the letter starts out in a fair hand, but the section in which he writes that he has ‘drunk all your healths’ shows that he certainly has – and it would appear that the affects are showing in 12 year old George’s handwriting!”

Images of several letters are included, and they’re very high quality. It’s a neat presentation of fascinating manuscript content.

Today in History: Constitution defeats Guerriere; 19 August 1812

Today, August 19, marks the 197th anniversary of the historic battle between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812. This was a critical battle for the early republic; it showed that the startup US Navy could take on, and more importantly defeat, the British Navy – unquestionably the most powerful naval force at the time.

Constitution defeated and burned Guerriere, and took her crew prisoner, in the battle. It was in this battle that Constitution gained the nickname “Old Ironsides”, when a sailor watched British cannonballs bounce off her sides, and exclaimed that she appeared to be made of iron. If you go below deck on Constitution, you can see why they bounced off: that is one SOLID hull.

The Naval Historical Center in Washington, DC, has some information about the battle, and the War of 1812 site has more about the specific battle, too.

I remember a great ballad about the battle, and found the lyrics online along with a really annoying MIDI file of the music, that doesn’t much do it justice. Oh, well. The ballad is still fun.

If you’re in Boston, you might want to attend a commemoration of the event, today. The USS Constitution Museum — next to, but not directly affiliated with, the ship — is having a celebration on Saturday, the 22nd, from 11am to 4pm, too.