Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Digging for Gold at the Library: Anthologies of Shipwrecks and Other Maritime Disasters

(by Gina Bardi, Reference Librarian)

As the winter finally descends upon San Francisco my thoughts turn to good books to cozy up with on a cold night (ok, East Coasters, be quiet. 50 degrees is winter to us!)

Tucked in a comfy chair with a blanket and a fire roaring, there are few better things to read than tales of shipwrecks and disasters.  Safe in the knowledge that I will soon fall asleep in a warm bed, I can let myself explore the terrible hardships encountered by those who brave the sea and too soon learn of her cruelty.
I went back to the shelves and picked 5 anthologies of shipwrecks and disasters for those of you who are fascinated by the tragic side of the sea. 3 of them I have read before and 2 are new to me. I hope you enjoy them safely and warmly in the new year.

1. Kingston, William Henry Giles. Shipwrecks and disasters at sea. New York: G. Routledge, 1873. Book. (Available in the Library and online in multiple formats.)

Kingston’s book is interesting because not only does it provide accounts of aforementioned shipwrecks and disasters, but it also attempts to be an ethnography and a natural history of places where the tales have happened.  For instance, in the chapter entitled “The wreck of the ‘Cabalva’ or the Adventures of Old Bo” there’s some very nice drawings and descriptions of the canoes of New Guinea (p. 483) .

In fact, this book has many charming illustrations. The one below caught my eye as I was flipping through. Perhaps it’s the Oliver like language.  (p. 374)

Or this one- the faces of the men are haunting  (p. 209).

Or this one of a bird colony- can’t you just these gulls a’sqwuakin’? (p. 283).

Most of the accounts tend to be first person narratives. However, they are not cited at all which would be frustrating if using this in any sort of academic way. For example, the chapter on the foundering of the Arctic, begins, “Some years ago I made a passage, in the month of September, on board one of the fine ships belonging to the Collins’ line of steamers, from Liverpool to New York.” Whoever this “I” is is never mentioned or addressed. It would be nice to know who our heroic survivor was.

2. Huntress, Keith. Narratives of Shipwrecks and Disasters. Ames: Iowa State University, 1974. Book.

As opposed to the Kingston book, this anthology strives to give background information on both the narrator and the event.  Context greatly helps and gives an added dimension to the account.  Huntress tells us, as an example, that the chapter on the brig Polly so impressed Edgar Allen Poe that he used it as a basis for his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.  Having read Pym a few years back, I knew I was in for a harrowing account.  In fact, I would say this book really packs a punch more so than some of the others. I believe the author has done a particularly good job of selecting which narratives to use.  The book has an added bonus of including a “Checklist of narratives of shipwrecks and disasters” wherein Huntress lists works  in which “shipwrecks or other maritime disasters have been the primary concern” (p. 218).  There are a few hundred listed but he concedes that there are thousands he has not listed.

3. Lockhart, J.G. Peril of the sea: A book of shipwrecks and escapes. London: Philip Allan & Co. 1924. Book.

This collection differs from the previous two in that these are not solely first-hand accounts or narratives; Lockhart tells the story and mixes in first-hand accounts liberally.  This collection is interesting because it has a description of the sinking of the Titanic, something most of the anthologies I’ve come across shy away from, most likely because it is extensively covered in other sources.  There’s also an account of the sinking of the Birkenhead in 1852.  Anyone want to venture a guess as to what the wreck of the Birkenhead is famous for? (pause to give you a chance to think… no Googling!) It’s the first known time the practice of saving the women and children first was instituted.  Despite the fact that the frigate was well built and almost new there were not enough lifeboats on board.   Adding to the tragedy was that some of the already inadequate number of boats were either destroyed in the wreck or inaccessible because of it.  Of the 445 on board, 193 were saved, around 30 of which were all the women and children on board.  A male survivor is quoted as saying, “Thank God, it can seldom be said that Englishmen have left women and children to perish and saved their own lives!” (Lockhart 267).

4. Martingale, Hawser. Tales of the ocean and essays for the forecastle: containing matters and incidents humorous, pathetic, romantic and sentimental. Boston: B.B. Russell, 1874. Book.  (The 1840 edition is available online and in the Library.)

Ok, you caught me.  This one isn’t just about shipwrecks, but the title was so fetching to me I couldn’t resist pulling it off the shelf and checking it out. I was anxious to see  what all Mr. Martingale had collected for us under the categories listed in the subtitle.  Most of the contents of the book came from articles published in the Boston Mercantile Journal presumably written by the author.  Martingale states in his introduction  “Among the Tales which are here presented to the public, illustrative of life at sea, are interwoven chapters of a different character; essays, which, prompted by a sincere wish to promote the welfare of seamen, are designed to awaken in their bosom  a sense of their moral duties” (p. iv) and later claims: 

if a perusal of the following tales and essays will charm away a single wrinkle on the anxious brow, or cause a single noble hearted Yankee mariner to reflect on his moral nature, and to resolve to abandon the evil habits into which he may have unconsciously fallen, their publication will not be in vain” (p. v).

Therefore, many of the stories are very moral in nature.  Shipwrecks are due to drunken captains.  Sailor’s downfalls are licentiousness women (indeed he states, “Woman is a sunken rock in the sea of life, on which many a gallant fellow has been wrecked” ) (p. 121) and woe to anyone who partakes of tobacco.
The shipwrecks that are described are done so in ways that the delicate reader of the 1800’s would not need to be reclined on a fainting couch to peruse them.  There is however a very nice description of a Crossing the Line ceremony and some rollicking good yarns. The title note on the catalog record says “Author claims most of stories and anecdotes to be founded on fact” (p.iii).  I would think “founded” in this case means precariously perched on the slimmest of threads.

5. Howe, Henry. Life and death on the ocean: a collection of extraordinary adventures in the form of personal narratives. Cincinnati: Henry Howe. 1856. Book.  (Available in the Library and online.)

This wonderful collection has it all, descriptive accounts, varied and unusual events and gripping illustrations. I’m a bit partial to Howe’s collection because it contains an account of the French frigate Medusa I haven’t heard before.  The Medusa is one of my favorite shipwrecks (it feels frivolous to deem a shipwreck a “favorite.” It’s certainly one of the most fascinating and compelling. To get an idea of how compelling, take a look at a painting of the raft done by Gericault in 1824.  Most accounts are taken from the survivors of the raft, but Howe’s contains a narrative from one of the women, Mlle Picard, who was on one of the lifeboats.
He also includes accounts that aren’t about shipwrecks per say, but rather castaways and prisoners of war.  The account of the Old Jersey prison ship is particularly brutal. Here’s an illustration (between p. 216 and 217): 

Another feature of this book is that it is more global in scope.  Most of the other volumes mentioned here deal with either British or American solely or a mixture of the two.  Besides the aforementioned Medusa, he includes a tale of a Russian vessel.

If this blog post has been too much to handle- too much misfortune and despair, I understand. Talking about shipwrecks and disasters can seem ghoulish, but for many reading about these tragedies leads to better understanding of history and an appreciation for the brave men and women who go to sea. But if any sensibilities are too frayed, might I suggest visiting a website my co-worker Amy sent to me… if this doesn’t rewarm your heart then you need an IV drip of cocoa stat!

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