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Posted in America, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Ships on Saturday, 25 May 2013
This edited article about the Santa Maria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 268 published on 4 March 1967.
The ship in which Christopher Columbus made his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492 was a decked vessel of 130 tons. She measured 90 feet in length and was named the Santa Maria. Columbus, believing that the world was round, reasoned that by sailing westwards a ship must eventually come to what we call the East. Unfortunately, few other people were convinced by his theories. He tried to interest the monarchs of Europe in his idea, but was rejected. Then, dramatically, the King and Queen of Spain changed their minds, and gave him their backing. He was provided with three small ships levied as a fine from the port of Palos, in South Spain. They were the Santa Maria, the Nina and the Pinta.
The little fleet, with 120 adventurers aboard, weighed anchor on Friday, 3rd August, 1492, bound for the Canary Islands, and then sailed westwards before the north-east trade winds. For five weeks the adventurers watched in vain for signs of land. Some of the sailors attempted to compel Columbus to turn back, but on the morning of the 12th October, a sailor aboard the Nina announced the appearance of what proved to be the New World. Columbus named the island San Salvador, but, today, it is commonly known as Watling Island.
During a brief stay, Columbus discovered several other islands. Off one of them, which he named San Domingo, the Santa Maria went aground owing to the carelessness of the steersman. No lives were lost, but the ship had to be unloaded and abandoned. Columbus then returned to Europe with news of his achievement.
Posted in Boats, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, Trade, Transport, Travel on Saturday, 25 May 2013
This edited article about seafaring originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 268 published on 4 March 1967.
The Mediterranean basin very early became the cradle of European civilisation. Both Greeks and Romans developed fleets of ships, but neither, as far as we know, ventured much beyond the Mediterranean.
There was one race of extraordinarily capable seamen at the eastern end of that sea. These were the Phoenicians, about whom we know very little, except that they developed ships at least up to Asian standards, and that they ventured outside the Mediterranean on ocean voyages.
In those far-off days, pioneering seafarers worked for hard-headed merchants who were not interested in the diffusion of knowledge, but only its suppression for their own greater profit. Trade to them meant monopoly, if possible. Seafaring was for the increase of trade.
Phoenician mariners are thought to have come to the small harbour by St. Michael’s Mount, off Cornwall, to trade with the Ancient Britons for tin, but they may – say the scholars – equally well have bought their tin somewhere on the French coast in the Bay of Biscay.
Seafarers who dared to sail across the Bay of Biscay knew their stuff, and it is a pity that we have no certain evidence of the appearance of their ships. There is a vague idea that they used oars as well as sails, were long, undecked craft with one big mast, and carried a high stem-post surmounted by the carved figure of a fearsome horse’s head.
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Posted in Communism, Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about H.M.S. Amethyst originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 267 published on 25 February 1967.
On 20th April, 1949, the British warship Amethyst was making her way up the Yangtse River to Nanking to take supplies to the British Embassy. A frigate of 1,490 tons, she was capable of a speed of 20 knots, and was armed with six 4-inch guns and eight 2-pounders. There was no mistaking her nationality, for Union Jacks had been draped boldly on both sides of her hull.
Her journey up the Yangtse was a perfectly normal one, for which permission had been given by the Chinese Government. But for some days Chinese Communist forces had been gathering on the north bank of the river in preparation for an attack on the Chinese Nationalist forces on the south side. As the Amethyst steamed up river, she was suddenly attacked by the Communist guns on the north bank. The attack was entirely unprovoked and unexpected. Under heavy fire, and with many casualties on board, the Amethyst ran aground. No other British warship succeeded in coming to her rescue because of the strength of the Communist guns.
Her crew managed to get the Amethyst afloat again, but negotiations with the Communists for a safe-conduct proved fruitless, and she had to remain anchored in the river.
After three months, conditions on board became serious, for stores of food and fuel were dwindling. Lieutenant-Commander Kerans (who took over the command of the Amethyst after Lieutenant-Commander Skinner had died from his wounds) began to plan a daring escape past the Communist guns.
The moonless night of 30th July was chosen. Danger was acute, for there was no pilot on board the ship, and there were hazardous sandbanks to negotiate on the way. Canvas was spread over much of the ship to disguise her shape, but she was quickly noticed and heavily attacked from the shore. Then by a stroke of good fortune, a freighter came past and the Amethyst followed closely in her wake. In the confusion she made good her escape, although throughout the 140-mile journey down river she was often under fire.
As the early morning light filtered across the sky, she entered the estuary and sent her last and most famous signal: “Have rejoined the fleet. No damage or casualties. God save the King.”
Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, Sea, Ships on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about the Great Eastern originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 266 published on 18 February 1967.
At a time when steam navigation to the East and Australia was greatly handicapped by the lack of coaling facilities, a ship which could carry enough coal for a voyage to Australia and back was specially designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The Great Eastern, originally called the Leviathan because of her enormous size, had been laid down in 1854. When completed, she had a length of 692 feet and a beam of 82.5 feet. She had engines totalling 8,297 horse power to drive her paddle wheels and propeller and give her a maximum speed of 15 knots. Six masts carried a spread of 6,500 square yards of sail. Precautions that her hull should have the requisite strength included giving her a double bottom and a tubular upper deck.
A delay of three months in the launching of the Great Eastern drove the company which financed her construction into liquidation, and, as a result, she was purchased for use on the North Atlantic, a service she was not designed for, and for which she was most unsuitable.
In 1860 she made the first of several voyages to New York, but she never paid her way. She was then used to lay Atlantic cables, and in 1887 she was broken up.
Posted in America, Boats, Historical articles, History, Law, Literature, Ships on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about America originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 266 published on 18 February 1967.
Mark Twain, the famous American humorous writer, made two voyages with the rascally Captain Ned Wakeman, of San Francisco. Twain described the captain as “a great, burly, handsome, weather-beaten, symmetrically built and powerful creature, with coal-black hair and whiskers and the kind of eye which men obey without talking back . . .”
Wakeman was involved in many exciting adventures, but the one which appealed most to Twain concerned the time the captain turned pirate, stole one of the picturesque river steamboats, sailed it on the high seas, and made himself a fortune.
The story concerns the steamboat New World, built in 1849 for work on the Hudson River, and how she was seized by the authorities to help pay off her owner’s debts.
She was boarded by the sheriff of New York and three of his deputies, whose job it was to make sure that no one tried to sail her away. But the sheriff, for all his caution, was no match for her captain, the wily Ned Wakeman.
Wakeman solemnly assured the sheriff that the steamer’s engine needed ‘warming up’, otherwise it might prove to be faulty. The sheriff thought this seemed reasonable, and gave Wakeman permission to turn the engine over.
While the ‘test’ was taking place, the captain suggested that the law officers might care for some refreshment. He escorted the four men to the steamer’s saloon, where the mate saw that they were well supplied with food and drink.
Meanwhile, in the engine room, all was bustle and activity. The engineer raised a full head of steam, and the grinning captain gave the signal to cast off.
As Captain Wakeman left the pilot house, he suddenly found himself face to face with the sheriff. Pointing his pistol straight at Wakeman’s chest, the sheriff demanded that the steamer be turned back to the harbour.
“I’m sorry,” said Wakeman, “but we’re at sea now, and I am the law.”
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Posted in Boats, Historical articles, Industry, Sea, Ships on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about seafaring originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 266 published on 18 February 1967.
Treasures of the sea – pearl fishing
The economy of the big Kuwaiti booms was very interesting. The captain had an owning interest in the boom’s earnings, however made, and carried ventures of his own as well.
All the carpets, pearls, rosewood chests, silver daggers and that sort of thing belonged to him. He brought them from Kuwait, and he sold them. But the general earnings of the ship on her buying and selling were shared among all, and so was the passenger money, except that the captain had the right, apparently, to bring friends and relatives along at no cost to the ship.
The 30 mariners shared what was worked out to be the net profit on everything when the voyage – it took about eight months altogether – was over, and when the food had been paid for. Shares went according to seniority, with the musician getting an extra share – for all the nights’ sleep he lost, I suppose, for I failed to see that his ‘music’ was worth anything.
The sailors sang a lot and chanted at their work, and they stopped often during heavy jobs to join in a hearty, deck-thumping dance, while the whole ship shook with the power of their great bare feet. There was no extra pay for this, of course. But it wasn’t just in the day’s work; it helped to make the day’s work possible: for this, I soon saw, was a form of Yoga.
All the sailors earned the profits from their own ventures, which they smuggled ashore in all possible places.
They worked very hard, but they had fun, too, especially in Zanzibar. They sang and they danced and they yarned. They chewed betelnut mixtures, smoked the bubbly-pipe (an awful thing: the smell of its Persian tobacco was appalling), drank lots of coffee, and prayed five times daily in the prescribed manner.
Few could read and fewer write. Sometimes in the evenings they would come aft on the poop and listen to the learned discourse going on between the captain, his brothers, and the senior merchants. Every evening these sat round the big bench there and discussed commentaries on the Koran – their Bible – and the state of politics, etc., in Europe and the East. They listened to no radio, and they read no newspapers.
We reached Kuwait before the coming of the hot summer winds, just as we scampered away from the Indian Ocean before the coming of the S.W. monsoon. Only one night were we caught in squally weather preceding the change.
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Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, Ships on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about Dr Johnson originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 266 published on 18 February 1967.
Life below deck in the eighteenth-century, showing conditions worse than prison and with the added risk of drowning, by Paul Rainer
Who said “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail”?
The answer is Dr. Samuel Johnson to his biographer, James Boswell.
The great Doctor Johnson – in his case ‘Doctor’ was a literary title, not a medical one – had a very low opinion of the sailor’s life. There is nothing surprising about this, for at that time conditions on board ship were often barbaric, unless the captain was an exceptional man, like Nelson. Poor food, the lash and the cat-o’-nine-tails, cramped living quarters, bad pay, brutal superiors, the cruel unfairness of the press gang, which could kidnap a man and ship him off to sea at a moment’s notice – all these things made the life of an 18th century sailor a hard one.
The quotation, recorded by Boswell in his book, A Tour to the Hebrides, and again in the great biography, goes on: “. . . for being in a ship is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned . . . a man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”
Among Dr. Johnson’s other famous sayings are:
“When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Johnson loved London and, particularly, Fleet Street.
“I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.” This was said in 1778, during the American War of Independence.
“But, sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotsman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England!” Johnson liked baiting Boswell about Scotland.
“Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Boswell had heard a woman preach at a Quaker meeting, and this was Johnson’s comment!
Posted in Exploration, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about the Terra Nova originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 265 published on 11 February 1967.
The Terra Nova was 20 years old when she left England with Robert Falcon Scott’s second Antarctic expedition in 1910. She was a sturdy whaling vessel which had given stalwart service in the ice-bound waters north of Scotland. She was a barque-rigged steamship, specially fitted out for her tremendous journey. She had to be able to carry sufficient food for the men and animals on board, coal for her engines, fuel for heating scientific instruments and travelling equipment. There was little space to spare.
Leaving London on 1st June, 1910, the Terra Nova’s last port of call was Port Chalmers, New Zealand. On 29th November, the little ship put out to sea, heading towards the South Pole and adventure.
The heavily laden ship fell prey to a terrible gale. Mammoth waves slashed the deck and the poor ponies Captain Scott had bought to haul his sledges, crashed about in their stalls: several of them died. The raging sea seeped through the decks, and the ship’s pumps laboured unceasingly. In horrible conditions, they had to be manually unblocked, while buckets were used to bale out the water. The storm passed, but on 7th December, the first iceberg was sighted, and from then on it was with them all the way, “looking like great masses of sugar floating in the sea.” For 20 days the Terra Nova was locked in the ice-pack, easing her way through at the rate of 18 miles a day.
The Terra Nova came face to face with the Great Ice Barrier, and the expedition established a camp at Cape Evans, and began to unload itself on to hard ice in preparation for the long trek overland.
Scott’s party reached the South Pole on 18th January, 1912, only to find that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, had forestalled them. In bitter disappointment, the party perished in a blizzard.
Posted in Historical articles, History, Philanthropy, Politics, Ships on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about Samuel Plimsoll originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 265 published on 11 February 1967.
Mr Plimsoll speaking in the House of Commons on Shipping Interests, 1870
The House of Commons was in an uproar. The Honourable Member for Derby had called the Prime Minister, Mr. Disraeli, “a villain,” and he had shaken his fist at the Speaker.
The cause of the disturbance was Samuel Plimsoll, a Liberal M.P. He was furious because the Prime Minister had announced that a Bill he had introduced which he believed would save the lives of hundreds of sailors every year, was to be dropped.
This man, who in his indignation insulted Mr. Disraeli, was born on 10th February, 1824, in Bristol. He came to London and set up as a coal merchant, but trade was very bad and for a long time he only had seven shillings a week to live on.
Forced to live in the cheapest lodgings he could find, he came in contact with the poorest people of the city. He was shocked at their plight and was determined to help them: particularly the sailors. He had been horrified to learn how the greedy owners of ships – ‘coffin ships’ the sailors called them – insured them for much more than their value and sent them to sea in bad condition. When the ships sank because they were not seaworthy, or because they were overloaded, the owners collected large sums of money from the insurance companies. They did not worry about the seamen who went down with the ships. But Samuel Plimsoll did.
When his business improved Plimsoll became a Member of Parliament with the one idea of stopping the coffin ships. So when the Prime Minister announced that his Bill to safeguard sailors was to be dropped, Plimsoll was very angry.
At first he was censured, but then people began to wonder why he had felt so strongly. The Bill was re-examined and suddenly Plimsoll found himself with a great many supporters. Finally a law was passed that ships had to have a line painted on their hulls indicating the limit to which the ship might be safely loaded. To this day the ‘safe load’ device on a ship’s side is known as the Plimsoll Mark.
Posted in Adventure, Africa, Historical articles, Sea, Ships, Trade, Travel on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about seafaring originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 265 published on 11 February 1967.
Zanzibar from the sea
The origins of Asian seafaring in the Indian Ocean are lost in pre-history. A Greek named Hippalus wandered there round about the dawn of the Christian era and reported the existence of the winds called monsoons.
He noted that in the northern area of the Indian Ocean, ideally placed to assist sailing-ship navigation in the heart of the rich spice trade, the ocean winds blew one way half the year and directly the other way for the other half. There was a NE wind to blow ships to India, and a SW wind to blow them back again.
So he began the myth that Asian sailing was of this primitive fair-wind kind. What he did not report was that the SW season was rough and stormy, quite unfit for primitive vessels, with sewn-together hulls and sails of mats. And he must have been a landlubber, for he failed to notice that the Asian ships of those days could go to windward (i.e., sail against the wind) almost ‘into the wind’s eye’, like modern yachts. These ships sailed both ways with the NE wind – with it behind them down to Africa, with it on the beam to India, close-hauled and punching into it on both ways back to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and all South Arabia.
I found that out for myself – some 1,900 years later.
In the meantime, another Greek had wandered into the Indian Ocean and produced a sort of Seaman’s Directory of the tropic zone of that interesting sea. This has come down to us as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which is still in print, though the first edition came out in the first century AD.
The anonymous writer of this work deals mainly with information sufficient to identify the trading marts and ports where the Semitic mariners and merchants of ancient times found good profits.
I carried a copy of this work, liberally annotated, when I shipped with the Persian Gulf Arabs from the port of Kuwait at the end of 1938, bound on a trading voyage wherever they went in the Indian Ocean.
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