Saturday, June 14, 2014

Books: "Remains of ... Unhappy Creatures"

On Thursday the 11th, the U.S. Coast Guard published the findings of its inquiry into the sinking of the HMS Bounty off the Atlantic coast in October of 2012. According to the evidence available, the Coast Guard found the Captain and a too small, too green crew to be at fault. From the NBC News article:

Specifically, the choosing to navigate a vessel in insufficient material condition in close proximity to an approaching hurricane with an inexperienced crew was highlighted. 

A similar situation occurred some 160 years ago in January of 1854 when the brand new iron clad merchant vessel named RMS Tayleur encountered foul weather on her voyage from Liverpool in England to the far away shores of Melbourne. In her new book, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur, author and psychologist Gill Hoffs tells the sad tale of the sinking of a "Victorian Titanic".

As Hoffs tells us, both candidly and engagingly, Tayleur had everything going for her on her maiden voyage. She was a massive vessel, 230 feet long and displacing over 1,700 tons. Her holds were 30 feet deep and she would carry 650 souls toward a new life in New South Wales. Her Captain, John Noble, was a veteran seaman with a laundry list of successful voyages and happy owners under his belt. No one seemed to doubt his capability to select a crew and run and tight ship.

No one bothered to scrutinize the fact that the crew of Tayleur had quite literally been foisted on Noble without his consent, or that the Captain himself had taken a horrible fall from one of Tayleur's masts only days before she was to get under weigh. The persistent hurry of her owners, specifically Pilkington and Wilson and collectively the White Star Line, to get her out onto the open sea overshadowed these issues. Along with the unfortunate havoc that Tayleur's iron hull was playing with her three compasses and the "patent rudder" - not built for a ship as fast and large as she was - that she shipped, anyone well versed in the art of sail would have wondered at her speedy launch.

Speedily launched she was, however. This to the utter calamity of all aboard her.

Hoffs walks us through the terrible tragedy of that January night when, after apparently steering in the wrong direction due to those ill-working compasses, Tayleur found herself in the middle of a frightening Irish Sea storm on a rocky lee shore with sails wide open to the brutal wind and her rudder unable to answer. The incompetent crew, despite help from more than one seaworthy passenger, could not rescue the ship from her fate. Captain Noble himself, seemingly dazed to unresponsiveness by consecutive sleepless nights, made no decisions at all. Precious moments ticked by as Tayleur inched toward her doom.

Her passengers panicked; men trampled women and women stumbled over children in a desperate attempt to save themselves. Some made it to land, only to cling to the cold, wet shore in desperation. 360 people, including most of the 70 crew members and the gallant, heroic ship's surgeon Robert Cunningham along with his wife and children, would go to their death in or around the wreck. Survivors spoke of seeing bloodied bodies in nightclothes sloshing on the surface of the water. Battered body parts, ripped apart by the force of waves and shore, would be found along the coast for weeks to come.

The sinking of this "unsinkable" iron clad sent shock waves through English society. In total, four inquiries were heard and it was found that the crew, and particularly the Captain of Tayleur - who himself had survived her demise - were at fault. The White Star line was also soundly castigated for rushing Tayleur to sea with a hold full of innocent lives. The company went bankrupt and was reinstated again only to produce another tragic vessel: RMS Titanic.

Hoffs telling of the sad story of RMS Tayleur is energetic and insightful. The author is at her best when she is painting vignettes of the people whose lives were effected by the mighty ship and its sinking. There is the sad Dr. Cunningham who lost one of his sons while trying to save him, returned to the ship for the other and lost him as well, all while his wife watched. Then there is the man transported for theft who returned to the mother of his child after ten long years. He married her and planned to take his family back to Australia where they would grow rich in the gold rush, only to see them all drown.

Her most intriguing point, however, and one that I have not been seen before, regards Captain Noble himself. Did his fall just before Tayleur's launch cause damage to his brain that did not have time to heal and was then exacerbated by long nights of stress on his ship's deck? Did this unfortunate chain of events lead an historically solid Captain to tragic decision making - or lack thereof?

Thoughts worth pondering just as much as the book is well worth reading. Find the book at Amazon or your local bookseller.

* I believe I have to add that Ms. Hoffs' publisher, Pen & Sword, provided me with a copy of  The Sinking of RMS Tayleur for the purposes of this review. Hopefully I did that right; I'm used to buying the books I review so this is quite the thrill.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

History: Vikings: More than "Hairy Raiders"

I don't usually wish I would soon be off to Europe but the new exhibition now open at the British Museum makes me long for a jet-setting trip to London. There I would explore all things Viking - an old Norse word meaning "pirate". I'd probably just sleep at the Museum; why miss a moment of so much history? If you'd care to see a wonderful video on the exhibition, and be briefly schooled in the fact that our Viking ancestors were "more than just hairy raiders", click here.

My thanks to the First Mate for the link and to The History Channel for Seasons 1 and 2 of "The Vikings" (picture above via THC). I'm sure all the Brethren are watching the show - now on Thursday evenings - and have a favorite character. Mine, you ask? No, not Ragnar's warrior first wife; it's the cheerfully sinister boat builder known as Floki. I love that guy!

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Special Request

We all need a little help, from the Universe, from our Saints and Spirits, or from our fellow creatures here on Earth - and sometimes from all three. So when a highly thought of member of the Brethren is in that kind of  need, I know that one and all will jump to.

That's why I'm here to ask your help on behalf of that Triple P favorite and long time supporter, Captain John Swallow. The Captain and his Quartermaster have come upon troublesome times thanks to unethical people over whom our fellow sailors have no control. The ship's at stake, and it's up to us to save her.

Please take a moment to click over to this link and read about the entire situation. Then, as the goodhearted pirates you all are, please give what you can. Your gift need not be monitary either; remember, the wayward Universe hears the prayers of privateers and pirates alike.

My thanks go out to you all. Your goodness is your reward... But then none of us would ever sail in company with a wretch who didn't know that already, would we?

Header: Three Ships via Naval Architecture

Friday, September 13, 2013

Women at Sea: Lilac Chen Part II

Last we spoke of Lilac Chen, the unfortunate girl from China circa 1893, she was on her way to San Francisco without anyone asking her whether sailing across wave to an entirely alien world was something she might care to do. A slave, Lilac had no choice in the matter. And so, we pick up her story as told by her from the standpoint of her own salvation by a missionary in San Francisco named Miss Cameron:

Oh, God has just been wonderful. Just think, I was in such close waters for damnation myself! This woman, who brought me to San Francisco,, was called Mrs. Lee, and she kept the biggest dive in San Francisco Chinatown. Oh, she had a lot of girls, slave girls, you know. And every night, seven o'clock, all these girls were dressed in silk and satin, and sat in front of a big window, and the men would look in and choose their girls who they'd want for the night. Of course, I  didn't know anything, never heard about such things, you know. And whenever police or white people came, they always hid me under the bed and pushed a trunk in front of me and then after the police had left they let me come out again. And I saw these girls all dressed in silk and satin, and they were waiting for their business, see. But I didn't know anything.

When this woman needed money, she had to sell me to another party. Everywhere I had been they were very kind to me, except this last place she sent me. Oh, this woman was so awful! They say she was a domestic servant before and was cruelly treated. She used to make me carry a big fat baby on my back and make me to wash his diapers. And you know, to wash you have to stoop over, and then he pulls you back, and cry and cry. Oh, I got desperate, I didn't care what happened to me, I just pinched his cheek, his seat you know, just gave it to him. The of course I got it back. She, his mother, went and burned a red hot iron tong and burnt me on the arm. Then someone reported me to the home. But they described me much bigger than I was so when they came they didn't recognize me. And then the woman who had reported to the mission said, "Why didn't you take her? She's the girl." They said, "She looked so small," and then they came back again. But even then, they weren't sure that I was the one, so they undressed me and examined my body and found where the woman had beaten me black and blue all over. And then they took me to the home. Oh, it was in the pouring rain! I was scared to death. You know, change from change, and all strangers, and I didn't know where I was going. Away from my own people and in the pouring rain. And they took me, a fat policeman carried me all the way from Jackson Street, where I was staying, to Sacramento Street to the mission, Cameron House. So I got my freedom there. *

Lilac became an integral part of Miss Cameron's work, helping the American missionary and rescue worker to find girls even less fortunate than herself and rescue then from where they were "... sold to work in the dives, or as domestic servants, and bring them to Cameron House so they could be free... When we went on a raid we always took several of our own girls with us to help. Generally I would follow Miss Cameron as interpreter and she and I would go into the house through a door or a window... Poor Miss Cameron, she never knew about these dives, you know. Scottish people, especially the refined, never discussed these things... So nobody told her, she was so innocent. These slave girls used to have terrific sores, and she had to dress the sores, you know. She never wore gloves, you see, and really, it's just the providence of God kept her from these diseases."

Lilac's admiration for Miss Cameron shines through like the innocence Lilac managed somehow to keep through all her harrowing, horrific experiences. Perhaps the saddest and most poignant fact that comes from the story of Lilac Chen is that children like her exist, and are being abused, neglected and exploited, even as I type these words. Slavery and its horrible consequences are not issues for historical research, they are very real matters of global economics that should be addressed far more explicitly than our current climate of "look the other way and we'll all feel good" journalism allows.

Thank goodness there are still people who will march into dives and rescue those who go unnamed, unknown and under-served.

* All quotes from the book Victorian Women Edited by E. O. Hallerstein, L. P. Hume and K. M. Offen, Stanford University Press c 1981

Header: Chinese Slave Prostitute via National Women's History Museum online

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Women at Sea: Lilac Chen Part I

When women came from the far east, or Asia if you prefer, to North America, they were not always well treated and welcomed. Particularly children - both girls and boys - were used as sexual slaves and made into what they may not have been in their home state or wished to be for themselves.

The story of Lilac Chen, whose beautiful name does not resemble her unfortunate life, is an extreme example. Swept from her home and over the sea, she may never have amounted to much. But Lilac, a fighter, a survivor, made more of herself than most of us do. Thanks to the wonderful editors of Victorian Women, c 1981, we know a bit about this amazing child who fought so hard to become an amazing woman:

I was six when I came to this country in 1893. My worthless father gambled every cent away, and so, left us poor. I think my mother's family was well-to-do, because our grandmother used to dress in silk and satin and always brought us lots of things. And the day my father took me, he fibbed and said he was taking me to see my grandmother, that I was very fond of, you know, and I got on the ferry boat with him, and Mother was crying, and I couldn't understand why she would cry if I go to see Grandma  She gave me a new toothbrush and a new washing in a blue bag when I left her\. When I saw her cry I said, "\Don't cry, Mother, I'm just going to see Grandma and be right back." And that worthless father, my own father, imagine, had every inclination to sell me, and he sold me on the ferry boat. Locked me in the cabin while he was negotiating my sale. And I kicked and screamed and screamed and they wouldn't open the door till after some time, you see, I suppose he had made his bargain and had left the steamer; Then they opened the door and let me out and I went up and down, up and down, here and there, couldn't find him. And he had left me, you see, with a strange woman. That woman, it was suppertime, took me to Ningpo, China, to eat, and I refused to eat, I wanted to go home, and then she took me to Shanghai and left me with another woman. That woman never asked me to work and was very kind to me, and I was there, I don't know for how long. Then a woman from San Francisco came, and picked me up and brought me over.  

And the horror has only begun for poor Lilac Chen. But that is all for tonight; isn't it?

Header:Ladies of Vancouver via China.org

Saturday, August 3, 2013

History: A Tantalizing Find

Ahoy Brethren! I hope this post finds you all in booty, wenches and grog... Or at least grog. I've missed you all and think of you often, honestly.

Today I'm sharing a recent find of shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico, that haven for Laffite, Beluche, Aury, Gambi, Youx and a hundred other early 19th century pirates/privateers who served the revolutionary states of Central and South America to various degrees of faithfulness.

This article from ABC online talks about a "thrilling" find of not one but three shipwrecks from around the Laffite era - circa 1810 to 1825. The ships are small, two masted, and carrying no more that eight guns. From the minimal information in the article, which as it notes raises more questions than answers, it appears that the ships may have wrecked in weather such as a gale or hurricane.

For me, a distant relative of Renato Beluche and an old archaeologist at heart and by training, this really gets the imagination running. Could one of these ships be the lost L'Intrepide, captained by Beluche before the War of 1812 and lost in a hurricane off the Louisiana coast some time in 1810 or '11? Beluche and his surviving crew were stranded for some weeks on Little Cat Island, which is now under water, and only rescued when another Laffite associate happened to sail close enough to the island to see their driftwood fires. The size and armament of the ships certainly raises the possibility.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, however. It may be too much to hope for, and perhaps just my wild, seafaring imagination taking me places that the same archaeologist in me knows I should not rightly go.

And yet, oh how exciting are all those possibilities...

Header: The Night Watch via Naval Architecture

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday Sea Stories

It is Sunday once again and, here in the U.S., Mother's Day. So happy, happy to all the mothers among the Brethren. Here's a few offerings for your reading and viewing pleasure.

First off, you can once again walk the streets of the town of Epecuen, Argentina. The place has "come up for air" after being underwater since 1985. See amazing photos here.

Over at the Berkshire Eagle, there's word that famed sailor and author Herman Melville's homestead is getting a makeover.

Meanwhile, it looks like the STARZ network is jumping on the series bandwagon with a new one about a subject near and dear to my heart: the Golden Age of Piracy. Watch the trailer for "Black Sails" here. (Thanks to my friend Ken over at "A Woodrunner's Diary" for the head's up on this.)

Do you like Vikings? Of course you do. So you'll love that the British Museum has revamped a building to display the largest Viking ship ever discovered.

Still hungry for more? Might I suggest my dear friends Undine and Blue Lou's new ventures on the web: Strange Company and The Journal of Blue Lou now at Wordpress, respectively. You won't be able to stay away.

Header: A cog or caravel rendered in gold, mother-of-pearl and semiprecious stones as a brooch made in the 16th c via my friend Erick on Twitter.