A Shipwreck Story is a “Hubris Machine”
by Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret)
There are many who go down to the shore and smell the sea. Then there are seafarers who spend days, maybe weeks or months at sea, and when they finally approach the coast smell the same thing, only for them that smell is the land.
So it is with “The Tragic History of the Sea – Shipwrecks from the Bible to Titanic.” It is not so much a compendium of stories about ships that were lost at sea, but of ships that found land, and under the most unfortunate circumstances, because most of these tales take place when a ship runs aground.
A shipwreck story is a “hubris machine,” says Anthony Brandt, who edited this book. “So many of these ship-wrecks come out of someone's carelessness or over confidence,” Brandt says. “Like the old saying, pride goeth before a fall. The captain says, 'bah, there's no land for 300 miles'; then they run into a continent and 200 people die.”
This is a book about shipwrecks and tragedies of the sea. For those who have been to sea, no explanation of the hazards of the sea is necessary. For those who have not, a full explanation is not possible. Even in the loneliest oceans a seafarer can find trouble. “They run aground, but they also run into storms, icebergs, rogue waves, whales, and other hazards. I suppose running aground is the most common cause of shipwreck,” Brandt says.
Some of the accounts are old, more like legends handed down over generations. I asked Tony Brandt if these stories are to be read as something between fact and fiction, or enjoyed for the fantastic nature of these tales?
“Actually all the stories we printed are nonfiction accounts taken from a considerable variety of sources. The Bible story about St. Paul may be fiction, but it's printed as fact so I took it at face value. And I mention an ancient Egyptian source in my introduction that is obviously fantasy, as serpents aren't covered in lapis lazuli and they don't talk. The selections themselves all come from reasonably authoritative accounts, no doubt with some embellishment, but not admittedly so,” Brandt says.
Brandt decided not to include fictional accounts. He didn't need to. He wanted the reader to understand that what actually happens at sea is often as extraordinary and involving as any fictional story. Brandt says, “As for corroborating the stories, that's a modern idea that doesn't enter into it. In the case of the Titanic, for example, hearings were held to try to get the straight story of what happened. Lots of people had different experiences and different opinions and out of that various people have constructed narrative accounts. But you can't always corroborate experience. It's like the old eyewitness thing in court; different people see the same thing differently.”
The Titanic is one of the most notorious sinkings. The 882 ft. White Star liner on her maiden voyage for the London – New York trade, was a good example of the hubris Brandt refers to. The builders and owners said Titanic was unsinkable. The Captain's adherence to this belief held fast even as she was taking on water after being holed by an iceberg on April 14, 1912.
“The Cotton Mather account, to be sure, is not of this 'factual' nature. You have to believe in ghost ships to believe that story actually happened,” Brandt says of Mather's tale about sightings of a phantom ship.
Many of the stories in Brandt's book have one peril heaped upon another. So I asked him which tale had the most misfortune. “That's hard to say,” he said. “I suppose the story 1 found the most relentless in terms of bad luck was the last voyage of Sir Thomas Cavendish, known as 'The Navigator.' Their misfortunes just never seemed to stop.”
Cavendish met his end in 1592, but sailing around the world was tough business in those days, and not all that the stories might have the folks back home believe. Sure, the stories said Cavendish's ships were gilded with gold. But in 1587, while at war with Spain, Cavendish came ashore at a Spanish settlement in the Pacific (now part of Chile) with the name of Rey Don Felipe and renamed it Port Famine, a name that would be sure to spur development. His foes would include the Spanish and the Portuguese, but his biggest adversary was the elements. His 1591 expedition resulted in the small flotilla becoming scattered in a storm and seeking refuge in and around the Strait of Magellan for the better part of a year. Cavendish might well be best forgotten as the third circumnavigator of the world.
“From God's Protecting Providence, … Evidenced in the Remarkable Deliverance of Divers Persons from the Devouring Waves of the Sea … and Also from the More Cruelly Devouring Jaws of the Inhumane Cannibals of Florida,” a tale written in 1710 by Jonathan Dickinson about his 1696-97 voyage that ended up aground in Florida, is another example of “as bad as it is, it gets worse.”
Christopher Columbus made several journeys to the new world, with varying degrees of success. Columbus suffered his share of timbers that rotted, water shortages, food that spoiled, natives that turned unfriendly, masts that broke and crews that narrowly survived wrecks. Brandt points out that Columbus lost a total of nine ships in his four voyages to the New World.
I asked Brandt how many shipwreck tales didn't make it into his anthology, and what quality did they lack that caused him to not publish them?
“There are thousands of shipwreck stories,” he answered. “I made the selection based on what interested me most. I also wanted to get as many shipwreck stories that are thought to be classics in this genre as I could into the book. Length was a factor in the choices I made as well. And I wanted some historical range, because the genre is very old and it was important to make that clear. Many stories, some of them quite interesting, didn't make it into the book.”
While there are common threads in all of the accounts, each offers a unique and compelling insight in life — and death — at sea.
“Men have been sailing for thousands of years now, and foundering, and those who survive have stories to tell, all of which are oddly the same. The same things always happen,” Brandt writes. “Men break on the rocks, drown, starve, while a few live to tell the tale. And never are we not interested.”
We can't not want to hear about these stories. As Brandt says, “Life in crisis, at its extreme, is always fascinating.”
Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is a senior science advisor for Alion Science and Technology in Washington, D.C. He supports the U.S. Navy's Surface Warfare Directorate and is a frequent contributor to Maritime Reporter & Engineering News & MarineNews. This book review originally appeared in the February 2007 edition of MarineNews.
The book, “The Tragic History of the Sea – Shipwrecks from the Bible to Titanic” is edited by Anthony Brandt and published by National Geographic Books, Washington, DC – ISBN 0-7922-5908-4