Mary Celeste was launched in 1861 under the name Amazon and changed hands a number of times before being acquired by a New York consortium that carried out an extensive refit. She was then placed under the command of Benjamin Briggs, who carefully chose a crew to sail the vessel to Genoa with a cargo of 1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol.
Mary Celeste departed New York on 7 November, and was followed eight days later by Dei Gratia, another cargo ship heading for Genoa. On 4 December, while midway between the Azores and Portugal, this second ship under the command of David Morehouse spotted an erratically moving vessel in the distance. As Dei Gratia moved closer it became clear that something was wrong and, on investigation by second mate John Wright, it became clear that the vessel was Mary Celeste and that she had been deserted by her crew.
The ship’s lifeboat was found to be missing and the sails were in poor condition, while two of the hatches were open with an improvised sounding rod to measure the depth of water in the hold lying nearby. The cargo of denatured alcohol was also found to be intact. The last entry in the ship’s log was from nine days earlier and placed the Mary Celeste nearly 400 nautical miles from the position where she was found.
The crew of Dei Gratia successfully sailed the abandoned ship to Gibraltar for salvage hearings. The findings of the court were inconclusive and, although Mary Celeste returned to service under new owners, the mystery of the abandoned ship and her disappearing crew has never been solved.
The British pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was killed during a battle with British sailors under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard.
Details of Teach’s early life are so sparse that historians are not even certain of his real name. He only begins to reliably appear in the historical record in September 1717 when he was described in a report by an anti-piracy patrol off the coast of North Carolina as being in charge of “a sloop of 6 gunns [sic] and about 70 men.” By the end of November 1717, Teach had captured the French slave ship La Concorde, which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. He cruised the Caribbean throughout the winter, during which time the captain of a raided ship gave the first physical description of the pirate that included reference to his “very black beard which he wore very long.”
Teach was at the height of his power when he lost Queen Anne’s Revenge after she ran aground on a sandbar. He later sailed to Bath, the capital of North Carolina, to receive a royal pardon that had been offered to any pirate who surrendered on or before 5 September 1718. He and his crew received the pardon from Governor Charles Eden in June, but returned to piracy soon afterwards.
News of this soon reached the Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, who personally financed an operation to capture Teach. Lieutenant Robert Maynard was put in charge, and he attacked the pirates at Ocracoke Island on 22 November 1718.
Having hidden many of his men below decks in anticipation of being boarded by Teach’s crew, Maynard was able to take the pirates by surprise. Amidst vicious fighting, Teach is said to have taken 5 musket balls and as many as twenty sword cuts before he died. His head was later severed and hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship.
On the 7th August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by the United States Congress. The joint resolution granted powers to President Lyndon B. Johnson to use military force to assist countries in Southeast Asia facing so-called “communist aggression”. Many critics of the war condemned Congress for granting Johnson a “blank cheque” to escalate American military involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. At the time, however, it passed unanimously through the House of Representatives and only two Senators opposed the resolution.
The Resolution was a response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that had taken place just a few days earlier, in which the North Vietnamese Navy was blamed for attacking US ships on two separate occasions. While it is accepted that the USS Maddox did exchange fire with three enemy torpedo boats on the 2nd August, the claim that it was attacked again on the 4th August is now known to be false.
Even at the time it was acknowledged that the second attack may not have actually happened. Captain John J. Herrick, the commander of the Maddox, had spent four hours firing at enemy ships picked up on radar. However, he sent a message just a few hours later saying that no enemy boats had actually been sighted and so the radar may have malfunctioned. However, the President was not informed of this before going on television to announce that US ships had been attacked. Johnson’s desire to retaliate led to the Resolution, and this in turn led to the USA escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War.
At 8am on the 3rd August 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from the Spanish port of Palos de la Frontera on the voyage that would take him to the Americas. While Columbus captained the Santa María, Palos natives commonly referred to as the Pinzón brothers captained the Pinta and the Santa Clara which is better known by its nickname the Niña. A third Pinzón brother, was the master of the Pinta.
None of the ships belonged to Columbus himself and, despite the voyage officially being supported by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, they forced the inhabitants of the port to contribute towards the costs associated with supplying and equipping them. In the case of the Pinta, its owners had even been forced to send the ship on the voyage against their wishes, leading to suspicions of sabotage when the rudder broke after just three days at sea.
The ships sailed first to the Canary Islands, which they reached after six days. Here they repaired the rudder of the Pinta and restocked with provisions for the Atlantic crossing, which they began on the 6th September from the port of San Sebastián de la Gomera.
However, it is Palos de la Frontera that holds the real title as the starting point of Columbus’ transatlantic voyage. The town also played a significant role in the later Christianisation of the New World since it continued to be a departure point for later westward voyages and was the location of the Franciscan Rábida Monastery that sent some of the first missionaries to the Americas.
On the 31st July 1970, the British Royal Navy issued the last daily rum ration, or “tot”, to sailors. The end of the daily ration became known as “Black Tot Day”.
A daily ration of rum, sometimes referred to as ‘grog’, had been part of the ratings – or enlisted sailors’ – day since 1655 when a half-pint ration of rum was introduced in order to reduce the amount of space needed to transport pint rations of beer. The drink was issued at 6 bells in the forenoon watch, or 11am, and was marked by the call ‘Up Spirits’. Due to its alcoholic content, the size of the ration did gradually decrease to an eighth of a pint of rum – or 70ml – per day by 1850.
As the technological systems and equipment on board ships became more and more complex, concerns over sailors drinking alcohol were raised. In December 1969 the Admiralty Board, which meets in order to administer the Royal Navy, published a written statement that said issuing rum was “no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required”.
The following month, the ‘Great Rum Debate’ took place in the House of Commons and concluded that the rum ration should end despite the impassioned argument of the MP James Wellbeloved that rum helped sailors to “face the coming action with greater strength and greater determination”.
On Black Tot Day itself the last pouring of rum was marked with funerary significance as some sailors wore black armbands or – in the case of the Royal Naval Electrical College – by conducting a mock funeral procession.
The crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin mutinied on the 27th June 1905, an uprising that was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film.
Potemkin entered service in early 1905 after her gun turrets were fitted, and therefore did not take part in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Instead, by the end of June she was off the coast of Ukraine completing maneuvers. It was here that rotten meat allegedly containing maggots was brought on board to feed the crew. Dissatisfied with the ship’s doctor’s opinion that it was fit for human consumption, the crew complained to the captain.
The ship’s second in command, Commander Giliarovsky, confronted the sailor’s delegation and killed spokesman Grigory Vakulenchuk. This triggered the mutiny, in which seven of the ship’s eighteen officers including Giliarovsky and the Captain were killed. The crew chose quartermaster Afanasi Matushenko to take control.
Having hoisted the red flag, the Potemkin set sail for Odessa where a general strike was underway. Here they brought the body of the revolutionary spokesman Vakulenchuk ashore and laid it on the Odessa Steps, where it acted as a focal point for locals to show their support for the sailors. However, by the evening the authorities received orders from the Tsar to take firm action. Estimates say that up to 2,000 civilians were killed.
The Potemkin left Odessa the next day and sailed for Constanța in Romania. The ship was surrendered to the Romanian authorities in return for the sailors receiving safe passage. Potemkin was handed back to the Russian navy, and was renamed Panteleimon.
On the 21st June 1919, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German High Seas naval fleet in Scapa Flow, a large natural harbor in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The ships had been confined there under the terms of the Armistice that ended fighting in the First World War.
America had suggested that the fleet be interned in a neutral country but, as neither Norway nor Sweden agreed, Britain volunteered instead. The majority of the 74 German ships were in Scapa Flow by the 27th November, where they were guarded by British Battle Cruiser Force. The fleet was manned by a skeleton crew of less than 5,000 men that gradually reduced over the next few months as they were repatriated back to Germany.
Negotiations over the fate of the ships took place at the Paris Peace Conference, where the various representatives were struggling to agree on a resolution. While Britain wanted to destroy the ships in order to maintain their naval superiority, France and Italy each wanted to take a quarter each. Concerned that the entire fleet might be shared out between the victors, Admiral von Reuter, the German officer in charge of the interned fleet, began planning to scuttle or purposely sink the ships.
Shortly before 11.30 on the morning of the 21st June the order went out to scuttle the ships. By 5pm 52 of them had sunk. The sailors escaped on lifeboats, and were captured as British prisoners-of-war. Nine sailors were shot and killed, making them the last German casualties of the war.
The British ship RMS Lusitania sank after being attacked by the German U-boat U-20 off the coast of Ireland.
The Lusitania was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906 and was one of the largest ocean liners of its time. It undertook its first voyage in 1907 and went on to win the Blue Riband, the unofficial award for the fastest transatlantic crossing.
The outbreak of the First World War saw Britain impose a blockade on German ports, which prompted the German Navy to attempt the same on the British Isles. However, the Royal Navy limited the impact of Germany’s blockade so the Lusitania was able to continue its journeys between Liverpool and New York City.
On 4 February 1915 the commander of the German High Seas Fleet announced that German submarines would begin unrestricted warfare and sink allied ships in the waters around the British Isles. Prior to the Lusitania’s scheduled voyage from the USA on 1 May, the German Embassy in Washington took out newspaper adverts warning that passengers undertook the voyage at their own risk.
1,962 people and around 173 tons of war munitions were on board the Lusitania when it left New York under Captain William Thomas Turner. Having crossed the Atlantic, the ship was hit on its starboard side at 2.10pm by a torpedo fired by U-20. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes and 1,198 people lost their lives.
The German government attempted to justify the sinking, but it was met with outrage in the Allied countries. Despite the deaths of American civilians, President Wilson chose to remain neutral in the war. Germany abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in August, but resumed it in early 1917. This, and the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram, led to Wilson’s decision to declare war.
On the 10th February 1906 the British King, Edward VII, launched HMS Dreadnought – a revolutionary new type of battleship that made all other ships obsolete. She was the fastest and most heavily-armed ship in the world, and the name Dreadnought began to be used to describe a whole class of similar ships.
You might think that having the best ship in the world would make Britain the undisputed champion of the seas, but the launch of the Dreadnought arguably created more problems than it solved. Ever since the British government adopted the Two-Power Standard as part of the Naval Defence Act in 1889, the Royal Navy had to have at least the same number of battleships as the next two largest navies in the world combined. At that point it was France and Russia, but by 1906 Wilhelm II had become Kaiser of Germany and began aggressive military expansion and the development of a German Empire under his ‘World Policy’ or Weltpolitik.
But why was the Dreadnought a problem to Britain the Two-Power Standard? The issue was that Britain now only had one more Dreadnought than every other country in the world. With all other ships obsolete in the wake of the new design, it was too easy for other countries to catch up. When Germany launched the first of its Dreadnought-style Nassau ships in 1908, Britain was forced to keep ahead by building more and more. The naval arms race and the tension that followed was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
Shortly after 8am on the 16th December 1914, the German Imperial Navy attacked the British seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. 137 people died, and another 592 were injured as a result of the bombardment – most of whom were civilians.
The smaller German fleet always sought to avoid direct engagement with the British. Instead they focused on targeted attacks and, after an earlier fast raid on the seaside town of Yarmouth, increased the use of these tactics. The hope was that this would draw out parts of the British fleet and German U-Boats could pick them off one by one.
The Germans had determined that an attack on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby would be possible after a U-17 returned from a reconnaissance mission. It was identified that there were few mines in the vicinity, and no coastal defences, which made the towns an easy target since they were within easy striking distance of Germany.
British Intelligence had already decoded messages that indicated the German battle fleet would be mounting the raid. However, British Admiral John Jellicoe opted to allow the raid to happen and then intercept the German ships on their return. This proved catastrophic, as the British underestimated the size of the German attack, which saw over a thousand shells being fired, and then failed to engage the enemy.
The British public was outraged firstly that the Germans had attacked civilians, and secondly that the Royal Navy had failed to stop them. However, ‘Remember Scarborough’ soon became a key message of the British propaganda campaign and vengeance was used as an incentive for recruitment.