On the 19th April 1770, the British explorer Captain James Cook first caught sight of Australia. Or at least that’s what the log of HMS Endeavour said. The problem was, Cook and his crew had been at sea for nearly 2 years, having sailed west from Britain across the Atlantic to South America, and then onwards across the southern Pacific. By the time they arrived on the south-east coast of Australia, they had – in a calendar – skipped a day. According to some sources, therefore, Cook arrived in Australia on April 20th.
Irrespective of whether we use the ship’s log or the modern calendar to record the date, the voyage of the Endeavour was significant for being the first European voyage to reach the east coast of Australia. The Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon was the first to chart the west coast over 100 years previously.
After sighting land, it was another ten days before Cook and his crew actually stepped ashore. The first sighting had been of Point Hicks, but it wasn’t until the ship had travelled some distance along the coast to what is now known as Botany Bay that Cook and his crew felt they had found a suitable mooring.
Botany Bay is now a major transportation hub, since it is home to Sydney’s cargo seaport and two runways of Sydney airport. However, for many years the name Botany Bay conjured up different images of transportation since Botany Bay had been the first proposed site for a British penal colony.
On the 5th April 1621, the Mayflower – the boat that carried the Pilgrim fathers to America – returned to England from the settlement at Plymouth. The story of the Mayflower usually focuses on its journey to New England, with the ship itself being a central character in the story of European settlers in North America. However, the ship itself was nothing special.
By 1620 the Mayflower was already reaching the end of its working life. It had been a cargo ship, regularly making short journeys to France in order to load up with wine and other goods to sell in England. The ship’s voyage to the New World was in many ways just a delivery contract between the Pilgrims and the ship’s master, Christopher Jones. With the Pilgrims safely ashore in America, Jones and his crew were free to return to England.
However, the bitter winter and outbreak of disease meant that construction of a settlement on land was not completed until March 1621. With many of the ship’s crew struck down by disease, Jones was forced to stay until those of his crew who survived were fit enough for the return journey at the start of April.
After its return, Jones used the Mayflower for some other trading runs to France, but he died just a year later. By 1624 the ship had also reached the end of its life. Legend says that it was sold and broken up for scrap, with the beams used to construct a barn in the county of Buckinghamshire.
The raid by the Royal Navy and British Commandos was overseen by Combined Operations Headquarters. Their task was to disable the only dry dock on the Atlantic seaboard that was big enough to accommodate the terrifying German battleship Tirpitz. This was vital to British attempts to weaken the German presence in the Atlantic. If the St Nazaire facility could be put out of action, the Germans would have to send Tirpitz home for any repairs and would ultimately keep the dangerous ship out of the Atlantic.
265 commandos and 346 Royal Navy personnel arrived at the French docks in a convoy led by the old British destroyer HMS Campbeltown in the early hours of 28 March. The convoy was spotted before reaching the enormous gates of the dry dock but, despite of intense fire from the German batteries on the shore, Campeltown ploughed into the dock gates at 1.34am. Commandos surged ashore to destroy key dock facilities with explosives while assault teams tried to draw away German defenders. Meanwhile, time fuses attached to explosives hidden in the bow of Campbeltown were set.
With almost all the British evacuation ships destroyed or unable to reach the docks, it became clear that the Commandos left on shore would be unable to leave by sea. They consequently fought on until they ran out of ammunition, after which all but five were taken prisoner. At around noon the explosives inside Campbeltown detonated, destroying the dry dock.
Only 228 men returned to England. 169 had been killed and 205 became prisoners of war, but the raid itself was a success as the dock remained inoperative for the rest of the war.
Exxon Valdez had only recently departed the Valdez Marine Terminal when the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, left Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge of steering the vessel while he retired to his quarters. Having moved outside the usual shipping lanes to avoid small icebergs that had been sighted earlier, the ship struck the reef at 12:04am.
Described by John Muir as a ‘bright and spacious wonderland’, Prince William Sound is one of the world’s most remote locations. This made the clean-up operation both challenging and expensive. Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Company were later criticised for their response to the spill, which initially used chemical dispersants on the oil. They later attempted a mechanical clean-up but, despite their attempts to control the situation, the oil eventually spread over more than 1,000 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of water.
High pressure hot water that was sprayed over the beaches to displace the oil was later found to have destroyed organisms in the environment. These not only formed a vital part of the food chain but could also help to biodegrade the oil.
Millions of fish and hundreds of thousands of seabirds died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, while hundreds of otters and seals – as well as more than a dozen orcas – also perished as a result of the oil spill.
In total, only 10% of the lost oil was completely retrieved. This means that, even decades after the spill, hundreds of miles of Alaskan beaches are still polluted with crude oil lying just below the sandy surface.
By the start of the 17th century merchants from the Dutch Republic had begun to undertake voyages to the ‘Spice Islands’ of the Indian Ocean. This put them in direct competition with established traders from other European nations including Portugal and Britain, both of whom had previously dominated the market.
Due to the high risks for individual investors who mounted these individual voyages, the Dutch government supported the creation of a new umbrella company two years after the establishment of the competing English East India Company. The United East India Company combined the various individual business interests into a single entity that was granted a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade. Consequently the risk to investors was reduced as their individual funds were invested in the entire company’s voyages, meaning that if some ships failed to return they were not completely wiped out. In return investors received an annual dividend of 18%.
Known in the Netherlands as the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC, the company grew to become arguably the first transnational corporation. Yet by the middle of the 17th century it had begun to function as a state within a state that possessed its own army and political authority. Having usurped both the British and Portuguese competitors in the East Indies, the VOC dominated trade in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans for almost two centuries. During this time it sent almost a million European people to work in the region in almost 5,000 ships, more than the rest of the continent combined.
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.