By all reasonable metrics Shek Yeung, who raided the South China Sea in the early 1800s, is one of the most successful pirates of all time. In her new novel Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea author Rita Chang-Eppig tells a fictionalized version of the pirate queen’s life, her rise to power, and her relationship with powers both temporal and spiritual.
Eric Tagliacozzo is a professor of history at Cornell University, and his new book In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds From Yemen to Yokohama outlines five centuries of maritime history in the Asian world. In this wide-ranging interview, we discussed how China created trade routes that stretched all the way to Africa’s Swahili coast, the ocean-going history of Vietnam, and the role of consumer goods, piracy, slavery, and religion in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Pacific, and beyond.
America doesn’t talk much about the War of 1812. In the historical narrative that the U.S. likes to construct for itself, its first official, declared war might as well not exist. The war’s been ignored for a variety of reasons (we’ll get to why later) but in this episode we’re going to examine surface causes for the war. Conventional narratives about the war of 1812 point the finger at British impressment of American sailors in the early 1800s, and policies like the Orders in Council that restricted American trade with France. High-profile naval conflicts like the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and the Little Belt Affair, in which American and British ships exchanged fire over the Royal Navy’s right to conscript sailors, inflamed American political passions against Britain. However, these were only surface causes. Next episode, we’ll dive into deep reasons for America’s conflict with Britain in 1812.
Lucy Bellwood is a cartoonist and author in Portland, Oregon. Last year her illustration of sailor tattoos went viral. We talked about nautical tattoos, their meanings, and what it means to get well-known on the Internet very quickly. We also touched on how one researches and studies history, especially in the context of tattoo myths about James Cook and a book Bellwood recommends, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret.
In the early 1980s the US Navy was determined to uncover a secret gay subculture at the Great Lakes Naval Base just outside of Chicago. All of the men they were looking for seemed to be friends of Dorothy. If the NIS could find, Dorothy, they thought, they could blow this whole thing wide open.
We’ve talked about The Wizard of Oz and monetary policy before. This is different.
In 1897 the US Supreme Court carved out an exception the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery and involuntary servitude. Robertson v. Baldwin held that merchant marine sailors could be arrested by law enforcement, imprisoned, and then returned to their ships. Essentially, forced labor in the United States was legal, as long as it was on boats. It was not until 1915 that Congress banned the practice.
This episode was part of Stumptown Stories, a Pacific Northwest history collective in Portland, Oregon.
Pictured below is a still from the 1915 Charlie Chaplin film Shanghaied, which came out the same year that Congress passed legislation guaranteeing certain rights for sailors.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
Depending on how you measure and define things, the longest war in human history may very well have been between the Netherlands and a tiny collection of islands 28 miles off the coast of Britain known as the Isles of Scilly (the flag of which is pictured below) . The “war” lasted for three hundred and thirty five years and consisted of zero battles. It was a “war” only in the sense that the Netherlands had made a declaration of war in the 1600s, and then simply forgot to rescind it.
In 1986 a historian on Scilly set out to debunk what he thought was a local legend but, instead, ended up confirming that, yes, his small island community was technically still at war with the Netherlands. The historian alerted the relevant authorities, the Dutch ambassador visited the isles, read a scroll aloud, and declared peace. After 335 years of “war,” one of the longest declared military conflicts ended without the loss of a single human life.
In January of 1992 international trade routes, bad weather, and a shipping container full of bath toys all collided to form an amazing natural experiment in oceanography. 28,800 bath toys known as Friendly Floatees spilled into the Pacific Ocean, and over the years the easily-identifiable toys washed up on shores throughout the world. Though often referred to as “rubber duckies,” the toys were in fact made of plastic, and, in addition to yellow ducks, also included red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs.
The oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer (pictured below) seized upon the opportunity to study the effects of so much readily-identifiable flotsam released into the Pacific, and eventually found that the Floatees didn’t just circulate in the Pacific. They also made their way to the Arctic, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. The brightly-colored, cute little bath toys had gone international, and eventually were being scooped up by beachcombers worldwide.
The story of the the Titanic is usually one of human hubris, and then nature putting humanity back in their place. Implicit in any Titanic narrative is a critique of technology in general, of human arrogance, and of the supposed ability of our species to strive in the face of insurmountable laws of nature.
The Titanic, though, is not the best fit for that narrative. The ship sank, yes, but it still worked the way it was supposed to before it hit an iceberg. Another vessel, though, fits that profile better. The Vasa was an immense warship commissioned by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the 1620s. The gigantic ship was a marvel, and like nothing that the world had seen before. It dwarfed other vessesl, bristled with canon, and was covered with elaborate ornamentation.
And then, under the weight of all of its fancy guns and ornamentation, sank on its maiden voyage. The Vasa was, quite literally, too fancy to live, and is a better example of boat-based overreach and arrogance than the Titanic ever was.
The image below is of a 1:10 scale model of the Vasa at Stockholm’s Vasa musuem, and it shows off some of the elaborate ornamentation that covered the exterior of the ship.
One of the most high-profile maritime disasters in French history also inspired a famous, and gigantic work of art. In 1816 the French frigate Medusa ran aground in the Bay of Arguin. The captain and several officers escaped on life boats, but 147 people were abandoned on a hastily built raft. For almost two weeks the raft-goers suffered from starvation, dehydration, and malnutrition. The desperate survivors descended into violence and resorted to cannibalism before being rescued (by chance) by another vessel. Of the 147 people abandoned on the raft, ten survived.
A few years later, in 1819, the 25-year-old Romantic painter Theodore Gericault painted a gigantic, larger-than-life painting entitled The Raft of the Medusa. To compose his masterpiece, Gericault sought out dead and decayed bodies, contacted survivors, and memorialized the tragedy like a man possessed.
In the 1590s Japan invaded Korea. The Imjin War lasted from 1592-1598, and it included all manner of land battles, guerilla skirmishes, sieges, spying, and everything else that you would expect to find in a full-on conflict. The entire war would take several episodes to cover properly, and this episode just focuses on the naval aspect, and one naval battle in particular.
Under Admiral Yi Sun-sin, the Korean navy was able to successfully rack up victories against the Japanese. Yi was an admiral with no formal military training and, for complicated political reasons, was stripped of his rank, and a rival briefly took over the Korean naval forces. That rival led the Korean navy into a disastrous battle that destroyed almost all of the Joseon Dynasty’s ships, and Admiral Yi was let out of prison to command the remnants of the Korean fleet.
At the Battle of Myeongnyang, Admiral Yi had all of thirteen ships. The Japanese had well over a hundred. With his small force, Yi managed to defeat a force larger than him by an order of magnitude, and the Battle of Myeongnyang remains, today, one of the greatest come-from-behind military victories of all time.
The Admiral was a 2014 film about the life of Admiral Yi. Reviews seem to be mixed.
In the late 1800s countless men were exploited by a system that used debt and indentured servitude to keep them tied to the shipping industry. The process of getting sailors into debt was called “crimping,” and it was practiced throughout the US and Britain, but was particularly prominent on the American West Coast. Quite a lot of mythology, folklore, and pseudohistory has grown up around the subject, most of it with no basis in the actual historical record. Nevertheless, Shanghaiing and crimping were very real, and until approximately 1915 the process of acquiring sailors looked almost nothing like how one would expect to hire labor on an open, fair market.
Pictured below are shipping papers from 1786. Possibly the most important part of the text is the following: In case they should, on any account whatsoever, leave or desert the said sloop without the Master’s consent, till the abovesaid voyage is ended, and the said sloop discharged of her loading, be liable to forfeit and lose what wages may at such time of their desertion be due to them, together with every their goods, chattels, &c. on board; renouncing, by these presents, all title, right, demand and pretensions thereunto for ever, for them, their heirs, executors and administrators. And it is further agreed by both parties, that eight and forty hours absence without leave, shall be deemed a total desertion, and render such Seamen and Mariners liable to the penalties abovementioned.
Shanghaiing Days by Richard H Dillion is a comprehensive, albeit dated, book on the subject, covering crimping throughout the US in the 1800s.
The Oregon Shanghaiers by Barney Blalock deals specifically with Portland and Astoria crimps.
This week we interviewed a pirate! Kind of. Jaime Kirk is the current captain of PDX Yar, a Portland organization dedicated to all things piratical. The crew does, indeed, dress up like pirates for the purposes of revelry carousing, but they also do quite a bit with historical reenactment. PDX Yar does demonstrations of black powder weapons, presentations on how ships were actually run and managed, and the leadership have immersed themselves in pirate history for years now.
Below is a engraving from the 1720s of Bartholomew Roberts, aka Black Bart, Jaime’s favorite pirate.
Find Jaime and the rest of PDX Yar here.
Get Under the Black Flag, Jaime’s, recommended book on pirate history, from Powells.com.
Defining what is and is not a country, state, or nation can sometimes be sort of difficult. China, obviously, is a country. So are Brazil and Morocco. Some states, like Kosovo, East Timor, and Vatican City, are independent and sovereign on paper, yet don’t seem to have the ephemeral legitimacy of an established state, the kind of undefinable real-ness that Frank Zappa alluded to when he said that “you can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”
And then there are some states which just declare independence and call it good. Like Sealand, for example, an ostensible principality off the coast of Britain that has endured as one of the world’s most successful micronations.
Sealand’s official website, where you can become a lord, lady, baron, or baroness, depending on your preferences.
Sealand The Mystery Solved is a four-part YouTube series about the micronation. It was made in cooperation with the principality, so, in a way, it is official Sealand government propaganda. Of a sort.
Fettes Brot, a German hip-hop group, shot the music video for their song Echo at (on? in? what is the proper preposition for a fort/micronation?) Sealand.