Sail & Steam: A Century of Maritime Enterprise: 1840- 1935: Photographs from the National Maritime Museum
John Falconer. Boston, MA: David R. Godine, Publisher, 1993. 192 pp. Photos. $50.00 ($45.00).
Reviewed by John Stobart
At first sight, I knew this proud volume of newly published early photographs would hold surprises. What a veritable treasure trove of visions from the 19th century wharfside scene it turned out to be. From the humble to the famous, the characters we meet in its pages display an air of pride that makes me marvel about the fascinating era being portrayed. The documentary photography of this book spans nearly a century, from 1840 to 1935, and what a privilege it is to glance over the shoulder of these photographers as they worked to record what now is a vanished way of life.
What is it about black-and-white photography that arrests my attention for longer contemplation? How can it be that, like in some etchings, there is a captivating quality of light? It’s the same with black-and-white movies. Again, the nature of light is more poignant, with the way tonal values of overlapping silhouettes recede to the distance seeming more real. Or could it be that black-and-white photographs simply stimulate the viewer’s imagination better?
Because of shortages in staffs and funds, museums today are experiencing difficulties reviewing and cataloging bequests such as important photographic collections. There is a gold mine perhaps, but the search for nuggets must await timely opportunity. It is therefore, a thrill and a revelation to see a book like Sail & Steam that, on almost every page, displays mostly undiscovered gems.
Following the inception of photography in 1838, improvements in the science soon resulted in the exceptionally sharp definition of the glass-plate negative, inspiring many of the superb craftsmen whose dedicated efforts appear in this book. Eadweard Muybridge—whose brilliance brought us sequence photography of animals in motion—shows a view of San Francisco in 1870. The revered John Meadows Sutcliffe, who portrayed his home port of Whitby, England with such awesome virtuosity, shows us a new aspect of the harbor from outside his local railway station. Bedford Lemere shows the carpentry shop at the John Brown Shipyard of Clydebank with dozens of skilled craftsmen working on interiors for great ocean liners like the Aquitania, pictures of which he also shares with us in these pages. But for many of these startling images, the only credit is “Photographer unknown.” The only way to thank them for the pleasures they have left us is to enjoy them.
Th is book also takes us around the world to see Sydney’s Circular Quay, bustling with ferry activity before its famed harbor bridge joined the growing city to its northern suburb at Milson’s Point. We also visit Burma, Hong Kong, Australia, and Nigeria. In the chapter of photographs entitled “To the Ends of the Earth,” readers are taken on great expeditions of exploration. There are photographs taken during HMS Challenger’s around-the-world oceanographic expedition of 1872-76, including one of the Challenger in dry dock. In another sequence, we see Captain Robert Scott and his Terra Nova beset at Antarctica’s Cape Evans in 1911. The photographs in the chapter “Pax Britannica” reveal fascinating episodes in the story of the Royal Navy from the mid- 19th to the early 20th century, with every caption carefully documenting the saga behind each image. We also get an understanding here of the continuing evolution from wooden construction to iron still under sail, then on to steel and steam. Readers also see some of the world’s most magnificent warships under construction, in port, and on the high seas.
In the final chapter—Valediction— we are treated to spectacular shots taken by Alan Villiers aboard the four- masted steel bark Parma in 1932-33. Some of these stunning images show men high aloft, like spiders in a web, trusting their lives to spindly foot ropes. Captain Villiers—who was an accomplished author as well as a splendid sailor—later commanded the commemorative replica Mayflower II which crossed the Atlantic in 1957 and now rests snugly at her pier in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
John Falconer is to be congratulated for Sail & Steam and thanked for the dedication and effort that went into producing it. It is a beautifully printed volume right down to the hand-crafted lettering on the cover which didn’t escape my eye. This book deserves to be considered a classic and will become an important and cherished addition to maritime collections everywhere.
Fragments of the Ark
Louise Meriwether. New York: Pocket Books, 1994. 342 pp. $21.00 ($18.90)
Reviewed by Joseph P. Reidy, Ph.D.
Serious historical fiction is a tricky business. It calls for the merger of two genres, each with somewhat overlapping yet somewhat distinct standards of creativity. In fiction, the case rests on the author’s ability to create believable characters conversing and interacting with each other in believable situations. In narrative history, the case rests on the author’s ability to search out and combine historical facts into a compelling analytic framework. Because of the combination of liberating and restricting tendencies present in each genre, good writers of historical fiction are few and far between.
In fictionalizing the Civil War experiences of Robert Smalls, the South Carolina slave who abducted the Confederate steamer Planter and delivered it to the U.S. Navy’s blockading squadron off the South Carolina coast, Louise Meriwether takes up the challenge. The historical record richly details the events surrounding Mr. Smalls’ daring exploit as well as the Union’s Port Royal Experiment in the U.S.-held enclaves on coastal South Carolina, a program in which escaped slaves were educated by Northern ministers and teachers. Against this standard, the measure of the novel depends on how convincingly she develops the characters by creating believable situations and dialogue.
Ms. Meriwether is no stranger to Robert Smalls, having previously published a children’s book on his life. Also to her credit are a critically acclaimed novel and two other books for children. Her strengths as a writer show in her stylistic rendering of background information. She discusses the convolutions in U.S. policy—with regard to protecting, freeing, and ultimately arming former slaves—with a sure yet graceful hand. In one marvelous characterization of the grass-roots dynamic of emancipation, she has a Northern minister suggest to Peter Mango (the fictional identity of Robert Smalls) that “We’re making Mr. Lincoln into an abolitionist. . . The times and black people themselves. The thousands who have crossed over to our lines are forcing his hand.” With similar dexterity, she outlines the main contours of the war along the south Atlantic coast.
Yet this strength may contain the kernel of an opposite weakness. Informed readers may find some of the background discussion tedious. Some also may shrug at yet another account of the ill-starred assault of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry upon Battery Wagner at Charleston. Likewise, the device of section heads within chapters to fix the time and place of action often distracts rather than clarifies. The pages of the calendar turn at an uneven rate. At times, not a day passes unaccounted for; at other times, months inexplicably fly by. The device also occasionally serves as a crutch as in the one- page interjection for 22 September 1862, the day Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Although the terms of the Proclamation are important, the information might have been communicated less intrusively.
Ms. Meriwether’s gifts as a novelist emerge clearest in her imaginative recreation of the challenges that African-Americans faced during the Civil War. She captures with heart-pounding realism the terrors that civilians no less than combatants faced in contested places. She deftly describes the pain and confusion that resulted when masters attempted to relocate their households to safety, and she properly acknowledges the prospects for freedom that slaves might find in such circumstances. Peter’s mother, for instance, eluded her master’s flight from Beaufort South Carolina, and occupied an abandoned dwelling for the rest of the war.
At the same time, Ms. Meriwether refuses to glamorize the difficulties former slaves faced even after they had distanced themselves from their former owners. The separation of families—whether the result of sale before the war or the vagaries of the war itself—continued to produce uncertainty. Life under Union protection—whether on government-supervised plantations or in General David Hunter’s unauthorized regiment of black soldiers— held perils of its own. Nevertheless, she expresses the slaves’ search for love and emotional fulfillment in these confusing and often horrifying circumstances with great sympathy and tenderness. Ms. Meriwether has few equals in portraying this facet of the freedpeople’s experiences.
That notwithstanding, Ms. Meriwether may misplay her hand at one of the central characterizations of the novel: the relationships among Peter, his wife Rain, and Chloe—Peter’s consort during his separation from Rain. To resolve Rain’s indignation over Peter’s infidelity, Ms. Meriwether simply has Chloe disappear. But even more important, when the tension between Peter and Rain—which simmers from early in the book—reaches a boiling point, it subsides somewhat quickly, even awkwardly. The heat rises after Peter reunites Rain with her daughter and half-sister, both of whom were fathered by her former master and then sold away years earlier. Peter sees haunting images of the master in the faces of the children, to which he responds by lashing out verbally and physically. His impulsive tirades threaten his marriage which was already strained by his affair with Chloe. Through the intercession of a conjure woman whom Rain had consulted, Peter confronts the images in a mirror and succeeds in dispelling them. Peter’s willingness to consider such spiritualist intervention seems out of place with the rationalist sensibilities and manifest contempt for conjure that he displayed earlier in the novel. More significantly, given the intensity of the problems that had accumulated between Peter and Rain, their resolution following his confrontation with the ghosts comes across as artificially neat.
At its best, Fragments of the Ark demonstrates the contribution that historical fiction can make to understanding the human predicament. However, like the tension between Peter and Rain that drives the novel, the tension between the fictional account and the historical account lingers beyond the last page.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Battles of Savo Island and the Eastern Solomons The Battles of Cape Esperance and Santa Cruz Islands The Battle of Guadalcanal The Landing in the Solomons
Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1994. 80-101 pp. each. Append. Illus. Maps. Notes. Photos. Paper. For Price and Availability Information, call the U.S. Government Printing Office at (202)783-3238.
These four volumes are part of a series of 34 publications—some reprints, others never before published—produced by the Naval Historical Center as part of the Navy’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of World War II. Written during the war as components of the Combat Narrative program sponsored by the Office of Naval Intelligence, these publications cannot be considered the final word on the campaigns they describe. However, they are valuable because they show how these campaigns were viewed at the time. These four publications describe the naval battles that raged in the Solomons in late 1942 and provide a straightforward account of a hard-fought campaign that tested the mettle of the navies involved.
Breaking the Outer Ring: Marine Landings in the Marshall Islands
CAPT John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret). Washington, DC: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994. 29 pp. Bib. Illus. Maps. Photos. Free. Order directly from: Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402. Paper.
This pamphlet covers the capture of the strategic Kwajalein and Eniwetok Atolls by Marines and soldiers in February 1944. Many new techniques—e.g, Navy underwater demolition teams, command ships, and the Navaho “code talkers”—were used in this campaign, but the essence of the battles remained the same: slow, bitter fighting against a determined enemy who occupied well-fortified positions.
The joint victory in the Marshalls broke the outer ring of the Japanese defenses, accelerated the drive for the Marianas, and further honed U.S. amphibious-warfare skills. As with the other pamphlets in this series, photographs and maps support a concise, well-written text.
Destroyers at Normandy: Naval Gunfire Support at Omaha Beach
William B. Kirkland, Jr. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Foundation, 1994. 81 pp. Bib. Notes. Photos. $3.00 ($3.00).
Drawing on his own experience as the gunnery officer of the USS Doyle (DD-494) as well as other first-hand sources, the author describes how Navy destroyers provided the close-range gunfire support that was—and is— considered a vital ingredient to the ultimate success of the assault at Omaha Beach. General Omar Bradley put it plainly, “[T]he Navy saved our hides.” Another general said, “Thank God for the U.S. Navy.”
The Sack of Veracruz: The Great Pirate Raid of 1683
David F. Marley. Ontario, Canada: Netherlandic Press, 1993. 96 pp. Bib. Ulus. Ind. Maps. $11.95 Paper. Order Direct from Publisher.
In 1683, Dutch pirate Laurens de Graaf led several hundred French, Dutch, and British of his fellow “brethren” in a brilliant attack on the great Spanish colonial port of Veracruz, Mexico— heretofore considered impregnable. Dr. Marley, a specialist in Spanish maritime history, recreates the battle and surrounding events in minute detail, providing an exciting narrative and a cogent analysis of this little known but significant event.
The Last Liberty: The Biography of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien
Walter W. Jaffee. Palo Alto, CA: The Glencannon Press, 1993. 495 pp. Append. Illus. Ind. Photos. $29.95 ($26.96).
The story of one of the World War II Liberty ships is told in the words of her crew. And this is no mundane tale. The Jeremiah O’Brien sailed in convoys across the Atlantic, participated in many amphibious landings in the European theater, and went on to carry supplies throughout the Pacific. The perils of U-boats and mines; the hardships of winter in the North Atlantic; the tensions, privations, boredom, terror, and humor of war are all a part of this ship’s story. The book ends with an account of how she became a museum rather than suffer the ignominious fates of almost all her sisters.