Piracy and World Maritime Day


Today, Thursday, is World Maritime Day. I recently received this infographic on modern-day piracy around the world, and efforts to combat it. Although it’s presented in a fun format, it contains some useful information about what remains a serious problem in some parts of the world. You can view a slightly larger version here.

This graphic was sent me by Tom Murphy of Nature’s Water Ltd., a water treatment and filtration company in Ireland. Thanks for the graphic, Tom!



This should be interesting:


KiddPurging the Seas: Government Reaction to Piracy, 1600-2015

Governments have had a conflicting and complicated relationship with piracy through the centuries.  When pirates attacked a rival nation’s merchant or naval fleets, governments turned a blind eye.  Diminution of an enemy state’s commerce or navy could only be a positive affair – increased trade opportunities, markets for stolen goods, and a militarily weakened adversary. Yet, when pirates gazed away from enemy states and directed their attentions to the commerce or navy of their own nation, governments cast pirates as “enemies of all mankind” and engaged in naval and legal anti-piracy campaigns.  Join Dr. Kim Todt and Dr. Elizabeth Nyman, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, as they explore government responses to piracy from the Golden Age through today’s arresting headlines.

Tuesday, March 10 at 7 p.m. Houston Maritime Museum, 2204 Dorrington, Houston, Texas 77030 (near the Texas Medical Center)

Kim Todt is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette whose work focuses on the history of Early America.  She is currently working on a book on the trading networks of Early America.

Elizabeth Nyman is the Anthony Moroux/BoRSF Endowed Professor of Political Science I at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is currently working on a book on international maritime conflict.


It’s always been interesting to me, the idea that modern pirates (e.g., off the Horn of Africa) are considered among the worst sort of criminals, but their counterparts from 300 years ago were suitable subjects for Disney. I’m as afflicted by that particular cognitive dissonance as anyone, I’m afraid.

Texas Navy Exhibit Opens with a Bang — Several, in Fact


On Saturday I had the privilege of speaking at the opening of the revamped Texas Navy exhibit at the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston. We had decent (though cloudy) weather for the event, with a good turnout of folks. The highlight of the event, naturally, was a salute fired by the Texas Navy reenactors (yes, there are such!) from Brazoria County, who brought up three small field pieces. The smallest of these, oddly, was by far the loudest. (The guns, I mean, not the reenactors.) The gun crews are mostly composed of Scouts, so it’s good to see young people get involved in history in a hands-on way. I understand the carriage of the largest piece, with red wheels, was built by the kids themselves. Good job, y’all!




And finally, exhibit Guest Curator Jim Bevill (pointing), author of The Paper Republic, guides visitors through the display. The gun in the foreground is an 18-pounder pivot gun believed to have used aboard the Texas Schooner Brutus in 1836-37:


Blue Water Ships, Brown Water Bayou

My new feature article on Liberty ship construction in Houston during World War II will be hitting local newsstands shortly. I’m especially honored to have it included in the new issue of Houston History Magazine (right), dedicated to the centennial of the formal opening of the Houston Ship Channel. The full article won’t be online for some months yet, but you can read the opening grafs here. Houston has never had the reputation of a major shipbuilding center, but it accomplished remarkable things during the war. Two hundred eight Liberty ships were pushed off the ways into Buffalo Bayou between 1942 and 1945. For those of you familiar with Houston geography, if placed end-to-end those ships would stretch more than seventeen statute miles, from the San Jacinto Battleground to City Hall downtown.

There are some wonderful articles in this issue, many of them supplemented by the photography of Captain Lou Vest, a Houston pilot and one of the best maritime photographers working today. (Don’t miss Steve Nelson’s photos, either.) I’d like to give special thanks to the managing editor of Houston History, Debbie Harwell, for her enthusiasm and encouragement. She’s great to work with.


Deep Wreck Presentation, Houston, October 14



On Tuesday, October 14 at 7 p.m., Amy Borgens and Fritz Hanselmann will discuss the recent deep-water shipwrecks expedition to investigate the wrecks of three sailing vessels, believed to have been overtaken by a catastrophic event with a presumed loss of all on board. These vessels were lost to history until 2011, when they were detected as three unknown sonar targets during a Shell Oil seafloor hazard and archaeological survey. A deep-water remotely operated vehicle investigation by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research unveiled a copperclad shipwreck with collections of small arms and six cannon lying at a depth of approximately 4300 ft. A team of underwater archaeologists from several federal and state organizations returned to the site in July 2013 and recovered a small collection of artifacts to help identify the shipwreck. An investigation of the two nearby Shell Oil targets confirmed these were indeed shipwrecks – one a merchant vessel transporting hides among its cargo and a third vessel of unknown purpose believed to be a three-masted ship. The archaeological team continues to research the video and photographic documentation of the sites and learn more about the artifact assemblage as conservation continues.


Deep-Water Discoveries: The Monterrey Shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico
Tuesday, October 14
7:00-8:00 PM
Houston Maritime Museum, 2204 Dorrington
Houston, Texas 77030

Free to the Public



Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast

My new book, Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast, will be released by the History Press on June 10. It’s available now for pre-order at the History Press, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. An e-book version should follow this summer. This short volume discusses blockade-running in the western Gulf of Mexico, with particular emphasis on the last year of the war, when Galveston became the last remaining port in Confederate hands in the region. Running the blockade under sail, life aboard the Union ships of the blockade, and the lure of prize money are also discussed. The book includes an epilogue that discusses some of the archaeological work done on runners over the last 40 years.

Blockade-running in this area has been an active interest of mine for nearly 20 years, and I’ve been privileged to contribute to the documentation of four different ships involved — the famous runners Denbigh and Will o’ the Wisp, as well as Union vessels U.S.S. Arkansas and U.S.S. Hatteras. Lots of folks have helped me along the way, and I’m grateful to all of them.

Talkin’ Texas Navy

TexasNavySnottyThanks to the Sam Houston Squadron of the Texas Navy Association for hosting me at their first anniversary dinner Sunday evening, at which I spoke on the role of the little steamboat Laura in the coming of the Texas Revolution. It’s a great little story that deserves more attention than it gets. I’ll have to blog about it some one of these days.

With me on the program were Ed Cotham, who gave a short talk outlining events in Texas during the sesquicentennial year of 1863 — it was a good year for the Union generally, but a disastrous one for them in Texas — and Justin Parkoff and Jessica Stika, who gave an overview of the efforts to conserve and exhibit artifacts recovered from the wreck of U.S.S. Westfield.

In his presentation, Justin joked that he tends to be quiet and, because he didn’t speak up soon enough in a meeting where the NautArch students were selecting projects, he got stuck with “the junk.” (At this point he flashed an image of Westfield‘s machinery as it came off the site, in rusty, unrecognizable jumble of stuff.) In fact, Justin’s dived headlong into this subject with remarkable success, and has gone a long way toward not only reconstructing the gunboat’s machinery, but its overall construction and conversion from a New York ferryboat to a warship. Before he’s done, I think we will know more fine-grained detail about U.S.S. Westfield than any other ship of her type. It will be a delicious irony that such knowledge ultimately came about because her commander, 150 years ago, blasted her to smithereens rather than let her fall into enemy hands.

We’ll be hearing more about Westfield in the next few months — a lot more.


Image: Wikimedia depiction of foul anchor and star insignia for the Texas Navy rank of Passed Midshipman, by user Glasshouse.

Aye Candy: Morgan Line Steamship Harlan, 1866


New renders of the Morgan Line steamship Harlan (seen previously here), that ran a coastwise route between New Orleans, Galveston and Indianola, Texas in the late 1860s and 1870s. Harlan was the last of seven ships built to the same design by Harlan & Hollingsworth for the Morgan Line between 1861 and 1866. The first of these ships, St. Mary’s, was purchased new and converted into the Union warship U.S.S. Hatteras. In 1880, Harlan transported former President Grant and his party from Clinton, on Buffalo Bayou near Houston, to New Orleans.

Full-size images available on Flickr.









U.S. Coast Survey Shipwreck Identified

In 1852, W.A.K. Martin painted this picture of the Robert J. Walker. The painting, now at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., is scheduled for restoration. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)


On Tuesday, the folks at NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program announced the identification of the wreck of the U.S. Coast Survey steamship Robert J. Walker, that was sunk in a collision with a sailing ship in June 1860 off the Jersey shore. From the announcement:


More than 153 years after it was lost in a violent collision at sea, government and university maritime archaeologists have identified the wreck of the ship Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA.
The Walker, while now largely forgotten, served a vital role as a survey ship, charting the Gulf Coast – including Mobile Bay and the Florida Keys – in the decade before the Civil War. It also conducted early work plotting the movement of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast.
Twenty sailors died when the Walker sank in rough seas in the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, ten miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey coast. The crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when the Walker was hit by a commercial schooner off New Jersey. The side-wheel steamer, carrying 66 crewmembers, sank within 30 minutes. The sinking was the largest single loss of life in the history of the Coast Survey and its successor agency, NOAA.
In late June, 2013, the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, surveying in the area to chart post-Hurricane Sandy changes in coastal waters – an essential job to ensure safe navigation with a major part of the economy based on the movement of goods by water – transited the area where Robert J. Walker was known to have been lost and laid a memorial wreath on the water. Using the sophisticated sonar mapping technology of Thomas Jefferson, The Office of Coast Survey’s Vitad Pradith, working with East Carolina University graduate student and archaeologist Joyce Steinmetz and the crew of Thomas Jefferson did a survey of the area and focused on the previously charted wreck thought to be Walker.



After a ceremony last month onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, Ensign Eileen Pye lays a wreath over the waters where USCS Robert J. Walker sank. (Credit: NOAA)Blank

You can read a detailed, contemporary news account of the disaster, from the June 23, 1860 issue of the New York Commercial Advertiser here.

Videos from the wreck site are online here. The visibility is pretty lousy, but the exposed part of the wreck is similar in many ways to that of U.S.S. Hatteras, that was the focus os a NOAA-led expedition last year. Some of the preservation on the Walker site is remarkable. There are even remnants of what are believed to be wool blankets, that have been preserved by being covered in mud, in an anaerobic environment, until recently. (Hurricane Sandy may have played a role in exposing these materials.)

In her career as a survey vessel, Robert J. Walker probably served off Galveston, as she spent considerable time operating in the Gulf of Mexico. As it happens, her commanding officer during much of that period was Benjamin Franklin Sands (right, 1811-1883), whose first-hand knowledge of the hydrography of the Texas coast would prove useful some years later, when he commanded the Union squadron on blockade duty off Galveston during the closing days of the Civil War. It was Captain Sands who formally accepted Galveston’s surrender in June 1865, an event that effectively ended the Union blockade of Southern ports. You can download a high-res copy of one of Sands’ charts, compiled during his tenure aboard Robert J. Walker, here.

Congrats to NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and all its partners in this endeavor.


Deep Gulf Shipwreck Live, July 18-25

UPDATE: Live broadcast available here:




From the Underwater Archaeology Mailing List, SUB-ARCH:


The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) www.Boem.gov homepage is featuring the 2013 expedition to document and explore the Monterrey Wreck in the Gulf of Mexico. July 18th-25th (weather depending) you can view the expedition live online.
Please share with students and colleagues so they can tune in! Go to www.boem.gov or use the direct link to the page which can be found at:


Note that the name, “Monterrey Wreck,” does not indicate the identity of the vessel, which is unknown. Deep water sites in the Gulf are commonly named for nearby pipelines or oil lease tracts. From the website:


2011 – 2012 Discovery and Exploration
First identified as a side scan sonar target in 2011, the brief remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive made a truly exciting discovery that no one at the time knew would contribute significantly to our understanding of a turbulent period of American history.
In April 2012, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer conducted the first reconnaissance of the site. The shipwreck appears to be an undisturbed, early 19th century, wooden-hulled sailing vessel.
The sonar target first came to light when Shell Oil notified the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), agencies of the U.S. Department of Interior, that a side scan sonar target resembling a shipwreck had been found in their lease area. The sonar image revealed a sharp hull-formed outline measuring approximately 25 meters (84 feet) long by 7.9 meters (26 feet) wide in 1,330 meters (4,363 feet) of water. . . .
The Okeanos Explorer’s ROV dive on the shipwreck lasted just over two hours, collecting valuable high definition video. The remains of the relatively small vessel, about 84 feet long, are outlined by the copper sheathing tacked to the lower hull put there to protect the bottom from marine bio-fouling. While wood close to the copper sheathing has survived, the entire upper portion of the wooden ship has been consumed, allowing durable artifacts, such as those made from ceramic, glass and metal, to drop to the bottom. The area of the Gulf where the site is located receives very little sedimentation, so many of the artifacts lay uncovered, mostly inside the hull.
From the distribution of artifacts, we get a sense of how the vessel was organized. A large anchor in the bow was probably secured on the forward deck. Elements of the standing rigging along the length of the vessel indicate the location of the masts. A concretion of large metal objects located amidships contains an anchor, several cannon and smaller artifacts. Some or all of these items may have been stowed below deck during the voyage. A large rectangular metal stove resting on a lead sheet (to protect the wooden deck from catching fire) and food storage containers, denote the galley area where food was prepared. Further aft, near the stern, where the ship’s officers likely lived, are plates, bottles, glassware, firearms, medicine, and navigation instruments.
The baseline data collected by Okeanos Explorer’s brief visit led to considerable follow-on research by a group of archaeologists and historians. The artifacts and vessel remains suggest the site dates to the first half of the nineteenth century making it one of the more significant shipwrecks discovered in the Gulf of Mexico to date. The site, well preserved and remarkably undisturbed, is from a critical period in history when new nations were forming at the end of the Colonial era and the Gulf was opening to global trade.