Samuel Johnson enlisted Tobias Smollett, author of Roderick Random, to help rescue Johnson’s “Negro servant Francis Barber” from naval service—“a state of life,” as James Boswell wrote, “of which Johnson always expressed the utmost abhorrence.” Johnson once said, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” At another time he claimed, “A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”
On June 15, 1904, a fire broke out on the General Slocum, a steamboat crossing the East River with over thirteen hundred passengers on board, and it sank. Few of the passengers could swim, most were wearing thick layers of clothes, and the life vests were faulty. An estimated 1,021 people died—the deadliest day in New York City’s history until September 11, 2001.
“There is a dockyard at Woolwich where one hundred warships of all sizes are built yearly to replace ships lost to the enemy or which have become obsolete. Because of the high costs of armaments and machinery, the government is usually in debt and forced to borrow from the public,” observed Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, a Persian ambassador on a diplomatic visit to London in 1810.
On May 2, 2011, Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette emailed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen to report on the traditional Islamic procedures that were followed in the burial of Osama bin Laden. “The deceased’s body was washed (ablution) then placed in a white sheet. The body was placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased’s body slid into the sea.”
In 1864, responding to his friend Victor Hugo’s invitation to visit Guernsey, where the writer was living in exile, the French painter Gustave Courbet wrote, “In your sympathetic retreat I will contemplate the spectacle of your sea. The viewpoints of our mountains also offer us the limitless spectacle of immensity. The unfillable void has a calming effect. I confess, poet, I love terra firma and the orchestration of the countless herds that inhabit our mountains. The sea! The sea with its charms saddens me. In its joyful moods, it makes me think of a laughing tiger; in its sad moods, it recalls the crocodile’s tears and, in its roaring fury, the caged monster that cannot swallow me up.”
“Just opposite, an island of the sea,/There came enchantment with the shifting wind,/That did both drown and keep alive my ears,” wrote John Keats in Hyperion. It was published in a collection of poems in 1820; Keats died the following year. In 1822 Percy Bysshe Shelley, returning from a visit to Lord Byron, drowned after his schooner, the Don Juan, capsized. His body washed up on the Tuscan shore a few days later. In his pocket was a copy of Keats’ poems.
Around noon on April 27, 1937, while aboard a steamship southeast of Florida, poet Hart Crane, intoxicated and still wearing his pajamas, jumped overboard. The ship’s captain later told Crane’s companion, Peggy Cowley, “If the propellers didn’t grind him to mincemeat, then the sharks got him immediately.”
“If ever a loss at sea fell under the definition, in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act of God,” Joseph Conrad wrote, “this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness, and severity; and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.” The sentence ends the first paragraph of his 1912 essay “Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic.”
After Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to quell suspicions that the U.S. had helped foment revolt in order to build the Panama Canal. Roosevelt asked Secretary of War Elihu Root if he had properly defended himself against accusations of wrongdoing. Root reportedly replied, “You certainly have, Mr. President. You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”
Zheng Yi Sao, a Cantonese prostitute, married a pirate captain in 1801 and helped him build up his sea empire, so that by 1805 it consisted of four hundred junk ships operated by forty to sixty thousand pirates. In 1810 the Chinese government, rather than continue to suffer losses, offered the pirates amnesty if they were to retire. Zheng Yi Sao accepted and, according to one historian, led the remainder of her life peacefully, “so far as is consistent with the keeping of an infamous gambling house.”
“Were it possible that the sea could be drained of its waters and emptied by some extraordinary accident, what incredible numbers, what infinite variety of uncommon and amazing sea monsters would exhibit themselves to our view, which are now entirely unknown!” wrote Reverend Erich Pontoppidan in his Natural History of Norway, published in 1753. Ninety-five percent of the ocean remains unseen by humankind, and it is believed that up to sixty-five percent of its plant and animal life has not yet been undiscovered.
Suetonius, a biographer of Roman emperors, claimed that the violent ruler Tiberius had a clifftop location in Capri from which he liked to watch his victims thrown into the sea. “A party of marines were stationed below,” Suetonius wrote, “and when the bodies came hurtling down, they whacked at them with oars and boathooks, to make sure that they were completely dead.”