From "Moby Dick" to true tales of modern treasure hunters, the sea has inspired countless books. One of life’s great pleasures is to lose oneself in an interesting book. Recently, I was thinking about a few books that touch on marine cargo and nautical themes, and thought I’d offer a brief list of recommended reading – for information and fun.
In no particular order but categorized into genres, books that have intriguing connections to cargo include:
"Moby Dick," by Herman Melville, 1851. Long upheld as one of the finest pieces of literature ever written, Melville’s novel details the risks of the whaling business. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, sperm whaling was the world’s energy industry. Whale oil not only powered lamps and created various products from candles to cosmetics, but it also created significant wealth and economic growth for generations ¬– until petroleum replaced it.
Here are a few facts you might not have known: Whale oil, according to historians, averaged $1.77 per gallon between 1845 and 1855, a period just prior to the introduction of petroleum fuel sources. Whaling ships of that period typically were 100-150 feet long, with displacements of 250-400 tons, and could carry as many as 3,000 barrels of whale oil. Fully laden, a whaleship’s cargo of oil could have been worth upwards of $160,000 – or more than $4.7 million in current dollars.
"Treasure Island," by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1833. A popular novel of buccaneers and buried gold, this classic romanticized pirates. A maritime historian suggested that a real-life shipwreck inspired the pirate tale: In 1750, a Spanish galleon carrying eight tons of silver embarked for Spain from Cuba and sailed into a hurricane, which blew the ship westward until it wrecked off the coast of North Carolina. Two English merchant captains managed to haul away 52 chests of Spanish silver and buried the treasure in the British Virgin Islands.
"Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-three Mariners, One Megastorm and the Sinking of the El Faro," by Rachel Slade, 2018. The containership El Faro’s tragic encounter with Hurricane Joaquin in the Atlantic in 2015 led to the worst maritime shipping accident in 35 years. Rachel Slade’s gripping book pieces together the story of the sinking and paints a portrait of the onboard life of workers who toil unseen by most of the world.
"In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," by Nathanial Philbrick, 2000. This is a fascinating retelling of the true story that inspired Melville’s classic. Hollywood released a feature film based on the book in 2015.
"Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea," by Gary Kinder, 1998. For every swashbuckling act of piracy on the high seas, there are many more instances of heavy weather and navigational errors that send treasures to the bottom. A remarkable non-fiction book about the recovery of an astonishing trove of gold is Kinder’s tale of the S.S. Central America, which sank during a storm in 1857. The wreck of the sidewheel steamship claimed 425 lives, along with tons of gold. A salvage venture found the ship in deep water in 1988, bringing up more than 7,000 newly minted gold coins. The S.S. Central America’s gold cargo would be worth an estimated $300 million today.
The saga of litigation, bankruptcy and jail time after the recovery is almost as dramatic as the salvage operation itself. After nearly 10 years of litigation, a court in 1998 awarded the salvager more than 92% of the recovered gold, with the remainder going to insurance companies that paid claims from the original loss of the cargo.
"Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Pirates & Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters," by Max Hardberger, 2010. Hardberger is a ship extractor, essentially a professional hired to repossess stolen vessels and their cargo. His memoir relates his experiences around the world using disguises and other clever tricks to recover cargo ships and other vessels.
"Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate," by Rose George, 2014. As the title implies, this nonfiction book explores how the global shipping industry delivers the things we use every day. As part of her research, the author spent five weeks on board a containership, sailing from England to Singapore, with port calls in between. It’s a fascinating look at a world that few people outside of shipping and cargo insurance understand.
"Gale Force," by Owen Laukkanen, 2018. This realistic novel, whose author comes from a family of fisherman, tells the tale of a down-and-out marine salvage operator racing against time and a storm to lay claim to a foundered freighter, in hopes of a multimillion-dollar payday. Unbeknownst to the salvage team, other, sinister forces are closing in to reclaim a valuable asset on board the ship.
"Pressure Point," by Dick Couch, 1992. The harrowing story of a terrorist takeover of one of the U.S. Navy’s deadliest weapons, a Trident submarine carrying 300 nuclear warheads, "Pressure Point" is an acclaimed page-turner.
"Birds of Prey," by Wilbur Smith, 1997. This historical novel, set in the 17th Century, spins a hard-to-put-down tale of piracy, romance and adventure. Part of a series involving a family of merchants and pirates, the focus of "Birds of Prey" is the family’s seizure of a Dutch East India Company galleon carrying timber, spice and gold.
There are many more great reads about seafaring and connections to cargo, but the above books are a fun way to increase one’s awareness and knowledge. Which marine-themed books have captured your interest? In future articles, we’ll explore many more facets of ocean cargo risk.
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