Monday, January 4, 2016

Wayfinding in Maritime Literature

Certain themes present in the literature of just about every recent decade give us a view of history for the "armchair traveler" the way we expect to see it, unless we are open to challenge the past.

Titles might look new, but may actually be reprints of earlier versions, earlier popular themes that captured the imagination, then and now.

An article in the journal "Power Ships" recently caught my notice while searching for an advertisement for navigational tools. Locating my bearings among pages of all things nautical, I saw the article "The Hairy Ape & His Place in Maritime History" by Taylor Nutting. In it, writer Nutting discusses the maritime stories of Eugene O'Neill and his character Yank, a man whose job it was to feed boilers below decks and to keep the ship's engines running.

While reading about maritime historical events and historical ships (in geographic discovery, war, the promotion to world power, trade in goods and services, etc.), we're focused on a well-known historical outcome, and often don't place much importance on the toll exacted from the human psyche by technology, perhaps because we "know" what happened afterwards. But O'Neill did comprehend the human condition very well according to Nutting, and it was as early as the 1920s when chaotic change was taking place that his plays made their debut.

A new book title, "Landfalls" by Naomi J. Williams, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in late 2015 is described as being the tale of the maritime conquest of foreign or developing areas that's told on a more personal level than sensationalizing a political or economic event. See more at

Since we are looking for real-life stories, those not only about great conquest and treasure or loss on a tragic scale, we should get acquainted with the smaller, humanistic scenes of those involved, because likely those form a large part of our heritage, too. These would be personal stories that gain a deeper look into the past than self-identity with big screen heroes and anti-heroes can afford us, where scenes in history were less momentous at the time they occurred than culturally-transforming over time.

Maritime events, along with land-based ones, are part of our understanding of how history unfolded to bring us to the present, politically, economically, and culturally. A prominent theme in maritime history is the summary of turbulent change and its effects on a populace, on world travel, trade, and economies, from the richest to the poorest nations. And this theme can become more realistic in the present if the larger stories are peeled back to uncover its effects on a personal scale.

Please comment, and especially if you have read the book or are in the midst of it.---Editor

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Rare Books, the Tropics, Part 3

Illustration from Panama La Vieja by John F. Shafroth. Published by Imprenta Nacional, Panama City, 1953

Panama La Vieja by John F. Shafroth was written in English and translated into Spanish, displaying text in both languages and old photographs of ruins. These structures , the Spanish council, cathedral, convent, hospital, royal houses and fort were essentially the “first city founded by Europeans (in 1519) on the Pacific Ocean”—p.3. This coat of arms which promises the voyagers will find the Spice Islands (by passing through the Isthmus) underscores the European connection to the Pacific.

Illustration from Panama, Eslabon entre Dos Mundos. Published by El Servicio Informativo de los Estados Unidos, Balboa, Panama, 1953.

Panama, Eslabon entre Dos Mundos… published for the 50th commemoration of Panama’s independence, brings cultural and political aspects of Panama’s history into focus along with a chronicle of the Canal, its important foreign players and inhabitants, both native and immigrant. With pages of illustrations and photographs from each era beginning in 1502, it’s written entirely in Spanish, and includes maps and other graphics.

Cover of The Panama Canal August 15, 1914-1939 Twenty-fifth Anniversary. Published in 1939.

The Panama Canal August 15, 1914-1939 Twenty-fifth Anniversary is a publication of the U.S. Government, printed by the Panama Canal Press in 1939. It focuses in detail on highlights in the history of Spain’s efforts at opening a waterway through the Isthmus, the French government’s attempts to remove the geologic obstructions, and the American success in building the canal, which required years of planning and execution. The booklet’s chapters include “Sanitation and Health”, important due to diseases and tropical insect which carry them, and the “Panama Railroad Company”, transportation adjunct to the canal, built over swampland.

Rare Books in the Museum Research Library:

The Library’s rare book section offers topics like the Panama Canal, maritime policy and theory, voyages, the seafaring life, etc. Much the same as today, these books exemplify the culture and beliefs of audiences eager for new knowledge in scientific theory, political theory, historical fact and literature, but they were written in a world of 50 to almost 200 years ago. Please call the Library, or send an email message through our website, requesting to review these and other books in person.