Mar 24

The Dawn of Naval History

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 5:14 PM


Welcome! We get it…it would be mighty presumptuous of us to assume this blog is the Dawn of Naval History.

First and foremost, this blog is an excursion into the most intriguing questions, theories and musings that continue to fascinate naval historians. It is a meeting place where renowned scholars and self-taught history buffs linger and share ideas and perspective on naval events that shape nations.

The Naval History Blog is hosted by two organizations steeped in the traditions of naval history, which see it as a cornerstone of their missions. The U.S. Naval Institute and the Naval History & Heritage Command are working together to bring their considerable intellectual resources and passion for naval history to this destination. More

Tom Wilkerson
Major General, USMC (Ret.)
U. S. Naval Institute CEO

Jay A. DeLoach
Rear Admiral, USN (Ret.)
Director of the Naval History & Heritage Command

Our inaugural article of the same name by

Rear-Admiral Stephen B. Luce, U. S. N. Adm. Luce

Proceedings Magazine, Volume 24, Issue 3, Whole Number 87 in the year 1898

The Dawn of Naval History

A navy, from the Latin word navis, a ship, is the aggregation of vessels of war, including materiel and personnel, maintained by a state. A navy is designed, primarily, for the preservation of peace by the exercise of that wholesome moral influence inseparable from a judicious exhibition of adequate material force: also for policing the ocean highways, patrolling its own coasts; exploring distant seas for the benefit of commerce and navigation; sharing the labors in the fields of science, standing guard on the frontiers of civilization, and for the offensive and defensive operations of war.

Modern navies are maintained essentially in the interests of peace and civilization, and are indispensable instruments in the accumulation of wealth and power; contributing as they do to the security of the state at home and to the conservation of its commerce, its honor and respect abroad.

The word navy has been frequently used to express an assemblage of vessels of any description; but in the absence of a qualifying term, such as mercantile or commercial navy, it is understood by common acceptation to mean the entire fleet of war vessels belonging to the state, together with all that pertains to their building, repairing, equipping, navigating and fighting.

The word fleet, from the Saxon flot, is used in England as synonymous with navy. Thus in the Articles of War of the British Navy, which date back to the time of the Restoration, it is declared by Art. 3rd that “if any officer, mariner or soldier, or other person of the fleet, shall give, hold or entertain intelligence to or with an enemy or rebel,” etc. The same term is common to the French Navy: “Depuis peu,” says Admiral Paris, “on a adopte les mots ‘La Flotte’ pour designer la totalite des batiments qui constituents l’efifectif des forces navales disponible soit de paix soit de guerre du pays.”

Writers in this country, however, especially those of the naval profession, are rather inclined to restrict the word fleet to its technical sense, and attach to it a definite meaning and one equivalent to the French armee navale, “an assemblage of at least twelve line-of-battle ships (vaisseaux) or ships of equal military value.”

The history of navies reaches far back to the earliest known records. Passing thence to the prehistoric age, one may easily become bewildered in the misty sources of tradition. A sort of mirage pervades that distant horizon which strangely distorts the figures as they come in view. The earth and sky seemed blended in one, and the inhabitants of each meet, as it were, on common ground. It is as if the words of Moses that “the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose,” found literal interpretation. Of such a nature is the story of Jason, who commanded the first naval expedition of which tradition speaks (1263 B.C). Directed to seek the Golden Fleece in distant Colchis, in the Euxine, he ordered Argus to build a ship of fifty oars, which is named Argo after the constructor. Fifty of the most celebrated heroes of Greece join in the expedition and from the name of the ship are called Argonauts. Mopsus took auguries, and, when the omens were favorable the heroes embarked. Tiphys, to whom the invention of the rudder is attributed, was steersman. To the music of his voice Orpheus added the notes of his lyre, in unison with which the heroes kept time by the dip of the oar.

The voyage is replete with incident, and mortals and immortals associate on the most familiar terms. Among the heroes we find the names of Castor and Pollux, brothers to that fair Helen whose beauty has been embalmed in deathless song. On the death of these youths they were placed in the constellation Gemini, and ever after had power over winds and waves. It was for this reason that they were regarded with reverential awe by the mariners of the East, who never failed to invoke their aid in the hour of danger. Their images were borne on some part of the ship or were painted on the side of the prow. That this beautiful tissue has been wrought upon a foundation of sober truth there can be no doubt; and it is curious to observe how one, at least, of the superstitions of the period, or rather the trace thereof, has been transmitted through all these ages even to our own times. After his shipwreck on the island of Melita (Malta) St. Paul departed in a ship of Alexandria, “whose sign was Castor and Pollux.” It is this primitive custom of the seaman adorning the prow of his ship with the effigy of some favorite hero, whether of gods or of men, that has come down to the present day. The Goddess of Liberty is a favorite emblem for the figure-head of ships in our mercantile marine; the head of Philip, king of Macedon, carved in wood, graced in years gone by, the “prow” of the frigate Macedonian, and is still in excellent preservation at the Naval Academy; while the intellectual brow of Benjamin Franklin, in effigy, now forms the figure-head of what was, in her day, the finest ship of our navy. How the speculative mind of Lord Macaulay’s New Zealander would regard these emblems should they be exhumed in his day, and how curiously the lives of the philosopher, the goddess, and the warrior may be blended in verse, must be left to the Homeric days of the future.

The next naval expedition worthy of note was that undertaken by all the great heroes of Greece (1193 B.C.) for the recovery of Helen, wife to Menelaus, who had been abducted by Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy. The fleet which bore the Grecian hosts to the Trojan shore is fully catalogued and partially described by Homer, and such is his fidelity to truth that he is often quoted by writers of antiquity as an authority for historical facts.

Great Agamemnon rules the numerous band.

High on the deck the King of Men appears

And his refulgent arms in triumph wears;

Proud of his host, unrivall’d in his reign,

In silent pomp he moves along the main.

The following portrait, drawn as it is by the hand of a master, will answer for any great leader of any age or clime, more particularly if we render it in a moral rather than in a physical sense.

The King of Kings, majestically tall,

Towers o’er his armies and outshines they all.

Great as the gods th’ Exalted Chief was seen,

His strength like Neptune, and like Mars his mien.

Jove o’er his eyes celestial glories spread,

And dawning conquest played around his head.

The largest vessels of the fleet were those of Boeotia.—

Full fifty ships they send and each conveys

Twice sixty warriors through the foaming seas.

The smallest were those of the division commanded by Philoctetes.

Seven were his ships; each vessel fifty row.

These latter were known as pente-konters. The fleet numbered altogether twelve hundred vessels. They were so light as to be readily hauled up on the beach, generally stern first; were propelled by oars and, when the wind was favorable, by sails, and are frequently described as of a “sable hue.”

“Who landed first lay highest on the shore.”

That a punishment similar to “flogging through the fleet,” at one time admitted by the severe discipline of the British Navy, was not unknown to the Greeks may be fairly inferred from the following: Thersites, “loquacious, loud and turbulent of tongue,” for discoursing in a highly insubordinate strain of the commander-in-chief, is severely reproved by Ulysses:

With indignation sparkling in his eyes.

He views the wretch and sternly thus replies.

“Gods! let me perish on this hateful shore

And let these eyes behold my son no more;

If, on thy next offence, this hand forbear

To strip those arms thou ill deserv’st to wear;

Expel the council where our princes meet,

And send thee, scourg’d and howling through the fleet.”

Helen, standing on the Trojan walls, names over to old Priam the heroes from beyond the Aegean Sea, as they are now seen on the adjacent plain, and sadly bemoans the absence of her brothers, whose fate has been already told.

Yet two are wanting of the numerous train,

Whom long my eyes have sought, but sought in vain.

Perhaps the chiefs, from warlike toils at ease

For distant Troy refus’d to sail the seas;

Perhaps their sword some nobler quarrel draws,

Asham’d to combat in their sister’s cause.

So spoke the fair, nor knew her brothers’ doom,

Wrapt in the cold embraces of the tomb:

Adorn’d with honors in their native shore,

Silent they slept, and heard of wars no more.

Translated from an earthly grave, tradition tells of their glistening soon after from their bright spheres above, keeping their ceaseless vigils over the seaman in his perils by the sea.

But it is time to leave these scenes and speed our way down the course of time. The seamen of Gennesareth were blessed in seeing a brighter light than ever streamed from heavenly constellation. They were taught to invoke a stronger power than that of Castor and Pollux, and in their extremity to cry, and not in vain, “Save, Lord, or we perish!” Since that blessed day the mariner has, in deed and in truth, looked to Heaven to guide him on his way along the treacherous deep. And what navigator, so cold of heart, so undiscerning as to contemplate the “spangled heavens” and see, in fancy, that great system of spherics, on the correct solution of which his art and his safety alike depend, without a feeling of awe, mingled with admiration, for the grandeur of the design and the inconceivable wisdom of the Great Architect of all.

The history of navies, or of naval architecture, does not commonly go back to the Ark; and yet there is a curious fact to be noticed with regard to the dimensions of that structure as given by the Divine Architect. About 4000 years ago God said to Noah, “Make thee an ark of gopher wood.” “The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits and the height of it thirty cubits.” In terms of breadth this gives six times the breadth for the length, and six-tenths of the breadth for the depth. In the early part of the seventeenth century a Dutch merchant named Peter Jansen caused a vessel to be built on the same proportions. Though much laughed at by the community in which he lived, he found that his vessel would carry about one-third more than any other with which he could compare her, and yet employ no more hands. The best line-of-battle ships of the French at the beginning of the present century (the most scientific ship-builders of that day) did not quite reach four times their beam for their length. Our own Ohio, considered the finest line-of-battle ship of her day (1820), was 198 feet long, 50.4 feet beam and 40.6 feet deep, less than four breadths in length. The Great Republic, however, one of the most perfect specimens of naval architecture of modern times, was 325 feet long, 53 feet beam and 39 feet deep. Allowing for overhang, etc., will bring the general proportions of this splendid ship very nearly to those of the ark and a little over one-fifth of the tonnage—proportions which have, only at this late day, become recognized as the best for wooden sailing ships.

It has been finely observed that on the shores of the Mediterranean were the four great empires of the world: the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian and the Roman. “All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.” It was on the eastern shores of that sea, too, that commerce and navigation took their rise and where navies had their birth. Ocean commerce and navigation are in a certain sense the parents of navies, and it will be found in the history of the world that where nations have cultivated and fostered the former, the latter have sprung into existence as a natural sequence, the one giving wealth and power to the possessor, the other position and influence. “Commerce follows the flag” may be more properly rendered, “The flag follows commerce.”

About 1635 years B.C. the dying patriarch Jacob gathered for the last time his many sons about him. His bodily eye was dim with age, but with the unfading eye of faith he looked into the great womb of futurity and mingled prophesy with his last blessing: “Zebulon shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships and his border shall be unto Sidon.”

It was indeed from Phenicia, a narrow strip of land lying between the mountains of Lebanon and the sea, that the earlier mariners sprung. Rich in all the products favorable to maritime enterprise and bordering on a vast empire, Sidon, and afterwards Tyre, its principal ports, became the great commercial centers of the world. Stimulated by success, the Phenicians pushed their enterprise westward, founding colonies and establishing trading posts wherever lured by the hope of gain. The inspired writers afford abundant evidence that they were not ignorant in those days of the value of foreign commerce. After telling of the great wealth of Solomon the sacred narrative continues: “It was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon, for the King had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks, so King Solomon exceeded all the kings of the earth for riches and for wisdom.” The navies t of the two kings were united in distant voyages, partly to the western coast of the Mediterranean as far as Spain, vaguely described under the name of Tharshish, and partly from the two ports of the Red Sea to the shores of Arabia and possibly of India. The latter navy traded chiefly to Ophir. Again in Chronicles: “And Hiram sent him by the hands of his servants ships and servants that had knowledge of the sea: and they went with the servants of Solomon to Ophir and took thence four hundred and fifty talents of gold and brought them to King Solomon” (B.C. 1015 to 975). The prophet Ezekiel gives a glowing description of the wealth and importance of Tyre. The picture there drawn is heightened in effect by the lofty tone of the prophet enriched by the imagery of the eastern tongue: “O Tyrus that art situate at the entry of the sea, which art a merchant of the people of many isles. Thus saith the Lord God: ‘Thy borders are in the midst of the sea, the builders have perfected thy beauty. They have made all thy ship boards of fir trees of Senir: they have taken cedars from Lebanon to make masts for thee. Of the oaks of Bashan have they made thine oars: the company of the Ashurites have made thy benches of ivory, brought out of the isles of Chittim.'” “Fine Hnen with broidered work from Egypt was that which thou spreadest forth to be thy sail: blue and purple from the isles of Elishah was that which covered thee. The inhabitants of Zidon and Arvad were thy mariners: they, wise men, O Tyrus, that were in thee were thy pilots,” etc. It is from Sidon and Tyre—Tyre, the modern town of Soor or Sur, about thirty miles to north’ard of Acre in Palestine—that we trace, as from original sources, navigation, seamanship and all that pertains to the mariner’s art. From Tyre the Phenicians established a colony at Carthage, which in its turn became the great commercial centre of the world, and in its day (B.C. 878 to 480) the greatest city of Africa and the rival of Rome itself. Still passing westward, navigation reached Cartagena and the Pillars of Hercules, great nations springing up in its course. Greece held her empire for a while to be succeeded by Imperial Rome. Venice from her dank marshes, her scattered isles and salt trade became mistress of the seas and monopolized the ocean trade, only to be disputed in time by the Genoese.

Passing thence to Portugal and Spain, to Holland and Britain, till finally, gathering strength and boldness, navigation shot out over the vast wilderness of unknown waters to find new shores for still greater empires: opening out new fields of commerce, discovering riches undreamed of by Avarice, effecting a revolution in navigation and in ship-building, and at one great stride bringing mankind to a degree of culture and refinement—a higher civilization, with all its attendant blessings, which could only have been anticipated by Prescience itself.

From that blessed night when, under the soft Syrian skies, the wondering shepherds heard angel voices heralding our Lord, no event has been so pregnant of results to the world’s history as that which transpired at the little port of Palos in 1492. On the third day of August of that year the Santa Maria, bearing the flag of the High Admiral, Columbus, and leading the Pinta and Nina, sailed thence and marked a new era in the world’s age. Thus the colony of the Phoenicians in its turn sends out its navy to found new colonies. It is when taking this view of the tide of events that we are impressed with the truth and beauty of Bishop Berkely’s celebrated line—Westward the course of empire takes its way.

In this great onward march navies have been the untiring pioneers, showing that the paths of the seas have ever been the paths of human progress and civilization. As the discovery of new shores rewarded the adventurous boldness of the seaman, new colonies sprung up, and the same navies that had led to their foundation would be there to protect and foster their young energies—securing the merchant in the peaceful pursuit of legitimate trade and protecting his argosies from plunder on the seas. Such has been the grand role of navies. Such it continues to be. Well had it been for mankind, humanly speaking, could their sphere have been limited to the fields of peaceful commerce. The course of empire is unhappily marked by a trail of blood. Navies have, but too often, been prostituted to the uses of unscrupulous princes for the subjugation of weaker states; for the acquisition of wealth and territory by a species of national or state piracy, and not infrequently by even so-called Christian powers as the ultimo ratio regum.

The ocean commerce of the Phenicians constituted the great nursery of seamen, and led subsequently to the formation of the powerful navy of Carthage. Phenician seamen were employed as mercenaries and were to be found in no inconsiderable numbers in the Persian and other fleets. But there was another kind of pursuit which, while it gave rise to a race of bold and practiced seamen, was itself the active and immediate cause of the establishment of navies. It was piracy.

The Aegean sea was ploughed by the piratical galley of many an isle; and many a Grecian chief owed his wealth to that source of livelihood. Menelaus, in the Odyssey, displays his treasures and boasts of the manner in which they were gained. Piracy, so far from being deemed dishonorable, was rather reckoned to one’s credit. But to those who were not pirates this mode of acquiring property was, at the least, inconvenient. Thus Thucydides, in speaking of the earlier Greeks, remarks that “Minos, king of Crete, was the most ancient of all with whom we are acquainted by report, that acquired a navy and swept piracy from the sea, as much as he could, for the better coming in of his revenues.” The Cretan navy became formidable in its day, but having fulfilled its ends was subsequently overshadowed by the more powerful fleets of Athens and Peloponnesus.

Of other navies we have hints in the following: “The most ancient sea fight with which we are acquainted,” writes Thucydides (B.C. 403), “was fought between the Corinthians and the Corcyraeans.” “For the Corinthians having their city situated on an isthmus had always possessed an emporium and obtained the title of ‘wealthy,’ and when the Greeks began to make more voyages, having got their ships, they put down piracy.” “And the lonians afterward had a large navy in the time of Cyrus, the first king of the Persians, and Cambyses his sen; and while at war with Cyrus, commanded the sea along their coast for some time.”

“Polycrates also, tyrant of Samos in the time of Cambyses, having a strong fleet, both made some other of the islands subject to him and took Rhenea and dedicated it to the Delian Apollo. And the Phoceans, while founding Massalia (Marseilles), conquered the Carthaginians in a sea-fight.”

“These were the strongest of their navies and the last that are worth mentioning established in Greece before the expedition of Xerxes” (Thucydides).

This brings us down to the period of Greek civilization, when it had reached its highest level, and when the navies of Greece had attained their most thorough state of efficiency.

It will be our endeavor at some future time to give brief sketch of the Athenian navy, one of the most notable of all the navies of antiquity.

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