Archive for the ‘Online Primary Sources’ Category

Sailing Directions/Pilots

July 16, 2019

These comprehensive compendiums of local coasts offer far more information/detail that what is available on a sea chart. As of this writing, the British Library has 271 of these available online, the earliest one I can find dating from 1803. They range from a few dozen pages to hundreds of pages. “These were originally compiled from first-hand reports and descriptions of the coasts primarily from British ships, but also used data from foreign charts and publications where British sailors had not yet navigated.” (source) They make for fascinating reading: this 1864 sailing direction for the Gulf of St Lawrence includes a quotation from one Captain Bayfield concerning the swift currents on entering the Gulf; it also includes warnings about icebergs coming down the river even in the summer and the danger of dense fog.(13-14)

For the United States, NOAA hosts Historical Map & Chart Collection featuring hundreds of coast pilots. The earliest one I can find here is the 9th edition (1817) of the American Coast Pilot; it is over 400 pages long. NOAA also offers free current coast pilots that are updated on a regular basis. Here is one for New Jersey where I now reside; some of the New Jersey harbors and ports are also discussed in this pilot.

HathiTrust offers over 400 full-text sailing directions from both American and British hydrographic offices. Using the term “American coast pilot” yields almost 2000 volumes.


U.S. Navy Communiques, 1941-1945

June 13, 2019

Communiques and various press releases dated December 10, 1941 through May 24, 1945 are available online. One can trace the westward progress of U.S. forces by these tersely written memos. The first volume covers December 10, 1941 through March 5, 1943; the second volume contains messages from March 6, 1943 through May 24, 1945.

Online Primary Sources: Matthew Flinders

May 16, 2019

If one looks at the Gazetteer of Australia and inputs the term “Flinders”, you are greeted by hundreds of place names from Cape Flinders to Flinders Bay to Flinders Island. What could be the reason for this multitudinous proliferation of this name? Could it be that they are all in honor of Captain Matthew Flinders, the Royal Navy officer who circumnavigated Australia while simultaneously charting and describing the land and its flora and fauna?

He had a remarkable, but short, life; he lived long enough to see his major work published before he died.

Some of his extraordinarily detailed maps (or maps based on his observations) can be found here. His magnum opus – A Voyage to Terra Australis (1814) – volume 1 and volume 2is online. Other published material include Observations upon the Marine Barometer, made during the Examination of the Coasts of New Holland and New South Wales, in the Years 1801, 1802, and 1803, Philosophical Transactions, 96(1806): 239-266, and his biography of his beloved cat Trim – A biographical tribute to the memory of Trim(1804).

The Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 3(1895) -7(1901),  provide a rich contextual background of official documents and sources detailing Flinders’ actions.

The Flinders Papers are an absolute treasure trove of missives between Flinders and other luminaries of the day, such as Joseph Banks. The glossaries themselves are well-researched and by themselves prove to be a valuable tools. This is a site built with love and affection for this individual.

Sir Edward Scott’s The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders (1914), besides being based on primary/archival sources, also has a list starting on p. 465 of all the names Flinders gave to Australian coastal features.

His biographical memoir can be located in The Naval Chronicle, 32(July – December, 1814):177-191.

Commissioned paintings of his exploits along with additional Flinders-related objects, such as his sea chest, can be found here.

World War II Royal Navy Interviews

April 11, 2019

This BBC site contains over 2500 interviews with those who served in the Royal Navy in its various theaters of operations. This feature also houses hundreds of relevant photographs. Reminiscences range from a commanding officer of an MTB to the sinking of the Scharnhorst. You can positively smell the sea in these stories!

Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation by Richard Hakluyt

October 16, 2018

This multi-volume work has been re-issued and re-published over the centuries. The version I am employing is a clean, easy-to-use rendition. This lecture –  “How to read Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations” – is a most bracing analysis.

The Hakluyt Society re-published this original work in a 12-part series between 1903 and 1905. Most of the volumes are here in sequential order; the only missing volume (#7) is here.

Hakluyt sold his work and unfinished manuscripts to Samuel Puchas, who continued in Hakluyt’s tradition and published Hakluytus Posthumus , or, Puchas his Pilgrimes.

Early Naval Confrontations Between the British and the Spanish

October 9, 2018

This blog has already examined the Spanish Armada, but there were other engagements between these opponents in the late 16th century. Volume 7 of the Principal Navigations, is devoted to England’s Naval Exploits Against Spain; it details various encounters ranging from the Azores to Gibraltar. (The Armada is represented by a couple of sources as well.)

Online Primary Sources: British Naval Treaties

August 15, 2018

What I present here is not totally comprehensive, but these tools do give access to the full-text of multiple naval treaties extending back centuries; one is easy to navigate, the other is rougher sailing. (Puns intended)

The long-running British and Foreign States Papers is a veritable treasure trove of information that should be of interest to those devotees of the Age of Sail. Some of the primary sources located therein include treaties, correspondence, speeches, papers, declarations, manifestos, and conferences; the writings are arranged chronologically by state. This listing I am using has an almost complete run from 1812 – 1922. It takes a little effort to tease out what you want, but the time is so worth it. For example, there are several multi-year indexes published that will assist you; here is the index for volumes 1-42, that includes the years 1373 – 1853. (Yes, just like the heavily-used Naval Chronicle, prior years are included in the coverage; most of the earlier entries are found in volume 1.) There is a chronological listing of all documents that comprises the beginning pages of this tome; by scanning the list, one can pick out the treaties entered into agreement among Great Britain and other parties. For example, I picked out on page 2 of the index the peace/commerce treaty signed between Great Britain and Algeria. The reference was to volume 1, page 354, and I found the full text of the treaty there. It is a little awkward, but it does yield results. Another way of discovering pertinent sources is to search within the index volume by utilizing the “search in this text” box located on the upper right of the page. Using the text search results in over 400 hits for the word “peace” and numerous ones for “commerce” or “naval”.

A more direct approach is found through British Treaties Online that offers treaties enacted between 1835 and the present. It must be noted that this site does NOT present the full text of all the treaties but again, enough are present to satisfy most researchers. And if the treaty is not here, you are directed to a paper source that does have it. There are multiple access points to allow for very specific searching; using the term “naval” elicited over 50 hits, the word “maritime” garnered 111.

A List of Those Who Fought at Trafalgar

August 7, 2018

We owe a great deal to The Trafalgar roll : containing the names and services of all officers of the Royal navy and the Royal marines who participated in the glorious victory of the 21st October 1805, together with a history of the ships engaged in battle (1913; repr 1969) for its attempt to have a complete reckoning of all the officers who fought for Great Britain.

A more modern and inclusive approach is realized with Trafalgar Ancestors, an online, growing database containing information on the 18,000 men (and one woman) who were present at Trafalgar. Unlike the Trafalgar roll, this interactive resource has searched through disparate records to also include the ships’ crews as well. In addition, if any biographical information can be culled from these sources, this information is also provided. There are numerous access points into this database, allowing for sophisticated retrievals. For example, Cuthbert Collingwood’s service records can be traced from when he was rated as an able seaman in 1761 to when he served as Vice Admiral of the Blue at Trafalgar, and beyond. Active links direct you to the appropriate ADM files most of which are not available online, but this does provide you with an accurate inventory of what you might want to request at the National Archives. And speaking of able seamen, William Abraham’s records give an insight into his service as well; almost 3500 able seamen have their lives recorded here. A great resource allowing us a peek into ordinary seamen’s lives as well as fleshing out commissioned and non-commissioned officers’ careers.



18th Century British Assessment of European Navies

August 1, 2018

As more documents are placed online courtesy of the Georgian Papers Online project, the presence of European forces in the writings of the sovereigns and their correspondents becomes more evident. here are a few examples: “State of the Spanish Navy at the several periods undermentioned viz [1762-1764]”; “Les Armées Navales de Danemare [1764]; “Etat des Departements des Classes”[1752]; “A List of the Portuguese Fleet 1770”; “State of the Russian Navy June 1st 1772″; and “Armée Navale (French Navy) [1779].

You do not have to be an expert in diplomatics or paleography (I studied both back in the day) to tease out some valuable information from these documents, even those in French. Some of the documents reveal how sophisticated the intelligence-gathering apparati of the time were. For example, in some of the above, you can find out when a ship was built, where it was built, the wood used in its construction, whether it was “cut down” from an 80 to a 74, the captain’s name, and its current condition.