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A Sea of Misadventures

Shipwreck and Survival in Early America

Amy Mitchell-Cook

Publication Year: 2013

A Sea of Misadventures examines more than one hundred documented shipwreck narratives from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century as a means to understanding gender, status, and religion in the history of early America. Though it includes all the drama and intrigue afforded by maritime disasters, the book’s significance lies in its investigation of how the trauma of shipwreck affected American values and behavior. Through stories of death and devastation, Amy Mitchell-Cook examines issues of hierarchy, race, and gender when the sphere of social action is shrunken to the dimensions of a lifeboat or deserted shore. Rather than debate the veracity of shipwreck tales, Mitchell-Cook provides a cultural and social analysis that places maritime disasters within the broader context of North American society. She answers questions that include who survived and why, how did gender or status affect survival rates, and how did survivors relate their stories to interested but unaffected audiences? Mitchell-Cook observes that, in creating a sense of order out of chaotic events, the narratives reassured audiences that anarchy did not rule the waves, even when desperate survivors resorted to cannibalism. Some of the accounts she studies are legal documents required by insurance companies, while others have been a form of prescriptive literature—guides that taught survivors how to act and be remembered with honor. In essence, shipwreck revealed some of the traits that defined what it meant to be Anglo-American. In an elaboration of some of the themes, Mitchell-Cook compares American narratives with Portuguese narratives to reveal the power of divergent cultural norms to shape so basic an event as a shipwreck.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press

Series: Studies in Maritime History


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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-6

List of Illustrations

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pp. vi-7

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pp. vii-viii

The image of shipwreck has long been a part of recorded history. Every maritime society collected tales relating to maritime disasters, castaways, and those who simply disappeared. The horror of shipwreck, the excitement in the human drama, and a fascination with faraway lands riveted readers as doomed sailors and passengers prayed for divine mercy. ...

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pp. ix-x

This book would not be possible but for the numerous individuals who offered their support. First and foremost I would like to thank William Pencak, Anne Rose, Matthew Restall, and Lorraine Dowler at Penn State University for their advice, support, and invaluable criticisms. ...

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pp. 1-8

Life at sea was never easy. Extreme weather conditions, hard work, bad food, and dangerous working conditions made even a calm day difficult. Many sailors lamented their time at sea. Some acted out with drinking or violence, others deserted at the first possible chance, and yet a few turned inward and wrote letters or kept journals. ...

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1. Fact or Fiction? The Publication of American Shipwreck Narratives

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pp. 9-28

Survivors of shipwrecks often wrote about their experiences, and they did so for a variety of reasons—to make money, to demonstrate God’s presence, or simply to find a sense of closure. Beyond such personal motives, these narratives furnished excitement and adventure as well as practical suggestions concerning proper survival behavior that authors hoped would appeal to eager audiences. ...

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2. The Legalities of Loss, Wreck, and Ruin

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pp. 29-50

Shipwreck was a fact of life for all maritime cultures. Although these catastrophic events often happened beyond the sight of land, the consequences of such failures had far-ranging repercussions. Vessels not only carried precious cargoes of human life but also represented financial investments for owners, underwriters, and insurance companies. ...

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3. God, Nature, and the Role of Religion in Shipwreck

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pp. 51-71

An 1834 collection of shipwreck accounts suggests that “nowhere more, than in the dangers of the sea do we find the Hand of Providence.”2 The event of shipwreck forced individuals to face the fragility of their own mortality, and the narratives provided an excellent format for revealing the wonders of God’s abilities or for reaffirming the all-powerful forces of nature. ...

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4. They Worked Like Horses but Behaved Like Men

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pp. 72-96

The sea affords an excellent arena for understanding the concept of masculinity. Sailors often entered the maritime world at a young age, and they quickly learned acceptable standards of behavior and created familial allegiances at sea.2 ...

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5. To Honor Their Worth, Beauty, and Accomplishments

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pp. 97-112

According to traditional scholarship, women rarely went to sea. Nineteenth-century concepts of separate spheres supposedly kept women tied to home and family while men explored the vast oceans. Romantic views of wives waiting anxiously for returning husbands and issues of a proper middle-class behavior distorted historians’ depictions of women’s place in the maritime world.2 ...

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6. Chaos and Cannibalism on the High Seas

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pp. 113-133

Disaster situations allowed participants a level of flexibility with regard to behavior, when they were no longer bound by conventional social constraints. And yet disasters rarely led to total disruption; rather after an initial period of confusion the victims sought any means available to reestablish social order. ...

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7. Portuguese Narratives: A Comparative Perspective

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pp. 134-155

Printed Portuguese narratives, though written almost a century or more earlier than the English and American accounts, provide a useful comparative model for understanding the major themes of shipwreck narratives: gender, status, and religion. In addition Portuguese narratives express a different national and religious identity from English and American publications. ...

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pp. 156-160

Though shipwrecks often occurred out of sight of land, they nonetheless affected those at home. Friends and families lost loved ones, and merchants and owners faced financial losses when ships went to the bottom of the sea. ...


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pp. 161-196


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pp. 197-222


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pp. 223-228

E-ISBN-13: 9781611173024
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611173017

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Studies in Maritime History