A Brief History
On December 1, 1768, the Danish ship Fredensborg sank in a storm off the coast of Norway on her return trip from a death filled delivery of slaves to St. Croix in the Caribbean. Today we list 10 Infamous Ships that either served an evil purpose or were particularly unlucky, and are remembered today with less than fond memories. (Note: the RMS Titanic and SS Edmund Fitzgerald are TOO obvious!)
1. Fredensborg, Denmark/Norway.
Originally named Cron Prindz Christian after the heir apparent to the throne of Norway/Denmark, her last cargo of slaves was picked up at Ghana in Africa and delivered to the Caribbean. Her cargo of 265 slaves was reduced by 30 deaths along the voyage, and Fredensborg lost 12 of her crew of 40 to illness as well. Being a slave ship is bad enough, and losing so many people on a voyage is pretty unlucky, but then sinking in a storm just shy of arriving at port in Norway on the return trip puts the icing on the proverbial cake (2 crew and 1 passenger died). The wreck was discovered by divers in 1974, and the Fredensborg is considered the most thoroughly documented slave ship in history, contributing to its infamy.
2. USS Cyclops, United States.
A US Navy collier (coal carrying ship), Cyclops disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle without a trace in 1918, taking with her all 306 people aboard. Commissioned in 1917, Cyclops was rather new, with a length of 542 feet and a beam of 65 feet. She departed Rio De Janeiro in February 1918 with a cargo of manganese ore, and her loss was unnoticed until she was late for arrival in Baltimore. No signal, radio or otherwise, had been received indicating any sort of problem. Weather did not account for her disappearance, and no German submarine activity in the area could account for her loss. Perhaps a structural weakness in her design may have resulted in the ship suddenly breaking in 2, as other ships of her class had later experienced structural problems, or perhaps the reason for her disappearance is more curious. A tantalizing bit of information about this unlucky ship concerns her captain, George Worley. Investigation into the loss of the Cyclops found that the captain’s real name was Johann Fredrick Wichmann, born in Hanover, Germany in 1862! Worley/Wichmann was known as a tyrannical captain prone to excessive punishment for trivial offenses. This information about the skipper only adds to the conspiracy theories about the loss of Cyclops.
3. Medusa (Meduse), France.
A French frigate commissioned in 1810, she was on her way to Senegal to reestablish French rule in 1816 after the restoration of the French Crown. Captained by an inept sailor who had not been to sea in 2 decades, the warship modified for carrying passengers and cargo by reducing her armament struck the bottom at the Banc de Arguin off the coast of Africa, causing the loss of the ship. The 400 people aboard (240 passengers, including the new Governor of Senegal, and 160 crewmen) entered the ship’s boats, but without enough room for everyone in the boats, 147 people (1 woman) were forced to go aboard a makeshift raft (20 meters by 7 meters) towed behind the boats, while 17 people stayed aboard the doomed ship. The raft was low in the water, with the deck awash, and instead of fresh water the casks taken on the raft contained wine. A lack of food and provisions made the people on the raft panic in fear, causing those people in the boats (including the new Governor) to cut the raft loose, fearing the people on the raft would overwhelm the longboats in their panic. The raft floated in a nightmarish voyage of fighting among its occupants, sailors and soldiers pitted against civilian passengers, and the first night 20 people were already dead, either washed overboard or in fighting for a position near the center of the raft. By the 4th day only 67 people were left, and those had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. On the 8th day, the fittest 15 men threw the other people overboard, and those 15 survived the last 4 days of the horrible voyage when they were rescued by a passing ship. Of the survivors of the Raft of the Medusa, 5 more died within a few days after being rescued. The horrifying incident became an international scandal and provided the inspiration for one of history’s most famous nautical paintings, The Raft of the Medusa, by Theodore Gericault in 1818-1819.
4. Queen Anne’s Revenge, Pirate.
Several pirate ships are well known to fans of thievery at sea, such as Adventure Galley, Fancy, Whydah, and the privateer Golden Hind, but the most infamous pirate, Edward Teach, better known by his nom de guerre, Blackbeard, was the captain of the most iconic of all pirate ships, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Believed to have been built in 1710 as the Concord, the ship is small compared to the others on this list, only 103 feet long and 24.6 feet wide, although she was crammed with 40 cannons. Captured by Blackbeard in 1717, she served as his flagship for only a year, but during that year she captured many prizes, including Dutch, Portuguese, and British ships. Queen Anne’s Revenge met an ignominious fate in 1718 when she was run aground off the coast of North Carolina, with Blackbeard, his crew, and the ship’s cargo transferred to Blackbeard’s other ships, including Adventure. During the Golden Age of Piracy, the pirate ships, being somewhat smaller than warships, would sail the shallows to avoid confrontation with the heavier men of war. The wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge is in water only 28 feet deep, and 31 of her cannons have been recovered. Over a quarter million relics have also been salvaged from the wreck. The wreck was not discovered until 1996, and the cannon recovered have origins in several countries, not surprising for a pirate ship. The wreck site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
5. Mary Celeste, United States.
An American brigantine launched in 1861 (as the), she is most infamous for being found adrift and devoid of any human passengers or crew off the Azores in 1872. The ship appeared to be hastily abandoned, but no one today knows why. Under partial sail and seaworthy, her lifeboat was missing along with her passengers and crew, with the last log book entry made 10 days prior to her being found by the Canadian ship Dei Gratia. Investigation failed to reveal the cause for the Mary Celeste to be found abandoned at sea, creating mass speculation, rumors, and mystery. Salvaged and back in British service, in 1885 Mary Celeste was deliberately run aground in an attempt at insurance fraud, a sad ending to one of the greatest mysteries of the sea.
Amoco Cadiz, United States.
Classified a “very large crude carrier” (VLCC) the Cadiz belonged to the Amoco Oil Company, formerly Standard Oil of Indiana, one of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil spin-offs (Headquartered in Chicago). Stretching 1095.0 feet long with a beam of 167.5 feet, the massive ship displaced an incredible 233,690 Dead Weight Tons, drawing 65 feet of water. While 16 miles off the Britany Coast of France in 1978, Cadiz turned hard to avoid another ship when her rudder became jammed all the way to port. The captain cut the engines, but a stiff breeze blew the huge tanker 6 miles closer to the shore, an overmatched tug boat unable to stop the tanker’s drift. An attempt to drop anchor failed when the anchor flukes broke. When the towrope broke, disaster loomed. The captain put his engines full astern, but the drift to shore could not be stopped. The bottom of Cadiz was ripped open by rocks, and the entire cargo of 65 million gallons of crude oil was spilled into the ocean, contaminating 200 miles of French coastline. (In barrels, the number is 1.6 million, or by weight about 220,000 tons of oil!) As a “bonus,” another 400,000 gallons of fuel oil was also spilled into the sea. The enormous ship, only 3 years old, broke in half and the ship was lost, although the entire crew escaped alive. This is the biggest tanker related oil spill to date.
7. USS Thresher, United States.
Many submarines have been lost due to accidents rather than enemy action, in both peace time and wartime (with the CSS Hunley actually sinking twice before her final third sinking during the US Civil War!), and some have even been thought to have sunk themselves by malfunctioning torpedoes that turned in a circle and struck the sub that fired them. The USS Thresher, lost with all 129 hands during a training mission off the coast of Massachusetts in 1963 is one of the most famous of those unlucky subs. The Thresher was the first nuclear powered submarine ever lost at sea, and remains the deadliest submarine sinking in history (the loss of the Russian submarine, Kursk, in 2000 with 118 fatalities being the second worst). The stunning disaster of the loss of Thresher led to a massive revamping of US Navy submarine safety policy. At the time of her loss, Thresher was the most advanced submarine in the world.
8. HMAV Bounty, Great Britain.
Bounty is famous for the worst of reasons, the well documented mutiny by its crew against the tyrannical Captain William Bligh (played so well by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard, and Anthony Hopkins in the 3 major films about the ship and its mutiny). On a mission to the tropical Pacific island of Tahiti to gather breadfruit to transport to the Caribbean for potential use as a food staple, the Bounty was modified with a glass greenhouse at the stern to house the plants on the return to the Caribbean. A smallish merchant ship, Bounty was only 90 feet long and 24 feet wide, with a crew of 44, originally built as a collier named Bethia in 1787. Purchased by the Royal Navy expressly for the purpose of transporting breadfruit plants, Bounty had a rough voyage to the Pacific, causing much unrest among the crew. After a miserable 10 month voyage, Bounty reached Tahiti where the crew found paradise! An idyllic land with beautiful, friendly women, the men were loathe to leave when the orders came from Captain Bligh 6 months after arrival. On April 28, 1789, mutiny broke out when the ship was 1300 miles West of Tahiti. Captain Bligh and some loyal men were cast adrift in a small boat, eventually making a harrowing and amazing 47 day and 3500 mile voyage to the safety of the island of Timor. The mutineers sailed back to Tahiti, dropped off 16 of their number, picked up supplies and the women willing to go with them, and the 9 remaining mutineers settled on Pitcairn Island, burning the ill-fated Bounty to destroy evidence of their treachery. In 1808 an American seal hunting ship landed at Pitcairn Island and found only 1 mutineer left alive. The wreck of the Bounty was discovered in 1957 and numerous relics have been removed. The Bounty is easily the most notorious ship known for the mutiny of her crew.
9. Bismarck and Tirpitz, Germany.
Both ships were to be the pride of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) under the Third Reich, launched in 1940 and 1941 respectively. Sporting thick armor, powerful engines, and a main armament of 8 X 15 inch guns, these battleships would rival the best the British could muster, and the Tirpitz, being about 2000 tons heavier than Bismarck, was the heaviest European battleship ever built. German leader Adolf Hitler was well known for lusting after the biggest and most powerful weapons, but the enormous expense in money, materials, and man/hours that went into these ships could have been far better spent on building more submarines. Intended to sink British and American cargo ships, neither ship ever sank its intended prey. The Bismarck did sink the British battlecruiser Hood, before being overwhelmed by British torpedo planes and a vast fleet, but the Tirpitz never got to fight another ship, her only offensive “combat” being some shore bombardment. Kept out of the open seas by British airpower, Tirpitz spent almost her entire career hiding in Norwegian fjords, finally succumbing to massive bombs dropped by Lancaster bombers in 1944. (Dishonorable mention to the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi, the largest and heaviest armed battleships ever built that hardly contributed to the Japanese war effort in World War II, both ships being damaged by submarines and airplanes before being sunk by US airpower.)
10. USS Liberty, United States.
A Belmont class technical research ship, the Liberty, AGTR-5, was in reality a “spy” ship, made to gather electronic intelligence through radio intercepts. Liberty had started her service in 1945 as a Victory class cargo ship, named Simmons Victory, and was 456 feet long and 62 feet wide. Acquired by the US Navy in 1963, she began her new career as an auxiliary warship in 1964. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli 6 Day War, Liberty was stationed off the coast of Egypt gathering electronic intelligence when on June 8, 1967, she came under attack by motor torpedo boats and jet fighters of the Israeli Defense Forces, severely damaging the Liberty and causing the deaths of 34 of her crew (including sailors, Marines, and a civilian employee). Another 171 of the crew were wounded (of the complement of 358 men). Israel eventually “apologized” for the attack, claiming mistaken identity of the ship. Liberty survivors vehemently discredited such accounts, noting that the ship was flying an American flag and was clearly marked as American. Perhaps the lack of return fire from the 4 X .50 caliber machine guns carried (armed and manned at the time of the attack) on the Liberty should have been a clue to the Israelis! Although the order to cease fire on the Liberty was given to Israeli forces 24 minutes before the torpedo boats arrived on the scene, one of those torpedo boats fired a torpedo that struck the Liberty, causing even more damage and death. The attacks lasted a little over half an hour, and included strafing the Liberty with 30mm cannon fire and dropping napalm bombs on the hapless ship. Survivors of the incident remain somewhat bitter about the attack, and frequently express disbelief about Israeli mistaken identification. Liberty was taken to Malta for temporary repairs, and then sailed to the US where she was decommissioned. The attack on the Liberty remains a highly controversial and emotional subject to this day, over 50 years later.
Question for students (and subscribers): What ships would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Svalesen, Leif. The Slave Ship Fredensborg. Indiana University Press, 2000.