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Maritime History on the Internet

It’s long, it’s rich, it’s loaded with legend, lore, and heroes galore.  Fortunately for us, maritime history on the internet means we’ve got 45,000 years of exploration, innovation, and epic tales of derring-do at our fingertips.

Like a seafaring voyage of discovery, an exploratory voyage of maritime history conducted on the internet can capture the attention of young and old.  Mechanical challenges, forces of nature, scientific discovery, the lure of the sea, the adrenaline rush of conquering unexpected danger, a desire to see exotic lands, and marvel at the immense majesty of the sea have kept maritime history alive and vibrant, evolving right alongside the history of man himself.  No two voyages is alike and every day at sea brings an unexpected event.  And there’s the almost-universal allure of a swashbuckling buccaneer to keep the interest alive, too.

The Ships

From the most rudimentary ancient rafts to the “unsinkable” engineering marvel we knew as the Titanic, some ships have earned a place in history as honored as the men who sailed them.  Some ships brought change to global culture while others brought change that turned the scientific community upside down.  Some ships will forever be a part of our history textbooks while others claim center stage in Hollywood, too.  Maritime history captures the imagination today just as it has done for thousands of years.

Types of Ships:  Engineering the Medieval Achievement / Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) History Department

The Power of Investigation:  The Titanic Disaster of 1912 / US Capitol Visitor Center

The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria / Johnson Space Center, NASA

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin - University of Massachusetts Harvard Classics Volume 29, Copyright 1909

HMS Bounty / The Mutiny’s Cause:  A New Analysis / Pacific Union College Pitcairn Islands Study Center

The People

The ships are the mechanical marvels but the people who manned them are the real heroes of history.  Some of history’s most famous ship captains discovered new continents while others re-discovered them with Earth-changing effect.  Modern-day ship captains have braved the Seven Seas to prove that ancient ship-building technologies accomplished more than we think they could have, bringing a wealth of archaeological knowledge to maritime knowledge while others became wealthy off the bounty of the seas.  And behind many a good ocean-going man sailed an equally adventurous woman.

Leif Ericson / Princeton University

Christopher Columbus:  Man and Myth / Library of Congress

Explorer Thor Heyerdahl Dies / BBC News

The Pirate and the Privateer:  A Comparative Study of Sir Frances Drake and Sir Henry Morgan

Women in Maritime History / National Park Service

The Competition

The competitive spirit knows no bounds on the High Seas, where there are no boundaries in sight for weeks and months on end.  There’s a lot of time to think of which boundary to push when surrounded by the briny deep.  For some men, the goal was to sail full circle, with no turning back.  Some wanted more of what somebody else had, be it exotic flavors that would sell for more than gold or gold itself.  Human cargo made the competitive spirit a dark force at both ends of the voyage but rough seas could make trouble for any ship, no matter the cargo, and a competitive spirit might have sank more than a few ships when the challenge was between arrogant man and the forces of nature.

The First English Circumnavigation - Royal Museums Greenwich National Maritime Museum

Spices:  How the Search for Flavors Influenced Our World / Yale University

The Beginning of Piracy 1450 - 1600

The Last Slave Ships

Down Like Lead:  400 Years of Florida Shipwrecks / Florida Museum of Natural History

The Discovery

Were the ancient Chinese technologically advanced enough to discover Africa by sea?  DId they use a magnetic compass to get there?  What now-common food supplement did Captain Cook discover that would keep sailors healthy and alive on even the longest sea voyages and why did British sailors become known as limeys?  What does maritime history have to do with reaching fabled land-locked points on a compass or shortcuts straight across massive continents?  What was it about the Americas that made such a big splash in Europe?

Ancient Chinese Explorers / PBS Nova

Captain Cook and the Scourge of Scurvy / BBC History

Discovery of the South Pole by Roald Amundsen / World History Database

The Search for the Northwest Passage / Washington Secretary of State

The Spanish and Portuguese Conquest of the Americas / San Jose State University

The Museums

Exploring maritime history on the internet is a great way to get the feet wet but, after a while, that may not be enough for many enthusiasts of maritime history.  Fortunately, there are outstanding museums, history centers, and research organizations that open doors to the public for a little more hands-on exploration of its maritime legacy.  Every continent in the world was changed forever by the result of maritime voyages of discovery and every continent has a museum devoted to the ships and sailors that made history in their harbors and on their shores.

The Australian Association for Maritime History

Center for Wooden Boats Maritime Museum, Seattle, Washington

Federation of Maritime History and Archeology Research / Sorbonne University, France (use “translate” bar to select your language of choice)

Institute of Maritime History

The Society for Nautical Research