The source of the world’s longest river, the River Nile, had intrigued people for millennia. From the Egyptians onwards, the source remained a mystery, leading to be called “the problem of the ages”. In fact, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century when some extraordinary explorers found the great river’s source. Victor Gamma explains.

A portrait of John Hanning Speke, the man who played such a key role in the discovery of the source of the River Nile.

A portrait of John Hanning Speke, the man who played such a key role in the discovery of the source of the River Nile.

John Hanning Speke stared at the foamy torrents pouring out of the lake he had just named Victoria after his beloved queen. Speke smiled in triumph, and no wonder, the date was July, 28, 1862 and Speke, along with his companion James Augustus Grant was about to solve a riddle that had bedeviled the world for 2,000 years; the source of the world's greatest river, the Nile: "Here at last I stood on the brink of the Nile!", he later wrote in his journal. 

It might seem strange that finding the place where a river begins would be that hard, but it was not called 'The Problem of the Ages' for nothing!  In fact, the headwaters of the Nile River system have such a complicated geology that even today geographers and other scientists continue to study its labyrinth-like network of physical features and debate its source. Technically, that prize goes to a tiny spring in the hills of Burundi. This spring is amongst the headwaters that nourish Lake Victoria. 

If complex geography weren't enough of a problem, think of how challenging it would be to explore that same system without the sophisticated technology and transportation that today's explorers enjoy. Traveling in that part of Africa in the mid-nineteenth century was not easy; fever, attacks by hostile locals, and desertions were only some of the problems encountered. When you realize that almost every rugged, hot, wet, scratchy, insect-infested mile was a struggle, you will understand why the discovery took so long. 

Why was it so important to discover the source of the Nile anyway? The Nile River has always held a special place in humankind's imagination. To the Egyptians it was the divine basis of life itself, for without it, life was unthinkable. To them, its beginnings were lost in mystery, flowing from a land far beyond where they dared to venture, and they simply worshiped it as a god. Many later civilizations held the beautiful and marvelous culture of Egypt in wonder and could point to the Egyptians as the originators of civilized life. It is not hard to see then why, starting with the ever-curious Greeks, a quest for the source of the fabled Nile became an on-going obsession. 


From Myth to Science

By the time Richard Burton and his partner Speke began their quest, two thousand years of failed attempts stretched before them. Both the Greeks and the Romans, unable to penetrate to the upper reaches of the Nile, fell back on speculation or hearsay as to the great river's ultimate origin. Puzzled Romans represented the Nile as a male god with his face and head obscured by drapery. To be fair, though, the Greek merchant Diogenes and the mathematician Eratosthenes both correctly identified lakes inland from the east coast of Africa as the Nile's source. This knowledge was noted by the great Ptolemy. But to make mention of something is one thing, to see it for oneself is quite another! For centuries after Ptolemy, the question was relegated to the realm of fable and speculation. These included the myth of Prester John and the idea that a branch of the Nile flowed into the Atlantic. 

The mists of speculation began to clear up as the light of modern science and discovery shone on the question. By the mid-18th century the connection of the Blue and White Nile had been identified as well as a river meandering into Lake Tana, which we now know is the source of the Blue Nile. But it was to the Victorians that the honor of settling the "Great Question" was to be given; specifically Burton, Speke and Grant. 

It would take a determined fellow to solve a 2,000-year-old riddle and these three men certainly fit the description. Speke was an officer in the Indian Army. After strenuous months of training and fighting Speke spent his furloughs not in relaxation but exploring the Himalayas and Tibet. Burton was already famous as a traveler, linguist and, shall we say, "eccentric?" Unlike the disciplined and well-mannered Speke, Burton was known to be irascible and difficult to deal with. Burton was one of those men who placed obedience to his own convictions above societal convention. His method of travel was to meld with the local population so as to be indistinguishable from them. His facility with five languages was another unusual distinction. What these two men shared, though, was an obsession for exploration and their combined talents attained one the great feats in the history of discovery.

It was Burton who invited Speke to join him in exploring east Africa. That was in 1854. Two years later, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, an expedition began into the interior of east Africa to locate a series of great lakes said to exist. They also, of course, were hoping to find the source of the Nile. 


A Prize Gained but a Friend Lost

Their final attempt began in June 1857. This 500-mile trek was slowed not only with fever but the never-ending complications of local politics. As the expedition passed from the realm of one ruler to another great caution and skill were needed to secure permission and protection as well as to recruit guides. This involved so much gift giving and bribery that the expedition was well fleeced by the time Speke made his great discovery. Burton became so ill that he was eventually forced to stay behind while Speke forged ahead to a lake the locals called Ukerewe. This separation was to prove ominous to the two adventurers, for it meant that when Speke beheld what he believed was the source of the Nile, Burton was not there to see for himself. Burton would refuse to accept Speke's opinion. This led to a disagreement between the two men that quickly became very public and bitter. 

Nonetheless, the parting of two great men of exploration did not stop the march of geographical progress. Leaving Burton behind in the Arab settlement of Ujiji, near the lake of the same name, Speke set out across this lake, now known as Lake Tanganyika, hoping it was the source of the Nile. Unable to obtain an adequate boat, Speke was forced to abandon the quest and rejoined Burton. While recuperating at Kaze, in the land of the Unyamwezi where they had stayed earlier, the locals related more tales of Lake Ukerewe to the two explorers. Illness sapped the interest that Burton would normally have had, but the stories fired Speke's imagination. With a hurriedly gathered force of men and supplies Speke set off for the fabled lake. On July 30, 1858 he reached the shores of the lake. He bestowed the name Victoria on the lake in honor of his queen. But lack of provisions and equipment forced Speke to content himself with a rough sketch of the lake and a burning conviction that he had the solution to a 2,000 year-old riddle.  He returned to Kaze and presented his case to his colleague. The fever-stricken Burton, however, refused to accept Speke's conclusion. An on-going debate ensued in which the two men failed to agree. The discussion became exceedingly lively. Illness, exhaustion and divergence of temperament all played their part. The final fallout occurred when Speke, back in England, made his case to the Royal Geographical Society. Burton had remained in Zanzibar, too sick to travel but expecting that Speke would delay his announcement until Burton could be present to argue his side of the issue. Although Speke could hardly ask his sponsors to wait to hear the results of their investment, Burton saw Speke's actions as a mortal sin and never forgave him. 


The Puzzle Unraveled at Last

To confirm the epic discovery, Speke returned to Africa, this time in the company of an old companion from his India days, James Augustus Grant. Having learned his lesson from earlier attempts, Speke and Grant assembled a well-provisioned expedition of 200 men before setting out in 1860. Nonetheless, the usual delays of travel in Africa at that time caused interminable delays. It would in fact be two years before Speke arrived at his longed-for destination. But when Speke heard of a river that flowed out of Lake Victoria, nothing could stop him from reaching for what men had dreamed of so long. Leaving the fever-stricken Grant behind to rest, he explored Lake Victoria and found the rapids where a river left the lake and fed the Nile. 

Rejoined by Grant and accompanied by another associate from the Indian service, hunting-enthusiast Samuel Baker, Speke then began a descent of the Nile. Upon reaching Khartoum, Speke wasted no time in sending a now famous telegram to London. The terse but momentous message read simply, "The Nile is settled." Upon his return to England, Speke received full credit and plaudits for his accomplishments. Like Columbus, John Hanning Speke's moment of triumph was short-lived. Only two years later, in a tragic postscript, and on the day before he was to face his old colleague and enemy Burton in a debate over the Nile question, Speke was killed in a hunting accident. He was 37. 

Final confirmation of the source of the Nile was to wait until 1875. It was then that Henry Morton Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone I presume" fame, circled Lake Victoria and confirmed Speke's claim. Grueling determination, suffering and imagination had solved another age-old mystery.


What do you think of the explorers who confirmed the source of the Nile River? Let us know below.


Southwaite, Leonard, Unrollingthe Map: The Story of Exploration,The Junior Literary                    Guild, New York, 1930, pages 253-8

(February 4, 2010) "Speke and the Discovery of the Source of the Nile: An Introduction." [Web blog post],

John J. Cummings has created what he has called “America’s First Slavery Museum.” The museum is an anomaly for American plantation museums—it memorializes America’s enslaved in a style reminiscent of Holocaust memorials while also acting as a traditional (although reinterpreted) Southern plantation tour. Jackie Mead explains.

You can read Jackie’s previous article on Lewis Temple and the 19th century whaling industry here.

The Big House at the Whitney Plantation. Source: Bill Leiser, available  here .

The Big House at the Whitney Plantation. Source: Bill Leiser, available here.

In 1991, a crumbling former plantation 35 miles outside of New Orleans attracted the attention of a rayon manufacturer, Formosa. Locals commissioned an eight volume study as a way to slow the project until rayon went out of fashion. When the property went up for sale again, it was bought by eccentric trial lawyer John J. Cummings III. Unlike most people, when he is given an eight-volume study on a new purchased property, he reads it.[i]

For the next several years, John J. Cummings would spend eight million dollars of his personal fortune to create what he dubbed “America’s First Slavery Museum.” The museum is an anomaly for American plantation museums—it memorializes America’s enslaved in a style reminiscent of Holocaust memorials while also acting as a traditional (although reinterpreted) Southern plantation tour.


A Museum Anomaly

Plantation museums in the former Antebellum American South have fallen into a comfortable pattern over the years. The lives of the white landholders (and slave owners) were focused on exclusively. Tours were limited to the “Big House” and ignored the various “outbuildings” where slaves lived and worked.[ii]They stood as testaments to the conspicuous consumerism of the pre-Civil War South, a world in which manicured lawns held garden parties with mint juleps, and women in hoop skirts fanned themselves beside elegant picture windows. This myth of the South has made the plantations a popular site to hold weddings and sorority reunions, a trend that museums encourage because of the valuable revenue they bring in.[iii]This view eliminates the people who made such grandeur possible—African American slaves. 

Whitney plantation is entirely different. Today, the plantation includes at least twelve historic structures that are open to the public. The home is interpreted entirely from the enslaved point of view, discussing the domestic tasks performed there to support the Haydel family’s domestic needs.[iv]Slave quarters were moved from a nearby planation in order to properly represent the homes of the enslaved. A steel-barred cell in the style used to punish rebellious slaves has also been added to the property.[v]The final historic building exhibited on the plantation is the Antioch Baptist Church. All of these buildings are visited during the 90-minute walking tour included with the visitor ticket. 


Memorials to Slavery

Whitney Plantation also includes several memorials, springing directly from the mind of John Cummings. One of these is the Field of Angels, a circular courtyard listing the names of the almost 2,200 slave babies in St John Parish that died before their third birthday in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Surrounded by child-sized pink and blue benches, there is a statue of a black angel embracing a tiny baby tenderly in its arms, about to bring the child to heaven.[vi]The bronze was cast by Rod Moorhead, a Louisiana native who has worked on other African-American memorials. David Amsden of the New York Times called the statue “at once chastening and challenging, beautiful and haunting.”[vii]The memorial is meant to bring attention to the exceptionally high mortality rates among slave children, as well as to mourn their passing.

Whitney Plantation’s most recognizable memorial sits within Antioch Baptist Church. John Cummings commissioned well-known African American artist Woodrow Nash to cast forty life-size casts of slave children to stand and sit within the pews of the church. Affectionately called “The Children of Whitney” by the museum staff, they represent the lost childhoods of Whitney’s former residents.[viii]Cummings was inspired to create the exhibit by listening to the interviews of former slaves collected by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. “The best expression I have heard about slavery is: ‘Those who viewed cannot explain, only those who endure­d should be believed,’ he said to The Australian.[ix]Inspired by these words, Cummings has placed a great emphasis on the interviews collected by the WPA, and intends recordings to be played on a loop in both the church and in the slave cabins at a later date.[x]Many of the former slaves interviewed by the WPA were children at the time of emancipation, and therefore their interviews recall their lives as children and teenagers. The Children of Whitney depict these people as they were—children.[xi]

There are two memorials that feature names carved in stone: The Wall of Honor, which is dedicated to the more than 350 slaves that worked at Whitney Plantation, and the Allées Gwendolyn Mildo Hall Memorial, which is dedicated to the 107,000 slaves in Louisiana complied by its eponymous historian.[xii]Both of them were inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Because of issues with dating the various documents the names were drawn from, names have been placed on the plaques with no order at all, in order to convey the chaos of slavery. Many slaves lack family names, so the walls are dotted with repeating lines of Mary, Bob, Amelia, and Joseph with no way to distinguish individuals.[xiii]In continued dedication to firsthand accounts, Cummings requested that sections from the WPA’s interviews with former slaves be carved onto the memorial in order to give visitors an idea of what these individuals suffered. 


Grappling With The Past

John J. Cummings III believes it is important for America to follow the example of countries like Germany and South Africa in dealing with this national trauma. Both nations built museums and memorials to honor their unsavory past as a way of retroactively grappling with it. “In Germany today, there are hundreds of museums and memorials dedicated to the Holocaust, and the Germans are not proud of that history,” said Cummings to TheNew Yorker, “But they have studied it, they have embraced it, and they own it. We haven’t done that in America.”[xiv] 

In fact, the opposite has occurred. In an ethnographic study of 138 south-eastern plantation museums, two academics found the African-American presence to be “annihilated.”[xv]This is due to the fact that many of these plantation museums have white administrative staff, curators, and interpreters that cater to the white perspective.[xvi]As a result, museum tours focused almost exclusively on the privileged lives of the white landowners, reducing slaves to nameless laborers identified by the tasks they performed for the white family. Such museums were especially popular during the Civil Right Movement, when white Southerners yearned to remember a “simpler” time.[xvii]  

This is no longer the case. In the past twenty years, twenty-four museums in south Louisiana have opened slave exhibits. These exhibits have increased tourism for plantation museums, both private and public, with 1.9 million visitors to historic sites across the state.[xviii]School groups are especially popular visitors.[xix]Museum administrators have cited the growing interest in common people and a desire to show a more integrated version of American history as reasons for adding these kinds of exhibits.[xx]


Mourning Slavery

Whitney Plantation is a new approach to the plantation museum. Instead of offering additions to an already existing tour, Whitney is a plantation tour with slavery-based interpretation combined with a memorial museum. This is a far more effective way to convey the true tragedy of race-based slavery. According to Silke Arnold-de-Simine, a British expert on memory and author of Mediating Memory in the Museum,memorials are intended to make visitors identify with history’s victims. By establishing an environment that encourages visitors to imagine themselves experiencing these atrocities, visitors can empathize with the people of the past. Arnold-de-Simine refers to this as “prosthetic memory.”

This principle is important for memorial museums because they inspire feelings of guilt and grief rather than pride, and must channel those negative feelings into a personal commitment to pluralism and tolerance.[xxi]This is done through a combination of first-person testimonials, visual recreations of the conditions the individuals experienced, and memorials where collective grief can be expressed. All of these techniques were pioneered during the building of Holocaust memorials. This is what allows the plantation to have such a profound emotional effect on visitors. “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor, “And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney Plantation has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”[xxii]Although Whitney Plantation might seem mismatched, this combination of techniques is very effective.


Taking a Risk Pays Off

The plantation received 34,000 visitors in its first year—double the projected turnout. It is a respectable number for a new museum.[xxiii]Whitney Plantation has managed to attract African-American tourists at a rate unprecedented by other Louisiana plantation museums. Roughly half the people present at opening day were black.[xxiv]

Whitney plantation has also seen considerable tourism from school groups, especially secondary schools. The direct and unfiltered depiction of slavery, rarely seen in school curriculums, has a profound effect on students. One visitor left a comment card reading, “I learned more in an hour and a half than I have in any school.”[xxv]  

The inability of the American school system to adequately deal with slavery was one of John J. Cummings III’s many reasons for establishing Whitney plantation. “Without knowledge about how slavery worked and how crushing the experience was — not only for those who endured it, but also for their descendants — it’s impossible to lift the weight of the lingering repercussions of that institution. Every generation of Americans since 1865 has been burdened by the hangover of slavery,”[xxvi]he wrote in the Washington Post. Cummings believes that it is only when Americans are properly educated on the abuses and legacy of slavery, that can we hope to move forward. 

John J. Cummings III understands how unusual it is for a white former trial lawyer to be the person who establishes America’s first museum dedicated to slavery. In an attempt to explain, he said of his process of research “You start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people.”[xxvii]Whitney stands tribute to those black people, but it does far more than that. It memorializes them in a style reminiscent of the Holocaust, and uses the restored landscape and first-person narratives to create feelings of empathy with those who suffered slavery. It seeks to create an emotional response in its visitors so that America can finally remember its wounds openly—because it is only then, according to John. J. Cummings—that American can finally start to heal. 



What do you think of Whitney Plantation? Let us know below.

[i]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[ii]Julia Rose, “Collective Memories and the Changing Representations of American Slavery,” The Journal of Museum Education29, no. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004): 27. 

[iii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[iv]Whitney Plantation, “The Big House and the Outbuildings,” 2015,

[v]Margaret Quilter, “Lest We Forget: Louisiana’s Slavery Museum,” The Australian, February 7, 2015,

[vi]Quilter, “Lest We Forget.”

[vii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”

[viii]Whitney Plantation, “The Children of Whitney,”

[ix]Quilter, “Lest We Forget.” 

[x]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[xi]Whitney Plantation, “The Children of Whitney.” 

[xii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[xiii]Jared Keller, “Inside America’s Auschwitz: a new museum offers a rebuke—and an antidote—to our sanitized history of slavery,” Smithsonian Magazine,  April 4, 2016,

[xiv]Kalim Armstrong, “Telling the Story of Slavery,” The New Yorker,February 17, 2016,

[xv]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 27.

[xvi]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 27.

[xvii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.” 

[xviii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.”

[xix]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 26. 

[xx]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 28.

[xxi]Silke Arnold-de-Simine, “The ‘Moving’ Image: Empathy and Projection in the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool,” Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society4 (Autumn 2012): 24.  

[xxii]Asmden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[xxiii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.”

[xxiv]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”

[xxv]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.” 

[xxvi]Cummings, “35,000 Museums.” 

[xxvii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”

The whaling industry was at its height in the nineteenth century as it helped power the Industrial Revolution. The center of the whaling industry in the US was in Nantucket and later New Bedford. But there were a number of breakthroughs that powered the industry. Here, Jackie Mead tells the story of Lewis Temple, a free African American who invented something very important for the whaling industry.

A statue of Lewis Temple in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Source: LGagnon, available  here .

A statue of Lewis Temple in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Source: LGagnon, available here.

Hunting whales has been an integral part of Native American communities for millennia, but whaling had never been practiced on such a massive scale as it was in the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution demanded whale oil to light the factories, as well as the plastic-like baleen for lady’s corsets and spermaceti for mass-produced candles and perfumes. Whaleships became floating factories for processing the massive creatures, complete with tryworks for boiling the whale blubber into precious oil. A consumer might pay as much as $2.50 for a gallon—$80 today.[1] This meant whales were essentially swimming petroleum deposits, and massive fortunes could be made by those brave enough to hunt them down.


An Upstart City

Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, was an obvious capital of the whaling industry. By the 1840s, however, they were being eclipsed by an upstart mainland town: New Bedford.[2] In 1851, Herman Melville wrote in his masterpiece Moby Dick, “New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling,”[3]and that “nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.”[4]The city had a superior harbor that fit even the biggest of whaleships, and a rich industry sprang up around the waterfront.

One person that came to the city to make their fortune was a free African American named Lewis Temple. He was born either a slave or freedman in Richmond, Virginia around the year 1800. Temple arrived in New Bedford in 1829 and married Mary Clark, presumably also African America, and had two daughters shortly after.[5]A blacksmith by trade, he opened a shop on Walnut Street in 1836 and began producing the various metal objects required on whaling ships.


The Weapon of Choice

The most important tool of a whaler was his harpoon: a barbed iron point mounted to a long wooden handle. When thrown at a whale, the barbs would catch in the blubber and prevent the harpoon from dislodging. The crew would grab onto a rope tied to the harpoon and be pulled through the ocean as the whale tried to escape, a risky experience referred to as a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” When the whale was too exhausted to continue, they would then row close enough to stab the leviathan to death. 

If the harpoon came out during the chase, the whale would get away. Since almost all crews were paid through a cut of the profits, losing a whale was a significant hit to their paycheck.[6] 

In the first half of the nineteenth century, harpoon tips resembled arrowheads. These would frequently tear holes in the whale’s blubber instead of lodging in it, leading to angry whales and no profit. Toggling harpoons, which have a frontward cutting edge and a backwards sweeping barb that pivots (or toggles), had been used in the Arctic for centuries. New Bedford whalers were aware of this technology from hunting in Alaskan waters, but were unable to replicate it.[7]


A New Harpoon

Lewis Temple created the first iron toggle harpoon in his Walnut Street shop in 1848. It was similar to its Arctic predecessors, with a sharp point and swinging barb that was held in place by a pin. A small piece of wood held the head straight while it was thrown into the whale, breaking on impact and allowing the barb to pivot ninety degrees into the blubber. This was far more effective than the traditional harpoon, quickly becoming the weapon of choice for all savvy harpooners. 


Lewis Temple, Inventor

Lewis Temple never patented his invention. Although a gifted blacksmith, he never received a formal education.[8]The idea of obtaining a patent probably would not even have crossed his mind. Only three to ten percent of patent holders were African American, many choosing to file under the name of a white lawyer to ensure their product had a fair shot.[9]Since Temple was unable to write his own name, it was unlikely he could have hired one without help. With nothing to prevent them, other blacksmiths freely copied his idea and made their own improvements. 

The Temple family continued to grow, and Lewis began to train his son, Lewis Temple Jr., in blacksmithing. He moved shops several times, renting homes nearby for his family.[10]He was elected Vice President of the New Bedford Union Society in 1834, the city’s first anti-slavery group. It is also possible he knew a young Frederick Douglas in the 1830s, when the famous author was pursuing odd jobs at the wharfs.[11]

His lack of commercial success, despite his stroke of genius, may have been the motivation for the local firm Delano and Pierce to offer Temple a new shop in 1854. However, he was never able to work in it. 

Earlier that year, Temple was walking home at night and tripped over a plank left out by a New Bedford construction crew, sending him into a sewer ditch and injured beyond hope of recovery. His wife and children sued the city for negligence, winning $2,000 in March 1854. Temple died only six weeks later.[12]The local newspaperran a story describing how the Temple family had yet to receive their settlement payment, which was finally given to his widow in February 1857.[13]



The New Bedford sailor and artist Clifford W. Ashley wrote in 1926, “It is safe to say that the Temple toggle harpoon was the most important single invention in the whole history of whaling.”[14]Although he was never able to profit from his work, Lewis Temple made a significant impact on the American whaling industry. His toggle harpoon helped make the city the richest per capita in the entire United States.[15]In 1880, $10 million (yes, 10 million 1880 dollars) was flowing through New Bedford, all the product of the toggle harpoon. Herman Melville wrote “all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”[16]

A statue of Lewis Temple stands outside the New Bedford Public Library. The artist depicts him standing in a blacksmith’s apron with his new invention in his hands, unaware of how it will change the industry forever.


What do you think of Lewis Temple’s role in the whaling industry? Let us know below.

[1]PBS, “The ‘Whale Oil Myth’,” 2008.

[2]PBS, “The History of Whaling in America.”

[3]Herman Melville, Moby Dick(New York: Constable and Company, 1922): 8. 

[4]Melville, Moby Dick,40.

[5]New Bedford Historical Society, “Lewis Temple.”

[6]Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea(New York: Viking Penguin, 2000): 18.

[7]Sidney Kaplan, “Lewis Temple and the Hunting of the Whale.” Negro History Bulletin17 (October 1953): 8. 

[8]Kaplan, “Lewis Temple,” 7.

[9]Michael J. Andrews and Nicolas L. Ziebarth, The Demographics of Inventors in the Historical United States (2016): 8.

[10]Kaplan, “Lewis Temple,” 10.

[11]New Bedford Historical Society, “Lewis Temple.”

[12]Kaplan, “Lewis Temple,” 10.

[13]New Bedford Historical Society, “Lewis Temple.”

[14]Kaplan, “Lewis Temple,” 7.

[15]Derek Thompson, “The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story.” The Atlantic(February 22, 2012)

[16]Melville, Moby Dick, 41.

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most famous symbols of America. But the statue has a long history. Here Aliasgar Abuwala explains the French origins of the statue, how it took many years from being an idea to actually being erected in New York, and the importance of its symbolism in the twentieth century.

The Statue of Liberty. Source: Daniel Schwen, available  here .

The Statue of Liberty. Source: Daniel Schwen, available here.

Throughout most of the 19th century, France had alternated between absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies and republican forms of government, with varying degrees of power held by elected representatives. The collective psyche of the French was undergoing a monumental change in its beliefs in royal traditions, equality and religion. However, the ideals of the French Revolution had taken root and France had many influential liberals both in and out of its government bodies.

One of them was Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, a lawyer, author, academician and anti-slavery activist. Deeply influenced by the values enshrined in the constitution of the United States, he felt France and the U.S. were common partners in promoting these values. After the Union’s victory in the U.S. Civil War in 1865, he had the idea that France should present a monument to the United States to commemorate its ideals of liberty and democracy. In this way, he wished to infuse the same ideals into the consciousness of his countrymen.


Liberty Enlightening the World

Laboulaye put forward the idea to Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the noted sculptor who had a passion for designing monumental structures. The sculptor wholeheartedly supported Laboulaye. Naming the statue was key for the project to take off. Liberty was a controversial term in 19thcentury Europe. It was associated with revolution and violence by many people. The statue had to be seen as a symbol of law and peace, showing the way to freedom. The statue called, Liberty Enlightening the World, would be an honourable and authoritative figure above political turmoil. The statue would be funded by the French and presented to the United States.

The project stalled due to the Franco-Prussian War, in which France’s emperor Napoleon III was captured and deposed. Laboulaye had been elected to the National Assemble and was instrumental in forming The Third Republic. These were ideal circumstances to generate support for the Statue of Liberty. Armed with references and letters of introduction given by Laboulaye, Bartholdi travelled to America to discuss the idea with influential people. 

As soon as Bartholdi’s ship sailed into New York Harbour, he decided that Bedloe Island, now Liberty Island, should be the site of the statue as it would be seen by all ships leaving or leaving the United States. Among the powerful people he met in America was President Ulysses S. Grant who assured him that obtaining the site would not be a constraint. Bartholdi travelled the length and breadth of America, but after returning to France, he confided to Laboulaye that the general response was not as enthusiastic as they had hoped. They decided to launch a public campaign and organized a group called the Franco-American Union.


Design and Symbolism

Bartholdi and Laboulaye had to come up with a figure that could best express the American idea of liberty. They decided on adopting the dominant image of Liberty in the United States, which was derived from the Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas. However, Libertas was popular all over Europe. Artists of the 18thand 19thcenturies often used the goddess to represent democratic ideals, but often in a manner that associated her with violence. Liberty Enlightening the World had to depict peace and progress and it was decided that Liberty would wear flowing robes and would hold a torch.

The statue also needed to be crowned. There were two kinds of headwear that statues of Liberty were traditionally donned with: a pileus, a kind of cap given to freed slaves in ancient Rome, and a helmet. Bartholdi chose a diadem instead.  The crown has seven rays which form a halo. It was designed to depict the sun and the seven continents. The rays of the sun are meant to reinforce the torch, by which Liberty Enlightens the World. 

Bartholdi designed the statue with strong classical contours to best set if off against the harbour. He wanted passengers on ships entering the harbour to have altering perspectives of Liberty as they sailed towards Manhattan. Reflecting the scale of the project and its solemn objective, Bartholdi scripted his thoughts: 

The surfaces should be broad and simple, defined by a bold and clear design, accentuated in the important places. The enlargement of the details or their multiplicity is to be feared. By exaggerating the forms, in order to render them more clearly visible, or by enriching them with details, we would destroy the proportion of the work. Finally, the model, like the design, should have a summarized character, such as one would give to a rapid sketch. Only it is necessary that this character should be the product of volition and study, and that the artist, concentrating his knowledge, should find the form and the line in its greatest simplicity.


Bartholdi wanted to place a broken chain implying freedom in Liberty’s left hand but thought it would be controversial in the aftermath of the Civil War. So he placed the chain under her robes, beneath her stride, and where it would be relatively inconspicuous In her left hand, Bartholdi placed a tabula ansata, a tablet associated with law and governance. Though even the master sculptor admired the United States Constitution, he chose the Declaration of Independence to be associated with the idea of Liberty. Hence, the ‘JULY IV MDCCLXXVI’ inscription on the tablet. The height of the statue had been decided at just over 151 feet or 46 meters.


Getting to Work

By 1875, France’s economy had recovered from the war. Laboulaye decided it was time to announce the project and seek public support. The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia seemed the best time to do it. Laboulaye formed the Franco-American Union to help in raising funds for the project. Liberty Enlightening the World would be financed and made in France and America would be required to produce the pedestal on which Liberty would be mounted. The announcement was received with general enthusiasm; as would be expected French monarchists opposed the statue, if for no other reason but to spite Laboulaye who was recently elected a senator-for-life. 

Laboulaye organized fund-raising events designed to appeal to the rich and influential. A musical held at the Paris Opera on April 25 1876, featured a new cantata composed by Charles Gounod especially for the project. It was titled La Liberté éclairant le monde, the French translation of the announced name. However, Laboulaye was able to raise funds from all sections of French society, including schoolchildren and municipalities. Laboulaye asked for support in his political rallies; descendents of the French contingent who had fought in the American War of Independence contributed. French copper industrialist Eugene Secretan donated thousands of pounds of copper.

Bartholdi began fabricating the head and diadem of Liberty and the right arm bearing the torch. In May 1876, he sailed to the United States to participate in the Centennial Exhibition as a member of the French delegation. A huge painting of the statue was displayed in New York as a part of the Exhibition. The head and arm reached Philadelphia too late to have the sculpture recorded in the exhibition catalogue, due to which few could identify it as the Statue of Liberty. However, the exhibit became popular in the closing days of the festival and people climbed up to the balcony of the torch for a better view of the fairgrounds. The head and arm were displayed in Madison Square Park in New York for several years before they were transported back to France to join the rest of the statue.

Bartholdi turned to his former trainer and mentor, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, to design the internal structure of the statue. He suggested a wooden framework with masonry compartments filled with sand be used to support the thousands of pounds of copper skin. Viollet-le-Duc also asked Bartholdi to mold light-weight copper sheets by battering them onto the wooden structure, a technique known as repoussé. He would then use armature bars to attach the molded sheets. The master also helped his former pupil in designing Liberty’s torch and her arm’s support system.

Viollet-le-Duc died unexpectedly in 1879 and Bartholdi asked Gustave Eiffel to finish the internal construction. The creator of his future eponymous landmark designed a completely new support structure for the statue but retained Viollet-le-Duc’s repoussé technique and his skilful use of armature bars.


The Pedestal

Bartholdi made a third trip to the United States and urged Americans of the Franco-American Union to raise funds for the pedestal. Laboulaye turned to his fellow Union League Club members, a group that supported the Union in the Civil War. One of the members was William Maxwell Evarts, an accomplished statesman and lawyer, who was made chairman of the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty. Committees were formed in several states but the New York committee understandably took on most of the responsibility for the pedestal. The committee included 19-year old Theodore Roosevelt, the future President of the United States. 

However, Evarts would prove to be the key figure in the success of the fundraising campaign for the pedestal. The senior statesman’s committed involvement and his social and political influence validated the campaign in the eyes of the public and press. More important was Evart’s influence in the White House and with President Grant. After much persuasion, a joint committee of Congress passed a resolution officially accepting the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France on March 3, 1877. He was also instrumental in Congress contributing $56,000 towards the pedestal.

Famous architect Richard Morris Hunt was commissioned to design the pedestal. Bartholdi, the creator of Liberty Enlightening the World imagined the pedestal as looming ‘Fortress of Liberty’. He also discussed other designs, including a stepped pyramid with Hunt. From 1882 to 1884, Hunt experimented with numerous designs of his own. The architect and the French sculptor ultimately combined the ‘Fortress’ with Hunt’s ‘Pharos I’ design inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of antiquity. Hunt’s pedestal fused in harmony with the colossal statue above it and remains an important monument in its own right.

Hunt’s other notable works include the New York Tribune building, the Lenox Library and many more. Hunt also founded the American Institute of Architects in 1857 and served as its first secretary. Hunt received $1,000 for his work on the statue, which he donated to the pedestal’s construction.

Statue of Liberty Unveiled  by Edward Moran.

Statue of Liberty Unveiled by Edward Moran.

The Symbol of Liberty

In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated as the symbol of democracy, the ideals of the Enlightenment and equality for all. However, the struggle for liberty and justice for all was still a reality for a section of American society. African Americans were loath to embrace the symbol of a nation, which would not include them as equal citizens. The Statue of Liberty would not help them achieve equality and justice in the truest sense for another century.

America had long been a nation of immigrants, but when nearby Ellis Island became an immigration centre in 1892, the Statue of Liberty became a welcoming figure as the ships sailed into the harbour. Over time, the Liberty emerged as the ‘Mother of all Exiles’, a beacon of hope for generations of foreigners who had dreamt of a better life in the New World. President Franklin D. Roosevelt further solidified the statue as an immigration icon in his speech on its 50th anniversary when he described immigration as a central part of America’s history. However, the symbolism ignored the real difficulties of settling in the United States, particularly for immigrants from non-European countries.

The two World Wars further advanced the Statue of Liberty as an emblem of freedom for the poor and persecuted people of Europe. The islands of New York harbour had long served as military bases and the statue came to be associated with the US military as well. In wartime, the monument achieved renewed significance for soldiers sailing out to fight overseas. It became an image they may never see again. 

Pictures of the Statue of Liberty were used to sell war bonds and mobilize war efforts in the country. It also reminded Americans that the statue was a gift from embattled France. Servicemen and women returning from war were moved by the sight of Liberty as they sailed back into the harbour. Even after 9/11, the Statue of Liberty was invoked to express American horror, anguish and rage. 

The Statue of Liberty was originally intended to serve as a lighthouse under the administration of the U.S. Lighthouse board. However, though the torch had been electrified, the statue had not been designed to serve as a lighthouse. After some decades under the U.S. Department of War, the Statue of Liberty was eventually turned over to the National Park Service in 1937. Norman T. Newton, the landscape architect of the National Park Service transformed Liberty Island into a park befitting the national monument.  In 1984, the statue was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


What do you think of the importance of the Statue of Liberty? Let us know below.

This article was written by Aliasgar Abuwala of Travel Back Through Time.

Slavery was sadly familiar during the early decades of an independent America. Here, Ian Craig discusses the failure of compromise during the years from 1789 until the US Civil War. In particular he considers the sectional divide between the North, South, and – later – Western American states.

You can also read Ian’s series on President James Buchanan and the US Civil War here.

The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor played a key role in the Compromise of 1850.

The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor played a key role in the Compromise of 1850.

In the history of the United States, the nation has long been divided along sectional lines, most notably North and South.  In 1789, when the Constitution became the law of the land, compromise had been used to get the states to agree on the new form of government.  The Three-Fifths Compromise was one such example.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the economy of the South, while the North began to rely heavily on its manufacturing industry. When it came time to decide representation in the new Congress, the Southern states demanded that their slave population be counted toward their population total.  Since the North did not support slave labor and had a growing abolitionist movement, it disagreed with the South’s proposal.  Instead, the authors of the Constitution, including James Madison, came up with a compromise.  The South’s total slave population would not count towards representation, only three-fifths of its slave population would be counted towards each southern states’ population.  This compromise managed to win support on both sides, but the debate and compromise over slavery did not end there.

When President Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he had no idea that it would help spark further debates over slavery.  The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States with most of its territory lying northwest of the Mississippi River.  The acquisition of such a vast territory was seen by many Americans as progress for the young nation.  No one considered the idea that as more territory was added to the nation, that slavery’s expansion would take center stage.  In 1819, the first debate over slavery’s expansion into the western territories took place.  Missouri, which was relatively more north than south, wanted to enter the Union as a slave state.  However, this would upset the balance of power between slave and free states in the Senate.  The South needed to maintain this due to the fact that the North’s greater population often gave them more support in the House of Representatives.  In an attempt to put an end to the issue, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky came up with a compromise.  He called for slavery to be banned in the region northwest of Missouri and for Maine (formerly part of Massachusetts) to enter the Union as a free state.  This compromise was agreed to and attempted to hold the nation together for another thirty years.  However, when the compromise was passed in 1820, it merely put a temporary fix on the growing issue of slavery.  It did nothing to settle the growing sectional divide the nation was facing as well.


Sectionalism in the US

Sectionalism was deeply rooted in the United States.  When the nation was founded in 1776, many Americans had more loyalty to their individual states rather than the nation as a whole.  This was because many felt that their own state governments represented their best interests because they were their neighbors and friends in some cases. In conjunction with this, many did not trust the new federal or central government.  This goes back to the trade off between having a king thousands of miles away to having many “kings” a mere couple hundred miles away.  It was for this reason that the original government of the United States, under the Articles of Confederation, was made relatively weak.  Under the Articles, there was not one single leader, but many in a representative body or congress.  This Congress was led by a president, but this person was by no means the President of the United States.  In addition, the government had no power to collect taxes or to raise them nor could it regulate trade or create a standing army and navy to defend the nation.  In these terms, the States had all the power as it was intended to be.  Therefore, the Continental Congress had to ask the states to raise funds and relied on the states to provide their militias in times of war.  The Articles left the federal government extremely weak, the Founding Fathers did not want to have a repeat of the rule they had under King George III and Great Britain.   

The federal government would become much stronger when the Constitution was passed in 1789; however, the individual loyalty to one’s state remained.  Often America was referred to as “these United States” instead of a single nation “The United States.” It is this sentiment that began to take hold after 1820. In 1848, when the U.S.-Mexican War came to an end, more territory was added to the nation through the Mexican Cession.  This included land that would become the American southwest and California.  When gold was discovered in California in early 1848, prospectors and settlers flocked to the territory causing its population to rapidly increase.  By 1850, California was ready to enter the Union and become the thirty-first state. However, the majority of the population had come from areas that did not support slavery and as a result, California had wished to enter as a free state.


The Compromise of 1850

This concept had re-opened the door for slavery’s debate in the nation.  Although it had never gone away, it now became a topic for discussion for many. President Zachary Taylor wanted to see California admitted into the Union as soon as possible.  He recognized the sizzling debate of slavery which was growing over the nation, but he felt that a quick admission would solve the issue. In contrast, allowing California to enter the Union as a free state would upset the balance of power in the Senate. Something had to be given to the South for compensation.  This led to the Compromise of 1850 which began under Henry Clay but was resolved under Senator Stephen Douglas.  

In order to appease both sides, Douglas was able to come up with five resolutions that would require a vote. They included allowing California to enter as a free state, the ban of the slave trade in Washington D.C., the creation of a new Fugitive Slave Law, that popular sovereignty be allowed in the territories of Utah and New Mexico, and that Texas’ border dispute with New Mexico be resolved.[1]  President Taylor threatened to veto the legislation if it came to him because he did not want any chance of slavery entering the western territories.  This surprised those in the South who believed that Taylor, a Southerner himself, had betrayed them.  In July 1850, the president’s unwillingness to compromise seemed to be taking hold.  However, President Zachary Taylor died of presumed food poisoning after eating cherries and drinking a pitcher of milk.  His vice president, Millard Fillmore, had no issue signing the Compromise of 1850 as he believed he had once and for all settled the question of slavery’s expansion.  Instead, he only made the issue much worse. 


Disputes in the 1850s

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that the North no longer became a safe haven for escaped slaves.  Instead, those in the northern states were required by law to aid slave catchers in their retrieval of runaway slaves.  Any violation of the law would result in fines and even jail time.  With this act in place, the federal government was essentially allowing slavery to continue while keeping it enforced.  In the eyes of the North, this was a betrayal by the federal government as it appeared to be helping the South continue slavery not end it.  By 1854, the debate which was thought to have ended with the Compromise of 1850 heated up again.  Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, governments were formed for the territories of Kansas and Nebraska allowing for popular sovereignty.  At the same time, the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in those territories for thirty years, was repealed.  This caused much concern for those in the North.

Although the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was also authored by Stephen Douglas, attempted to appease both sides, it ended up causing much violence in the region.  When Kansas wanted to enter the Union as a free state, pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally.  This resulted in the election of a pro-slavery government.  In what would become known as “Bleeding Kansas,” pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces would battle for control of the territory.  This would continue until President James Buchanan sent the military to secure fare elections; however, it wasn’t until 1861 that Kansas was admitted as a free state.  

The sectional wound that the nation felt only became worse after the 1854 Act.  “Bleeding Kansas” was a snapshot of what would come during the US Civil War.  Compromise failed in many ways, but ultimately if failed because the sectional wound between the North, South, and eventually the West, was never resolved. Each compromise or act only put a temporary bandage on a wound that needed stitches to fully heal.  However, all sides refused to find that resolution because they all believed their point of view was correct.  They did not have any regard for the integrity of the nation, instead it was for their individual homes or states.  When the Civil War broke out and South Carolina seceded from the Union, a man who would go down in history was offered a much different path. President Lincoln authorized Francis P. Blair Sr., an advisor, to offer Robert E. Lee full command of the Union Army to put down the rebellion in the South.  Despite his loyalty to the United States, Lee refused because he could not help lead an invasion of his native home Virginia and the South.  Like Lee, many others felt the same way in taking up arms to either defend or fight against the United States.


What do you think of the article? Let us know below.      

[1]James McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3rded, (McGraw-Hill, 2001), 74. 

Over 150 years after its end, the American Civil War continues to provoke debate and controversy. One of the longest running debates is whether and how the South could have won the war. Here, Casey Titus explains some theories on this ever-topical subject.

The Confederate Cabinet from  Harper’s Weekly , June 1861, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the center-right of the picture.

The Confederate Cabinet from Harper’s Weekly, June 1861, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the center-right of the picture.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. While both the armies of the Union and the Confederacy sustained devastating casualties, the American South bore the brunt of this carnage economically for years postbellum. Forty percent of the South’s livestock was killed. Over two-thirds of the South’s rails and bridges were destroyed. The direct costs to the Confederacy in human capital, government expenses, and physical destruction from the war totaled $3.3 billion. Over a quarter of Southern white men of military age died during the war, which left alarming numbers of families destitute. The end of the Civil War saw a large migration of former slaves to the cities whose dislocations caused a severe negative impact on the black population, with large numbers of sick and dead. 

With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 the American Civil War had finally reached its conclusion. In just four years, the newly formed Confederate States of America that had so confidently entered the war in defense of what they viewed as state sovereignty had dissolved back into the Union. Debates among historians continue today on what the South could have done differently to achieve victory in a war in which time was on the side of the much more industrialized North. To better understand how the South could have possibly achieved its goal of a lasting secession it is important to first consider the in some ways overwhelming strengths of the Union.


The Power of the Union

General Lee himself recorded after his surrender, “The Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources…” There were 20 wholly Union/Northern states with 5 border “slave” states fighting against 11 Southern states. The passage of time on incomplete or lost records has made it difficult to estimate the exact number of soldiers on either side of the war. At best guess, the Confederate Army likely consisted of between 600,000 and 1,000,000 men. The Union was estimated to have 1,550,000 to 2,400,000 soldiers, clear numerical advantage. In addition to this, new conscripts were readily available for the North in the form of immigrants who faced such dire circumstances in their homelands that joining the Union Army seemed a better alternative. Immigration to the South was however limited due to the extensive blockade of its ports.

With industrial superiority, the Union states possessed a much greater capacity to produce armaments and the infrastructure necessary to move supplies efficiently. Financially the North also possessed a great advantage as the South’s primarily export based economy was also greatly hampered by the Union blockade.


Theories from the South and North

Many Southerners however, were convinced that they possessed superior soldiers and leadership and were fighting in defense of their homeland. Yet, some modern historians attribute the Confederacy’s loss to Lee’s aggression in offensive tactics rather than the more successful strategies of defensive approaches or even guerilla warfare after Appomattox, one of the last battles of the American Civil War. Historians hypothesize that Lee should have held the North at bay until it got tired of the clash and instead sought the route to a negotiation. Others are certain that the Confederates could have won if Atlanta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama as well as the Shenandoah Valley, were held by them beyond the 1864 election. The Shenandoah was a strategy favored by the Confederates for its terrain that was west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, stretching from the southwest to the northeast. This route conveniently funneled troops for deployment.

Early in the war, the Confederacy had the upper hand following repeated victories. While not a complete victory like the Union later on achieved, the Confederates wanted to negotiate rather than conquer the North. By 1863, President Lincoln and his cabinet were reduced to three strategies for winning the war. First, a massive area of the Confederate States needed to be conquered and occupied, preferably the size of the whole of Western Europe. Second, the South’s infrastructure had to be demolished. Third and possibly most difficult to achieve was annihilating the South’s armies as an effective fighting force. The Union may have possessed superior manpower and material resources, being industrial while the South was mainly agricultural, but the South still had at least four well-established advantages from the start of the war that counteracted the North’s manpower and material resources.


The South’s 4 Advantages

First, a psychological benefit was associated with the Confederacy’s need to protect their family, homes, and lifestyles. It can be observed that the South possessed a more determined fighting spirit than the North on many occasions. Second, the South was filled with rivers, mountains, and swamps that acted as fortresses combined with successful deployments of armies. Third, and surprisingly, the South’s resources in life’s necessities such as livestock and corn were greater than that of the North. Fourth and most well-known, the Confederacy was abounding with cotton. Cotton would have been considered an economic or diplomatic factor as the cotton was in the hands of the Confederacy as a cash crop of substantial value. However, as the war carried on, planting was reduced and bales prepared for shipments were burned, thereby discouraging overseas exports. 

Military leadership and experience, specifically those in their respective Commander-in-Chief, was starkly contrasting between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Union President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was lacking in military experience when elected president in 1860. During the Black Hawk War of 1832, he shortly served as an officer in the Illinois state militia, but saw no combat. During the Mexican-American War, Lincoln fiercely criticized President James K. Polk for hounding Mexico and engaging in western land grabs that only benefited slaveholders. During the Fort Sumter crisis, Lincoln issued conflicting orders to the navy, resulting in confusion. A humiliating Union loss at the First Battle of Bull Run took place when he put pressure on the army to mount an immediate assault on Richmond in the summer of 1861 against advice. Despite his inexperience, Lincoln was a hands-on commander-in-chief, studiously learning the business of war, testing new weapons on the White House lawn, and reading books on military strategy from the Library of Congress. 

Davis, on the other hand, had a decorated political and military career. He was a West Point graduate with seven years of service in the frontier army, a Mexican-American War veteran (wounded in battle), and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Even during his time as the Confederacy’s first president, his hunger for war never left him. During the first major battle of the war at Bull Run in July 1961, Davis fled his office in Richmond and sprinted towards the sound of the fighting, some believe with the intent of assuming the command of the troops and leading them into battle. Despite his habit of micromanaging more than Lincoln, Jefferson Davis proved an effective administrator and motivator of men. He operated under a similar command structure as Lincoln in constitutional terms. Under the Confederacy’s constitution, Davis would serve a six-year term and was forbidden from running again after that term was up.


How the South could have won

With the backgrounds of respective leaders and war advantages and motivations established, it is time to overview options the Confederacy could have taken that may have well guaranteed victory over the Union, ending the American Civil War. 

If the Confederates exported cotton as much as possible to Europe, most notably Great Britain before it sought cotton elsewhere in India or Egypt for a cheaper price, before the Union’s blockade of Confederate ports, then the Confederacy could have established lines of credit to buy war material. This could have been utilized to construct and repair the broken-down railway system to move troops and goods to critical positions. This was possible before the failed alliance with European nations was realized and trade nations like Britain conducted with the Union far outweighed the value of Southern cotton. 

Jefferson Davis had less consolidated power than his enemy and given his lack of men and resources, Davis was argued to have better served the cause by writing off large portions of the Confederacy’s scattered territory which would enable him to focus his armies around a few key areas important to the South’s survival. It has even been suggested conventional warfare should have been replaced with guerrilla warfare on Union occupation forces. Davis was never comfortable with guerrilla warfare and pursued this option to only a limited extent. For example, after the Union seized control of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1863, he permitted states west of the river to fend for themselves in the war and let “irregular” Confederate guerilla units operate without much intervention from his administration. 

The question of how the Confederacy could have won the Civil War has been debated and questioned endlessly by historians and scholars, professional and amateur. It should be recognized such a topic deserves far more discussion and study than noted in this article. Ultimately, the Union and its president won the Civil War. The Confederacy and its president lost the war and it is not difficult to foresee that a self-proclaimed nation with limited resources was bound to lose such a catastrophic war.


What do you think of this article? How could the Confederate South have won the US Civil War?

Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.

Here, Toby Clark follows his first article in the series (here) and considers the naval battle between USS Constitution and HMS Java.

The USS Constitution and HMS Java in battle in 1812. Drawing by Nicholas Pocock.

The USS Constitution and HMS Java in battle in 1812. Drawing by Nicholas Pocock.

USS Constitutionversus HMS Java

It was December and in the South Atlantic before USS Constitution caught the second British frigate. This time under the command of Commodore Bainbridge the Constitutionhad, in partnership with the much smaller USS Hornet patrolled to the port of Salvador, on Brazil’s East Coast. Leaving the Hornet to challenge the Royal Navy sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenneto a battle, Bainbridge had sailed northwards up the Brazilian coastline. The decision to leave the Hornet was taken because Bainbridge hoped that by withdrawing the Constitution, HMS Bonne Citoyennewould emerge from the port and fight. However, the Royal Navy sloop ignored the Hornet’s challenge. Ignoring a challenge might damage a ship’s reputation but HMS Bonne Citoyenne made the correct decision because her cargo contained bullion and specie, which was needed to sustain Arthur Wellesley’s Army in Spain.[1]By not fighting, HMS Bonne Citoyenne avoided USS Hornet’s Master Commandant James Laurence; the same man who would later reduce HMS Peacock to a shattered hulk but would go on to die in command of USS Chesapeake in the momentous fight with HMS Shannon

Aside from this matter, the important engagement occurred on December 29, 1812 as Constitution sighted HMS Java. HMS Java was identical to HMS Guerriérebecause they were both French warships originally, but pressed into British service after they were captured. Such similarities meant similar weaknesses because HMS Java, like Guerriére, had 49, 18-pounder cannons, whilst Constitutionmounted 55, 24-pounder cannons. 

Aboard HMS Java Captain Lambert decided to fight. This decision makes sense when we consider that Lambert was unaware of the destruction of HMS Guerriére; as communicating with ships at sea was extremely difficult.[2]The engagement began with Java chasing Constitutiontowards the open sea only for Bainbridge to suddenly turn towards the Java. Sailing parallel to one-another, Java on the left, or port and Constitution on the right, or starboard and the two ships remained out of range. Keeping the distance was certainly Bainbridge’s idea, knowing full well that 24-pounder cannon could outrange Java’s 18-pounders. By 14:00 PM Constitution andJava were ready for battle and the first shots boomed out across the calm sea; fired at long range by the Constitution these cannon balls struck the Java which was powerless to respond. 


The Battle Gets Fiercer

The battle was decidedly one sided for these first forty minutes. HMS Java made efforts to close the distance between the ships but each time Lambert steered to starboard, Bainbridge drew Constitution away and as a result the British cannon could not be brought to bear. Unlike the engagement with HMS Guerriérewhich Constitution began in a poor position taking heavy fire and then concluded at short range with broadsides, here Bainbridge shrewdly chose to bombard Java without putting Constitutionin harm’s way. 

Once satisfied that Java had been struck repeatedly by the heavier US cannonballs and damage sustained by the British gun crews, Bainbridge chose to bring the Constitutionalongside for the final reckoning. However, the maneuver did not go smoothly because Java was also attempting a similar move. The two ships came together with Java’s prow smashing into the rear port side of Constitution. Here was an opportunity that the British could not miss! Captain Lambert called for boarders to stream across the wooden bridge formed by Java’s jib-boom - the large mast rising above the prow - which was entangled with Constitution’s mizzen, or rear mast. This tenuous link was all the incentive the British needed as having endured an hour of maneuver where every attempt to engage was frustrated by Constitution pulling away, Lambert’s cry for boarders was eagerly answered. The pivotal moment approached as the British swept forward across Java’s deck. Faced with this charge the crew of Constitutionrose to the challenge and rapid musketry broke out from Constitution’s rigging. The British charge was doomed; not only had Captain Lambert and most of the boarders been smashed down onto Java’s deck by musket balls, the USS Constitution then pulled to starboard tearing Java’s jib-boom away and breaking free. 

With the range closed, the two ships began firing broadsides. Huge crescendos filled the air as smoke, fire and iron seared the gap between the warships. Aided by her thick wooden walls and larger cannons Constitutionkept the advantage. Below decks the cannon balls ripped great holes in the wooden walls and sent splinters through the tightly packed gun crews. The carnage was worse aboard Java as 24-pounder balls blew cannon from their mounts, smashed stairways and floors, but worse of all caused catastrophic damage to Java’s masts. By 16:00 PM Javawas a hulk, with masts down, rigging and sails draped across the deck and over the sides of the hull. Most of the crew was incapacitated including Captain Lambert, who was mortally wounded, and the British gunnery dropped away to sporadic single shots. Realizing that Javawas stricken Bainbridge turned out of range to assess damage to his own ship. 

Provided with time, the Java’s replacement commander, Lieutenant Chads, nailed the Royal Navy ensign to the stump that remained of the main mast and reorganized the ship. Unsurprisingly, Chads display of leadership was not enough and as the Constitution took up position for more broadsides, the Royal Navy ensign was hauled down. The time was 17:30 PM and HMS Java surrendered to USS Constitution.

The aftermath of the fight was a sorry affair; HMS Java was no longer seaworthy, 48 men were dying and 100 more were wounded. Due to Bainbridge’s decision to keep the Constitution out of range of the British guns for parts of the battle the US casualties were much lower, only 12 men being killed and 22 wounded. In this engagement with HMS Java‘Old Ironsides’ had once again protected her crew from the ravages of battle.



The power of the Royal Navy was undisputed from 1805 until 1812 when the United States’ frigates targeted British warships. Here we see the primary reason for British defeat: unpreparedness. Professor Jeremy Black has suggested that the British warships were lacking a full complement of sailors which would reduce the frigates’ ability in battle.[3]This reduction in ability was due to the difficulty of firing and maneuvering a warship under fire without enough sailors for each role. The lack of sailors on board also suggests a lack of resources but the larger problem remains. By allowing the British frigates to patrol off the US coast whilst under-crewed shows unpreparedness because the US threat was deemed so weak that Royal Navy frigates were crewed for sailing rather than for fighting. This is demonstrated in the case of HMS Java which had an inexperienced crew as well as civilians on board. In light of these weaknesses, Phillip S. Meilinger concludes that HMS Javawas “hoping to avoid a fight”[4]which does not fit with the Royal Navy’s Nelsonian tradition of victory. 

The major inaccuracy in the story is the supposed equality of the USS Constitution and the British warships that she destroyed. Firstly, the Guerriéreand the Java were smaller in size and had thinner outer-walls, added to which the British cannons fired smaller projectiles which did less damage. In the case of the Guerriérethe US frigate had another advantage because the British ship was an elderly French warship and her masts were rotten and too weak for rapid changes of direction, such as tacking into the wind.[5]In another inaccuracy, the British gunnery is downplayed to the point of ineptitude. However, aboard HMS Guerriéreand HMS Java the traditional Royal Navy excellence was in place.[6]Despite this, George Canning MP and a previous Treasurer of the Navy spoke in Parliament of how the “sacred spell of the invincibility of the British navy was broken by those unfortunate captures”. Canning went on to stress that this war “may not be concluded before we have re-established the character of our naval superiority, and smothered in victories the disasters which we have now to lament, and to which we are so little habituated.”[7]



The Royal Navy had lost two warships in foreign waters and this shocked the establishment. The loss of HMS Guerriére and HMS Java to a fledgling US Navy was the 19thCentury equivalent to HMS Repulse andHMS Prince of Wales being sunk by the new Japanese naval air arm in 1941. With time the British overwhelmed the United States Navy, blockaded the coastline, retained Canada, and burnt the White House. Signed on Christmas Eve 1814 the Treaty of Ghent ended the war and arguably came just in time for the United States.[8]

For historians this is the tale that is remembered; for example in his magnum opus,The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Paul Kennedy does not mention the US frigate victories at all. Instead Kennedy focuses upon the obvious limitations of British sea power, namely that in the future a large continental land mass like America could not be conquered by warships alone.[9]However, it remains ironic that the Royal Navy was held at bay by a warship named Constitution, evoking the document which had set North America apart from the British Empire. The British victory over the United States may have settled the relationship between the two countries, but the US successes at sea suggested an alarming future; a future which foresaw a rise of US maritime and naval power that would eclipse Britain in just over a century. 


What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.

[1]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

[2]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

[3]Jeremy Black, A British View of the Naval War of 1812 (Naval History Vol. 22 Issue 4, August 2008, pp: 16-25)

[4]Phillip S. Meilinger, Review of The Perfect Wreck—“Old Ironsides” and HMS Java: A Story of 1812by Steven Maffeo (Naval War College Review

 Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring 2012, pp: 171-172)

[5]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.

[6]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77 and 99.

[7]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates,  18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649) accessed: 05/02/2019)

[8]Matthew Dennis, Reflections on a bicentennial: The War of 1812 in American Public Memory(Early American Studies Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 2014), 275. 

[9]Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: Penguin, 2017), 139.

James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig concludes his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He considers events around South Carolina’s secession in late 1860 and early 1861, specifically how conflict started and the role that Buchanan played.

You can read the earlier articles in the series on James Buchanan and Bleeding Kansas here, and preparing for secession here.

Fort Sumter in April 1861, with the Confederate flag flying.

Fort Sumter in April 1861, with the Confederate flag flying.

On December 20, 1860, James Buchanan’s fears had come true as South Carolina seceded from the Union. The President had long foreseen the possibility that the South would take such drastic measures.  As we have seen prior, Buchanan attempted to prepare for secession, but Congress had ignored his advice and request to prepare for such an event.  Congress never raised the five regiments that the President had asked for nor did they make any efforts to enforce forts in the South.  The debate over slavery and the inability for the nation’s lawmaking body to agree on the issue left America in a divided state.  

Once Buchanan became aware of South Carolina’s treachery, he immediately ordered Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the forts in Charleston Harbor, to do nothing to provoke the situation but to stand firm.  The President advised Anderson to stay at Fort Moultrie on the mainland and to only move to the heavily fortified Fort Sumter offshore if an attack was imminent.  Buchanan believed that his orders were quite clear, however, just six days later he received word that Anderson had moved his location to Fort Sumter.  The President was perplexed by Anderson’s decision to disobey his orders.  Despite this, he believed that the major would not have left his location at Fort Moultrie unless he truly felt threatened.  As he recalls in his memoirs “the president never doubted for a moment that Major Anderson believed before movement that he had ‘tangible evidence’ of an impending attack required by his instructions.”[1]He thought it unlikely that South Carolina would initiate an attack since it had sent commissioners to Washington in order to find a peaceful solution. With that he waited for Major Anderson to send word of his decision and why he had violated orders. 

Major Anderson’s explanation was examined by Buchanan and he determined that Anderson had moved on a false alarm.  However, he could not confirm what caused the alarm because once Anderson moved, the remaining forts and all federal property in Charleston were taken over by state authorities.  On December 28, two days after the siege of federal property, Buchanan (who had not been informed of what had happened yet) received the commissioners from South Carolina as private citizens.  This was because he did not recognize the legality of secession and could not see them as ambassadors of a foreign republic.   He would listen to their requests, but it was only Congress who could receive them in the role in which they were sent. After hearing their request Buchanan wrote that “to abandon all those forts to South Carolina, on the demand of the commissioners claiming to represent her as an independent State, would have been a recognition, on the part of the Executive, of her right to secede from the Union.  This was not to be thought of for a moment.”[2] In stating this, Buchanan made it clear that he did not accept the legality of South Carolina’s secession. His strict adherence to the United States Constitution supported his decision. 


A growing divide

Even though the President had received the commissioners in good faith, South Carolina’s representatives in Congress justified their actions in Charleston, stating that Anderson had committed an act of aggression by moving his location to Fort Sumter.  They had acted in “self-defense” in seizing the remaining federal property in the city.  For this they blamed Buchanan and discredited his honor in such a way that his cabinet wrote a reply to their allegations stating, “this paper, just presented to the President, is of such a character that he declines to accept it.”[3]From this point on, hostilities between Buchanan’s administration and South Carolina would increase.  In a special address to Congress about the situation in South Carolina in January 1861, despite calls for him to take direct action by the public, Buchanan wrote “I certainly had no right to make aggressive war upon any state…to Congress (and) to them exclusively belongs the power to declare war or to authorize the employment of military force in all cases contemplated by the Constitution…I refrain them from sending reinforcements to Major Anderson who commanded the forts in Charleston Harbor, until an absolute necessity for doing so should make itself apparent…”[4]

Although his message was meant to reassure South Carolina that he would not take direct military action at the present, he still intended to collect tax revenue from the state because in his eyes, South Carolina was still part of the Union.  Senator Jefferson Davis argued against Buchanan’s failure to recognize his state’s right to secede and his ignorance to continue to collect taxes.  At that point, all of Buchanan’s hopes to negotiate with the state ended as “all friendly intercourse between them and the president, whether of a political or social character, had ceased.”[5]


Military build-up

Buchanan was not going to let the South leave under his watch. Although he strongly believed that many of the other Southern States wanted to negotiate with the North and the Federal Government, he recognized that military action may be required. Pending Congressional approval, President Buchanan had made preparations to reinforce Fort Sumter with an additional two hundred soldiers.  By December 15, the Brooklyn a heavily armed ship of war was prepared to be sent to Fort Sumter with supplies and reinforcements. Buchanan was well aware of its preparation sanctioned by the Secretary of the Navy and General Scott.  However, at the time, there was no call for alarm because the President had received a note from South Carolina insisting that they had no intention to attack the forts in Charleston Harbor.  In addition, the state had not officially seceded from the Union yet according to the Federal Government.  The Brooklynstayed ready in New York Harbor incase the situation changed in the state.[6]

When South Carolina officially cut off all negotiations with the President in early 1861, James Buchanan realized that war was imminent. He took immediate action in ordering the Brooklyn to Charleston Harbor via General Scott.  However, General Scott, after seeking the advice of a naval expert, transferred the orders to an unarmed merchant vessel Star of the West.  His reasoning was that a faster ship would provide for the element of surprise and a quick delivery of the reinforcements to Fort Sumter.  This was against the knowledge of the President, who was intent on getting troops to the fort as soon as possible.  General Scott, upon some consideration, recognized his error and immediately sent word to New York to transfer the orders back to the Brooklyn.  However, it was too late as the ship had sailed for Charleston and was beyond reach for communication.[7]


Charleston Harbor

When the Star of the West arrived in Charleston Harbor on January 9, 1861, the batteries set up in the harbor opened fire on the ship forcing it to change course and return to New York.  Its captain had been instructed to land his troops at nearby Fort Monroe and to await the Brooklyn for support in the event he was unable to land at Fort Sumter.  These orders apparently were disregarded in the haste of the retreat to sea after the attack.  Major Anderson did not return fire because he believed that the guns had been fired by mistake and not by the South Carolina governor’s orders.  He was wrong, Governor Pickens had given the order and after the attack sent a message to Anderson demanding that he surrender the fort to him.  Anderson told him that he would not surrender by any means.[8]This marked the last time that the government of the United States under James Buchanan attempted to use military action to secure Charleston Harbor via Fort Sumter.  

Between January and February, before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, James Buchanan could only stand by and watch as the nation dissolved around him.  He grew irritated over Congress’s lack of action in declaring war against the South or in giving him the powers to do so.  Buchanan believed that Congress and Congress alone had the authority to authorize him as commander-in chief to take direct action.  He states that it was the “imperative duty of Congress to furnish the President or his successor the means of repelling force by force, should this become necessary to preserve the Union.  They, nevertheless, refused to perform this duty as much pertinacity as they had manifested in rebuilding all measures of compromise.”[9]

Unfortunately for James Buchanan, the South at the time still had a dominant presence in Congress and the string of events had created confusion within the other states.  Therefore, little could be accomplished as the nation’s governing body had been divided by secession.  It was only after Buchanan had left office, under a new Congress, the powers that Buchanan had wanted were given to his successor Abraham Lincoln.[10]


What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during the secession of South Carolina? Let us know below.

[1]James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 120. 

[2]Buchanan, 121. 

[3]Buchanan, 121. 

[4]Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 82-84. 

[5]Buchanan, 85.

[6]Buchanan, 110.

[7]Buchanan, 126.

[8]Buchanan, 127

[9]Buchanan, 102. 

[10]Buchanan, 102. 

Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.

Here, Toby Clark considers the background to the War of 1812 and the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriére.

A painting showing the USS Constitution battling HMS Guerriere. By Anton Otto Fischer.

A painting showing the USS Constitution battling HMS Guerriere. By Anton Otto Fischer.

Background to war

The naval war was driven by the British Royal Navy’s aggressive impressment of United States’ Navy sailors into British service.[1]In fact, the British warships would stop and send Marines aboard the American ship and forcibly remove Royal Navy deserters. In naval terms, impressment is the term for forced servitude on board ship and is best known from ‘press-gangs’ which searched harbor towns for Royal Navy recruits. In his popular study of the USS Constitution Donald Macintyre views the British infringement on the United States’ shipping as deeply wounding to American national pride.[2]Today this diplomatic incident may have resulted in increased naval activity or tense diplomatic discussions but in 1812 the only viable option for the US Government was war. This decision could not be taken lightly by the United States because the Royal Navy was not only highly skilled but also superior in size. For instance, at the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 83 warships in American waters, and by 1813 this number had increased to 129 warships, including a number of 74 gunned ships of the line.[3]Macintyre makes the point that only a fraction of the Royal Navy would be dispatched to the US; but regardless of British focus on Napoleon in Europe, victory against the United States seemed to be assured.[4]

In contrast to the Royal Navy, the United States Navy appeared woefully inadequate. However, whilst the US Navy was hopelessly outnumbered there were three initial advantages. Firstly, the US Navy was fighting in home waters in close proximity to friendly harbors which meant that repairing and resupplying ships was straightforward. Compare this to the British, who had to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain or northwards to Halifax in Canada in order to reach home bases. This was a key component of A. T. Mahan’s famous thesis on sea power which predicted victory for a navy with closer port facilities.[5]Secondly, the crews of the US ships were well-trained and led by officers who possessed skill and ability. Captain Isaac Hull, Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore William Bainbridge are notable figures who each gained successes against the British and whose actions will feature shortly. Thirdly, the US had commissioned a new fleet of frigates whose size and armament was superior to the Royal Navy’s frigates. As an example, a typical British frigate HMS Java carried 49, 18-pounder cannons whilst the USS United States mounted 55, 24-pounder cannon.[6]Clearly, the American frigate, which was a sister-ship to the USS Constitution, possessed a firepower advantage in both numbers and size of shot. So with these local advantages the US frigate fleet put to sea; let us focus on the USS Constitution.


USS Constitution versus HMS Guerriére

Interestingly, the first confrontation between the USS Constitutionand the Royal Navy took the form of a wager back in 1798. Challenged by a Royal Navy frigate, Constitution agreed to race into the wind for one day and the winner would receive a cask of Madeira, a highly desirable fortified wine. The US trumped the British in the race, thus foreshadowing later US successes. 

The first battle under examination was fought by the Constitutionon August 19, 1812 when Captained by Isaac Hull, the USS Constitution met Captain James Dacre’s HMS Guerriére whilst patrolling off Nova Scotia. If the British were confident of victory before the battle, they certainly had a right to be pleased once the engagement began. With a better initial position, HMS Guerriére was able to fire broadsides at the Constitution whilst the US frigate was still attempting to maneuver alongside. The British held the advantage because whilst the Constitutionremained to the rear of the British frigate, the US crew held their fire. In contrast, the British loaded and fired but without much effect.[7]

At this point however the battle turned as Isaac Hull brought the Constitution alongside the Guerriéreand finally authorized the cannon to open fire. Having held a slim advantage up to this point HMS Guerriére was unable to out-maneuver the Constitution because Captain Dacre worried that his ships rotten masts would not handle the strain.[8]Unable to escape from Isaac Hull’s grasp, the greater size of the crew, armor and armament of the US frigate left the Royal Navy warship riddled with jagged holes. Furthermore, following deliberate targeting by the US cannon Guerriére’s masts had been felled and the British frigate was motionless. Having fired a number of broadsides into the stricken warshipHull accepted the British surrender from Captain James Dacre. The battle was over and the Americans’ had suffered fourteen casualties, compared to the British with seventy eight casualties.[9]

The imbalance in casualties can be attributed to superior US gunnery which was faster and more accurate, and the construction of the Constitution meant that British rounds did not penetrate. It is worth mentioning that USS Constitution’s nickname, ‘Old Ironsides’, was borne of her wooden walls which were thick enough to cause British cannon balls to bounce-off. The result was further illustrated by the need to scuttle the British warship because the damage was so severe that towing the prize back to the US was impossible. The once proud HMS Guerriére was set alight and left to burn in the lonely ocean.


The second and final part of the series is here.

What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.

[1]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates,  18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649) accessed: 05/02/2019)

[2]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships (London: Hamlyn, 1975), 36.

[3]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 196 and 243.

[4]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 36.

[5]Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783(The Project Gutenberg eBook: September 26, 2004, accessed: 22/04/2019. Originally published: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), 535.

[6]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39 and 43.

[7]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77.

[8]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.

[9]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

In mid-to-late nineteenth century Victorian Britain, ‘freak shows’ were popular exhibitions where the general public could pay to go and observe individuals with physical abnormalities and deformities. By their very nature these shows were underpinned by exploitative institutions designed to make money from those rejected by society. However, when the bigger picture is scrutinized, it becomes apparent that the situation facing those involved within ‘freak shows’ wasn’t as straightforward as it might initially seem. Stuart Cameron explains.

Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.

Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.

Usage of the word ‘freak’

Before diving into the historical details of this subject it is important to justify the usage of the word ‘freak’ within this article.

The word likely conjures up different feelings to different people. By modern standards, most would agree that much of the language used by Victorians towards individuals exhibited within ‘freak shows’ - ‘freaks’ - would be considered distasteful, uncomfortable, and politically incorrect to say the very least.

Robert Bogdan, author of Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, produced a list of words that have been used to describe ‘freaks’ throughout time. Terms like ‘lusus natrae’ (Latin for ‘freaks of nature’), ‘curiosities’, ‘oddities’, ‘monsters’, ‘grotesques’, and ‘nature’s mistakes’ are a few of the many examples that carry clear negative implications. In contrast to those, terms like ‘wonders’, ‘marvels’, rarities’, and ‘very special people’ carry considerably more sympathetic connotations, but were almost only exclusively used within marketing and advertising materials for shows.[1]

Based on this non-exhaustive list, what is clear is that ‘freaks’ were not solely seen as something negative, but at times were actually valued based on the rarity of their existence. Such a variety of jargon exists towards ‘freaks’ as a result of blended scientific terminology and show-world hype, muddied further by the progression of time.[2]Regardless of whether the connotation was negative or positive, ‘freaks’ either way were seen as something different and non-compliant with social ideas of normality.

On top of that, ‘freaks’ came in all shapes and sizes. Some were born as ‘freaks’, some became ‘freaks’ at a point in their lifetime as a result of an accident or a medical condition, and others altered their bodies and became ‘freaks’ by choice. This in turn makes the word ‘freak’ a term that covers a lot of territory. It’s a word that has been used to refer to bearded ladies like Julia Pastrana (dubbed as ‘the Bear Lady’); conjoined ‘Siamese’ twins like Chang and Eng; and to people with full body tattoo coverage like George Burchett (dubbed as the ‘King of Tattooists’). The only trait these three very different people have in common? That they were physically not ‘normal’.

As such, this makes the concept of a ‘freak’ one that transcends gender, racial, economic, social, age, medical, and scientific boundaries. Naturally, however, this throws up some obstacles for historians examining the ‘freak show’ industry. As uncomfortable as the continued usage of the word ‘freak’ may be, it is used solely on the grounds that there is no modern equivalent that accurately represents the diversity of the men and women involved within the shows.


'Freak Shows' within Victorian society

‘Freak Shows’ were exhibitions of biologically abnormal humans and animals that members of the public could pay a small fee and observe a physical manifestation of something quite drastically different from themselves. The shows were at their peak in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and appealed to people across the economic and class spectrum of the United Kingdom. As well as that, private “for ladies only” viewing rooms were provided so that women had safe spaces within potentially dangerous urban places to attend shows.[3]The contemporary humor magazine Punchdubbed Britain’s “growing taste for deformity” as the ‘Deformito-Mania’, claiming that ‘freak shows’ were an “unhealthy admiration for the monstrous”.[4]Regardless of the social background of the audience, the reaction from those who attended shows was often a combination of shock, horror, andfascination.

The shows could be set up quickly, and at very low cost. In the same way that the circus travelled between towns and cities across the country, ‘freak show’ owners deployed a similar strategy. As such, the mobility of the shows proved a fundamental part of their popular appeal. Being able to set up quickly in community halls and in the back rooms of public houses kept outgoing costs at a minimum and helped to make the shows accessible to the working classes. Joseph Merrick, known more famously as ‘The Elephant Man’ was regularly exhibited in the back room of an east London pub known as a “penny gaff”. As well as these ‘pop-up' style shows, certain venues became infamous for their ‘freak show’ exhibitions. The Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly, London hosted a number of different ‘freaks’ throughout the nineteenth century including the ‘Living Skeleton’ (being a man who consisted of little more than skin and bone) and the ‘Siamese’ twins Chang and Eng (who were conjoined by their stomach).[5]


The Showmen

To the showmen in charge, ‘freaks’ were undoubtedly their business commodities – and their way of turning a profit. In his memoirs, British showman Tom Norman (also referred to as ‘the Penny Showman’) admitted: “There was a time, in my career as a showman, when I would exhibit any mortal thing for money”, adding “there were always large crowds who were only too eager to pay and see anything that aroused their curiosity, no matter how repulsive, or how demoralising.”[6]From a twenty-first century perspective, seeing the ‘freak show’ industry as anything but exploitative can prove to be difficult. But, in a perplexing sort of way, ‘freak shows’ gave ‘freaks’ a platform to exhibit their bodies and make a small income – more than anything else in Victorian society offered to most of them.

It was common that ‘freak shows’ were advertised through promotions that established narratives and origin stories of the ‘freaks’ on display – which in most cases were totally fictitious. Storytelling was a common technique used by the showman in the knowledge that the audiences who came to view the exhibits were susceptible to believing the tales, no matter how whimsical or fantastic they were. This made the showman an understated, yet integral part of the entertainment success of his shows. It wasn’t just a case of ‘freaks’ taking the initiative to exhibit themselves and receiving the entirety of the profit without the showman. A massive part of their success lay in the way that the showmen marketed them, told their “stories”, and highlighted the rarity of their existence to the audience.

At their very core, ‘freak shows’ were exploitative. They were underpinned by an inhumane business model that capitalized on the misfortune of people rejected by society, and with no opportunity to make a living on the basis of them being physically different. Victorian society left ‘freaks’ in a situation with little option in life, and as a result their involvement within the ‘freak show’ industry was one that they themselves had little control of.


What do you think of the 19th century ‘freak show’ industry? Let us know below.

Author Bio

Stuart Cameron is a freelance copywriter and blogger on a mission to harness the past to better understand the now. More of his blog posts, his writing portfolio, and details about his copywriting services are available at

[1]Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, 1988. 6.

[2]Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, 1988. 6.

[3]Durbach, Nadja. Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009). 7.

[4]“The Deformito-Mania” Punch Magazine. (4 Sept 1847). 90.

[5]Mayes, Ronald. ‘The Romance of London Theatres No.87. The Egyptian Hall’ Lewisham Hippodrome Programme, March 1930. (no further bibliographic details provided)

[6]Norman, Tom & Norman, George. The Penny Showman: Memoirs of Tom Norman “Silver King”. (London, 1985). 23-24.