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A history of the world in 12 shipwrecks: From the Ancient Greeks to Hitler’s U-boats


A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN TWELVE SHIPWRECKS

By David Gibbins (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25, 304pp)

Nick Rennison

In 1545, Henry VIII, staring across the Solent, was an appalled witness to the sinking of his warship, the Mary Rose.

‘Through misfortune and carelessness,’ wrote the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador, ‘the ship… foundered, and all hands on board, to the number of about 500, were drowned, with the exception of about five and twenty or thirty servants, sailors and the like.’

More than 400 years later, the Mary Rose was raised from the seas. Its resurrection is one of the most significant achievements of the maritime archaeology David Gibbins celebrates in this engrossing book.

Gibbins is the ideal person to tell the story of shipwrecks. He is a distinguished underwater archaeologist, veteran of thousands of dives and a best-selling novelist whose narrative skills are here harnessed to fact rather than fiction.

Gibbins¿s most recent wreck is the SS Gairsoppa, sunk by a U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941

Gibbins’s most recent wreck is the SS Gairsoppa, sunk by a U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941

Gairsoppa had been carrying 17 tons of silver bullion. Some of this was recovered and the Royal Mint struck 20,000 coins from it

Gairsoppa had been carrying 17 tons of silver bullion. Some of this was recovered and the Royal Mint struck 20,000 coins from it

His earliest wreck is the Bronze Age boat discovered in 1992, its timbers miraculously preserved in the oxygen-free mud at the bed of the river that ran through Dover in prehistoric times. 

The Dover Boat was probably constructed some time between 1575 and 1520 BC. It would have been able to cross the Channel and make extended coastal journeys, possibly as far as the Baltic Sea northwards and the Bay of Biscay to the south.

Gibbins’s most recent wreck is the SS Gairsoppa, sunk by a U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941. It had been carrying 17 tons of silver bullion. Some of this was recovered and the Royal Mint struck 20,000 coins from it.

Between the Dover Boat and the Gairsoppa, Gibbins highlights ten other wrecks. The Bronze Age ship found off the Turkish coast in 1982 was carrying an ‘astonishing diversity’ of goods, from pottery to weaponry. 

It also had enough metal on board to make 5,000 swords. Another, more unusual find, was a folding writing tablet which some scholars have described as ‘the world’s oldest book’.

In 1545, Henry VIII, staring across the Solent, was an appalled witness to the sinking of his warship, the Mary Rose

In 1545, Henry VIII, staring across the Solent, was an appalled witness to the sinking of his warship, the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was raised from the seas in 1982 and is now on display at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

The Mary Rose was raised from the seas in 1982 and is now on display at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

A Greek ship from the 5th century BC, also located off the coast of Turkey, had a cargo that consisted mainly of wine. Letters stamped on the amphoras, huge jars, showed that it came from Erythrae, renowned for its wine. A scalpel handle found on a 2nd century AD Roman wreck revealed the probable presence of a skilled eye surgeon on board. It was most likely used in cataract operations.

What wrecks often show are patterns of trade. The discovery of a 9th century ship off an Indonesian island provided evidence of goods passing between Tang dynasty China and Persia. The huge cargo included more than 50,000 bowls, candlesticks, incense burners and mirrors. One of the items was already an antique when it sank beneath the waves.

More recent wrecks shed light on British and global history of the past 300 years. The Royal Anne Galley went down off the Cornish coast in 1721. Only three out of the 210 individuals on board survived.

Among those drowned was Lord Belhaven, sailing to Barbados to serve as the colony’s governor. Reportedly, the day before its departure, he was warned of his fate by ‘a mysterious woman in a mantle and hood’ but misguidedly chose to ignore her. Had it made it to the West Indies, it would have been used to hunt down the buccaneer, ‘Black Bart’ Roberts.

Gibbins is a sensitive narrator; he never loses sight of the reality that wrecks represent the tragic loss of human lives. However, he also knows they can open up ‘many fascinating byways of history to those willing to be fully immersed’.



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