Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Sea Their Graves by David J. Stewart

Why I read it: Chose it from a list to review for Sea History magazine, figuring that since I'm in the midst of walking graveyards to read 50,000 epitaphs in a year, and I'm a practicing mariitme historian, I might be sort of an expert on the topic, if (another) one exists.

Summary: "An archaeology of death and remembrance in maritime culture," the subtitle. How did Americans and Brits remember their dead lost at sea in the Age of Sail?

My Thoughts: So, I've "read," by now, dozens of graveyards in coastal communities. Along the way I've found numerous memorials and cenotaphs for sailors who died at sea, who were either recovered or lost forever, and each one tells such a different story: naval battles, shipboard accidents, shipwrecks. As far as our graveyards go, these stones provide oftentimes the only bit of color in an otherwise drab, macabre world.

David Stewart, as assistant professor at Eastern Carolina University, hotbed for maritime archaeology studies, makes the case that there is maritime archaeology to be conducted ashore. The last chapter of a shipwreck's story, for instance, can be told in the words and imagery symbolically placed on the tombstones or other items of remembrance for the sailors lost in those tragedies. In his book he focuses on British and American mariners lost in the Age of Sail, fully admitting that the whole story cannot be told until we make comparative studies in the other nations that plied the Atlantic during that time: France, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, etc.

What I really enjoyed about this scholarly look at the subject was the way it stepped outside of the bounds of maritime history to contextualize trends within it. Why was there an increase in religious symbolism on stones in the early part of the nineteenth century? The answer, he suggests, lies in the great religious awakening of the period; sailors who once considered a holy man aboard a ship a taboo were now being buried under crosses and clasped hands pointing skyward.

He also dives into the emotional side of the story. How do Americans today deal with the inability to recover a body from the sea, and has the trend always remained the same? What does the wording on a stone truly say about the people who did the memorializing? Were sentiments the same on state-sponsored, family-erected and comrade-funded stones?

For stone gawkers like me, this book is an instant Bible, one to keep on the shelf as reference as my own thoughts take shape. 33,000 stones in, I'm thinking that I not only have a short-term research project, but a lifelong hobby brewing. With a little focus, I'm sure I can contribute to this study, if it's wanted.


  1. Hi John,
    I found your website yesterday after coming over from your Half an Hour A Day blog (looking at your hike in Granville).

    I'm really enjoying looking at the books you have read. I am a big Bryson fan. I think I have read all but Mother Tongue. Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, and A Walk in the Woods are my favorites. Looks like a new one coming out in October. I also have a bunch of Kurlansky's books, but so far haven't read them. I'll have to move them up on my list.

    Your comments on The Sea Their Graves interested me because my great-great-grandfather, John P. Aiken, was lost at sea in Dec 1897. He was sailing between Gloucester and Newfoundland for a load of herring on the Grace L. Fears, the same ship of Howard Blackburn fame if you know that story. In the book Fast and Able by Gordon Thomas, there is a blurb about the ship and the message in the bottle found several years after the ship went down. (You can see the excerpt on Amazon.) Aiken's father was also supposed to have been lost in the Bay of Fundy, but so far no luck with that one.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to seeing what you are reading next.


  2. Hi Sarah - Love Bryson! And I've already pre-ordered the next one. I have a bunch ahead of me, but am trying to spread them out so I always have one on the horizon. If you're into language history in any way, grab Mother Tongue. He's not as glib in it as in others, but the story is deeply interesting.

    That's quite a tale about your great-great-grandfather. Have you ever seen a gravemarker for him? I'm now interested to see what they all say. Do you have his father's name? I'd love to do some searching if you think it would help.


  3. Hi John,

    If there is a grave marker for him, it would likely be in Gloucester, although I have no idea which cemetery. He is included on the Fisherman's memorial. The website has a description of the Memorial service of 1898 that describes how they commemorated the men lost at sea in the last year. I wonder if they still do that? Hopefully not as many lost nowadays. My grandparents lived in Manchester and I spent a good amount of time there growing up, but do you think I cared about this stuff then?

    John Aiken's father was either John or David. Some notes from my grandmother say his name was David, he was 27 years old, Master of a Packet crossing the Bay of Fundy with 50 passengers, all were lost Jan 1842. He left his wife Margaret Ann (King) Aiken and son John Pierce Aiken and she was pregnant with son David Aiken, Jr. John P was born in Shelburne, NS, and notes I have indicate his father was born in Ireland.

    One other thing you may find interesting is that I have a letter from A. J. Smith, Canadian Minister of Marine and Fisheries dated August 18, 1874 thanking John P. Aiken, then master if the schooner JHG Perkins, for the rescue of the crew of the barque Helen Patterson of Pictou, NS, on Dec 19, 1873. The letter indicates they also sent a gold watch, but perhaps that went down with him.

    My grandmother was great at finding out all this stuff, and this was my grandfather's side of the family, not hers! I wish I had paid more attention (or had more interest) when I was a kid, because now I find it fascinating. My husband and I joke that if we take a trip to Scotland, he'll be golfing and I'll be visiting cemeteries!

    I'd better stop now. I could blather on about this stuff all day.

    Thanks for your interest. If you find out anything let me know.


  4. - here's a list of 1842 Nova Scotia shipwrecks, perhaps we can find something there. There are many January entries, but we'll have to widen the searches to find more.

    Also, take a look at this: - scroll to the very bottom to find a mention of John P.

  5. And how's this for weird...

  6. Hi John,

    I came across that NY Times article a few months ago. I had no idea the John P also traveled to NYC. I assumed he went strictly between Gloucester/Boston and Canada. Although it is describing a terrible event, I get a kick out of the language used, especially: "His despoiler was probably of the class of prowlers around the Spring Street market who are alert when they see an infirm or intoxicated person in the neighborhood, or a "dock rat" as the police style the petty thieves who infest the river fronts..."

    There is another book called The Masts of Gloucester by Ray McFarland that has a chapter about John Aiken. I remember it being kind of an exciting tale.

    Regarding the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, I had somehow come up with the Thesis which sank Jan 1842 in the Bay of Fundy. The problem I see is that it sailed from Liverpool, England. Maybe someone really meant Liverpool, NS? Probably not. It would make sense though since it is near where his children were born in Shelburne.

    I spent a couple of hours at a library used book sale this morning. I was able to pick up How I Killed Pluto which had been on my list for awhile.

    Thanks for taking the time to look around. I can get lost for hours on this stuff.