On June 15, 1904, a fire broke out on the General Slocum, a steamboat crossing the East River with over thirteen hundred passengers on board, and it sank. Few of the passengers could swim, most were wearing thick layers of clothes, and the life vests were faulty. An estimated 1,021 people died—the deadliest day in New York City’s history until September 11, 2001.
“Just opposite, an island of the sea, / There came enchantment with the shifting wind, / That did both drown and keep alive my ears,” wrote John Keats in Hyperion. It was published in a collection of poems in 1820; Keats died the following year. In 1822 Percy Bysshe Shelley, returning from a visit to Lord Byron, drowned after his schooner, the Don Juan, capsized. His body washed up on the Tuscan shore a few days later. In his pocket was a copy of Keats’ poems.
“Ten dolphins are now being trained for special tasks in the Ukrainian state oceanarium, and the Ukrainian military are regularly training the animals for detecting things on the seabed,” a military official told a Russian newspaper in 2012. The source went on to say that some dolphins would be trained to combat enemy swimmers, using special knives or pistols affixed to their heads. The Ukrainian Defense Ministy later denied the program’s existence.
Around noon on April 27, 1932, while aboard a steamship southeast of Florida, poet Hart Crane, intoxicated and still wearing his pajamas, jumped overboard. The ship’s captain later told Crane’s companion, Peggy Cowley, “If the propellers didn’t grind him to mincemeat, then the sharks got him immediately.”
“If ever a loss at sea fell under the definition, in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act of God,” Joseph Conrad wrote, “this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness, and severity; and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.” The sentence ends the first paragraph of his 1912 essay “Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic.”
After Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to quell suspicions that the U.S. had helped foment revolt in order to build the Panama Canal. Roosevelt asked Secretary of War Elihu Root if he had properly defended himself against accusations of wrongdoing. Root reportedly replied, “You certainly have, Mr. President. You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”
“There is a dockyard at Woolwich where one hundred warships of all sizes are built yearly to replace ships lost to the enemy or which have become obsolete. Because of the high costs of armaments and machinery, the government is usually in debt and forced to borrow from the public,” observed Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, a Persian ambassador on a diplomatic visit to London in 1810.
Zheng Yi Sao, a Cantonese prostitute, married a pirate captain in 1801 and helped him build up his sea empire, so that by 1805 it consisted of four hundred junk ships operated by forty to sixty thousand pirates. In 1810 the Chinese government, rather than continue to suffer losses, offered the pirates amnesty if they were to retire. Zheng Yi Sao accepted and, according to one historian, led the remainder of her life peacefully, “so far as is consistent with the keeping of an infamous gambling house.”
“Were it possible that the sea could be drained of its waters and emptied by some extraordinary accident, what incredible numbers, what infinite variety of uncommon and amazing sea monsters would exhibit themselves to our view, which are now entirely unknown!” wrote Reverend Erich Pontoppidan in his Natural History of Norway, published in 1753. Ninety-five percent of the ocean remains unseen by humankind, and it is believed that up to sixty-five percent of its plant and animal life has not yet been undiscovered.
Suetonius, a biographer of Roman emperors, claimed that the violent ruler Tiberius had a clifftop location in Capri from which he liked to watch his victims thrown into the sea. “A party of marines were stationed below,” Suetonius wrote, “and when the bodies came hurtling down, they whacked at them with oars and boathooks, to make sure that they were completely dead.”