At Sea

At Sea in the World (Or, The UnNatural Histories of a Ship): 

The Cruise of U.S. Frigate ESSEX, 1798–1837

frigate Essex Howard

The only known contemporary painting of the Salem Frigate, housed in the PEM, was produced at a later date by Joseph Howard, son of John Howard (one of the sailmakers). Original held at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

I (at long last!) completed my doctoral dissertation in 2012, using the ethnographic and environmental intercourses made possible by this fascinating little globe-trotting ship as a window into the history of the early Americas and U.S. in the world. The story is too rich to leave it sitting between the covers of a tome somewhere, of no use to anyone, so I have pulled anchor on my regular haunts and am headed for blue water on this one: using historical scholarship as a keel for a new ship entirely. While completing the additional research I need, I’m mulling whether to write this book as nonfiction or a novel that brings the people and other beings of this frigate to the stage once more. The ship itself, however, will remain the central historical character, and all else will trail in her wake. For a sense of the scope of the project, here’s the blurb from my dissertation:

In Oa’oamanu (October), 1798, the Teii people of Taioha’e, Nukuhiva held a great koika (feast) for kin and foes alike at their ceremonial center on the island’s northern coast. An estimated 10,000 Henua’enanans converged for this multi-day ceremony, which included singing, competitive dancing, and historical re-enactments of recent disturbing encounters between Te ‘Enana (The People) and Te Aoe (The Strangers). On the 23rd day of that same month, a group of people from Salem and Essex County, Massachusetts held a town meeting where they “voted unanimously to build a frigate of thirty-two guns, and to loan the same to the government.”

Frigate Essex became the first U.S. vessel of war to round and double the Cape of Good Hope (1800). In 1812, she served in the Caribbean and Atlantic, taking the first British prize of that conflict (H.M. Alert), and, early in 1813, became the first U.S. ship of war to round Cape Horn and cruise the Pacific. Within months, the frigate had captured 12 British whalers and the focused attention of the Royal Navy, and was in serious need of repairs. Fifteen years and three days after that initial Salem vote, U.S. Frigate Essex opened the bay off Taioha’e, igniting a small chain of controversial, deadly, and oft-retold events that included some deeply intimate intercourses, a “war of conquest,” and a formal ceremony of annexation to the United States. After a bloody battle off Valparaíso, Chile in March 1814, the well-storied vessel survived to spend many of her remaining years in the Royal Navy as first HMS Essex and then Convict Hulk Essex.

This thesis treats the ship as the main historical character and tracks her from inception to demise, attending in particular to the ethnographic and environmental interrogations necessary to keep the frigate afloat and functioning. Cross-species encounters and cross-cultural intercourses become the lifeblood of the living ship, and shape the daily realities of those aboard and alongside. By reflecting on the conventions of historical narratives and performances throughout, immersing readers in the primary sources of this project, and developing a concept of cultures as waves becoming, the analysis seeks to function as a koika that reconsiders what U.S. Frigate Essex might still teach us about ships and nations and beings at sea in the world.

NOTE: Although later historians and even U.S. Navy publications commonly refer to this ship as the first USS Essex, that is incorrect. The appellation USS, for the captains and secretaries of the early U.S. Navy at least, bore too great a resemblance to the HBM (His Brittanic Majesty) or HMS (His Majesty’s Ship) used by the Royal Navy. All the US vessels in the 1812–15 conflict used the more humble ”United States” followed by Frigate, Ship, Sloop, Brig, etc. This naming convention would be succeeded by USS during the Civil War. Prior to that this ship was known strictly as The Salem Frigate (mostly by people of upper New England) and as US Frigate ESSEX in the Navy and to readers across the Americas who followed her exploits in newspapers.

Similarly, the US Navy also did not designate admirals until the Civil War, opting instead for mission-specific titles (such as Commodore or Captain). David Glasgow Farragut (midshipman who served on Essex during its Pacific cruise, 1812–14), become the first at the rank of rear admiral, 16 July 1862; he was promoted to vice admiral on 21 December 1864 and admiral on 25 July 1866) and David Dixon Porter became the second: as acting rear admiral during the Vicksburg campaign, vice admiral on Farragut’s appointment to Admiral, and then Admiral on Farragut’s death.


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