Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World by Billy G. Smith

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 21, 2013

It is no exaggeration to say that the Hankey, a small British ship that circled the Atlantic in 1792 and 1793, transformed the history of the Atlantic world. This extraordinary book uncovers the long-forgotten story of the Hankey, from its altruistic beginnings to its disastrous end, and describes the ship’s fateful impact upon people from West Africa to Philadelphia, Haiti to London. Billy G. Smith chased the story of the Hankey from archive to archive across several continents, and he now brings back to light a saga that continues to haunt the modern world. It began with a group of high-minded British colonists who planned to establish a colony free of slavery in West Africa. With the colony failing, the ship set sail for the Caribbean and then North America, carrying, as it turned out, mosquitoes infected with yellow fever. The resulting pandemic as the Hankey traveled from one port to the next was catastrophic. In the United States, tens of thousands died in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston. The few survivors on the Hankey eventually limped back to London, hopes dashed and numbers decimated. Smith links the voyage and its deadly cargo to some of the most significant events of the era—the success of the Haitian slave revolution, Napoleon’s decision to sell the Louisiana Territory, a change in the geopolitical situation of the new United States—and spins a riveting tale of unintended consequences and the legacy of slavery that will not die.

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Yellow Fever Destroying Florida
by Mathew Morgan, 1888.
It is impossible to truly appreciate historic fiction without a basic understanding of the facts which is what led me to Billy G. Smith's Ship of Death. I'm not well-versed in nautical history and began reading this piece in the hopes of expanding my basic knowledge of the subject. If anything, I intended it to be background reading and was caught off guard when I found myself utterly immersed in an all but forgotten chapter of maritime culture.

Smith's account of the Hankey and her movements in the late 1700s is nothing short of fascinating. There is an obvious emphasis on the epidemics sparked by the contagion onboard, but the way Smith linked the ship and its pernicious cargo to early British abolitionists, the colonization of Africa, the Haitian Revolution and the early history of America offered real perspective on the interrelated heritage of the world at large. Maybe it's just me, but I found Smith's approach both captivating and provocative which leads me to my second point. 

As wonderful as the content is, subject matter alone did not make this book. Smith traveled the world scouring specialized archives in his effort to piece together the history of the Hankey, but the resulting publication is entirely straightforward and unpretentious. Perhaps it's because Smith is professor at the University of Montana in Bozeman and built a career instructing others, but I found his work as engaging as it was informative and that's not quality I usually associate with authors of nonfiction.  

Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Ship of Death is a brilliant chronicle of a single English vessel and the horrendous legacy she left within her wake. Highly recommended to any reader of history, but definitely something for those who enjoyed Over the Edge of the World and In the Heart of the Sea.

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Like Christopher Columbus, these adventurers hoped to change the world. The voyage of the Hankey did change the world, but not in the way Beaver imagined.
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