“The Gulf of Mexico; A Maritime History”
Author: John S. Sledge
Publisher: The University of South Carolina Press
Price: $ 29.99 (Hardcover)
John Sledge, architectural historian for the city of Mobile, began publishing books with a rather narrow focus. He wrote on subjects such as Mobile cemeteries and Mobile ironworks. More recently he published a collection of literary columns from the “Mobile Press Register,” a study of the Mobile River and now, a history of the Gulf of Mexico and a summary of all that has happened in, on and around it.
He begins 200 million years ago when “South America and Africa tore away from what is now North America, the Florida Block broke from Africa and the Yucatan Block pulled away from Florida.” The result was the Gulf Basin, at 600,000 square miles the world’s tenth largest body of water, the limits being the Straits between Yucatan and Western Cuba and, less precisely, the Florida Straits. This is no placid pond. The Gulf is alive with hurricanes and waves have been recorded at 91 feet.
These waters teem with life—birds and fish galore plus 25 species of marine mammals. Whether these waters will continue to be so alive is in doubt. Later chapters on Hurricane Katrina, the loss of wetlands, especially at the mouth of the Mississippi, and the explosion at Deepwater Horizon, “the worst environmental disaster in American history,” call the environmental future into doubt. The blowout released approximately 3.19 million barrels (134 million gallons) of oil into the ocean, covering 43,000 square miles (the size of Virginia) and coating 400 square miles of sea floor and contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline from Texas to Florida. The number of turtles, dolphins, pelicans and so on killed is incalculable
Texas, Louisiana, and to a lesser extent Alabama are increasingly dependent on oil revenues.
Interestingly, Florida has refused to allow offshore drilling, having decided the tourist industry is more reliable and safer than the petroleum industry,
There is a mountain of historical and cultural information here. Sledge’s research, notes and bibliography are all prodigious.
He begins with Indians and explorers. The reader can hardly read a paragraph without the sensation of learning something new.
How to make dug-out canoes, for example, holding just a few to two or three dozen. One uses live coals, burning, then scraping.
Indians apparently could not starve. Oysters, fish and deer were everywhere.
Religious rituals get some attention too, the Mayans having invented gods that needed to be “continually placated” with human sacrifice. Priests ripped open the victim’s chest and pulled out the heart. If there were no victims handy, the priests painfully mutilated themselves. The descriptions are too ghastly to include here.
There are many facts less bloody, but no less interesting.
For example: Christopher Columbus never entered the Gulf of Mexico. One would have sworn he had. Also, Ponce de Leon never searched for the Fountain of Youth. There are several chapters on the Spanish in the Gulf, then called The Spanish Sea, their search for gold, fights with the indigenous peoples, and some conversion to Christianity when convenient.
We learn that sailors on the Spanish caravels consumed daily “one and a half pounds of bread, two pints drinking water, two pints of wine, plus whatever supplemental fare was available, usually cheese, rice, peas, olives and fish caught over the side.”
We could call this the Caravel Diet and see if it catches on.
Sledge covers the era of the pirates or freebooters, always fun, the French, the British, the navies of the North and South during the Civil War, discussing the blockade. He sensibly skips lightly over Farragut and the familiar Battle of Mobile Bay, but includes a good deal about our wars with Mexico and the filibusters, antebellum Southerners who plotted to conquer Cuba and other Latin American countries, making them into slave states.
The cities receiving the most attention are Havana, Veracruz, New Orleans and Mobile. Having the best harbors, they conducted the most trade, and grew with polyglot populations and lively commercial and red-light districts. Container shipping, mechanized, efficient and sterile, has almost eliminated the traditional colorful port city. Sledge wryly calls this “cultural impoverishment.”
At Key West, difficult seas and a lack of charts and lighthouses led to a thriving business in salvage, as “wreckers” made their living from ships’ catastrophes. They were always accused of luring ships onto the reefs, but it probably wasn’t necessary.
A subject about which most people still don’t know much is the terrible damage done to American shipping early in WWII by German U-boats—56 American vessels sunk. We finally sank one U-boat.
Sledge leaves the reader feeling vastly more informed, impressed by the scale and complexity of Gulf history and mildly apprehensive about the future of the Gulf in our careless hands.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.