What is a shipwreck?

So I’ve been putting off answering this question for a long, long time (since the 4th or 5th post). I worked up this answer for one of my comprehensive exam fields and it will have to do for now. It was written in the midst of a grueling month-long (not a typo) writing process. The prompt: “What is (or was) a shipwreck and why does it matter?”

Reader be warned — this is a long answer (3,000 words), a bit pedantic (written for my Ph.D. qualifying exams), and the writing is choppy (composed over 2 or 3 frantic days). The essay has not been edited since I wrote it and I would make some changes if I had a spare afternoon. I’d greatly appreciate any thoughts you might have, if you can get through it of course 🙂

Wrecks, Wrecking, Wreckers, Wrecked:

Salvaging a Meaningful Definition of “Shipwreck”

“This shipwreck had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society.”

-Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod (1865)

“Shipwrecks should not be regarded as historical events but as embedded in sociocultural and natural processes…”

-Richard Gould, Archaeology and the Social History of Ships (2000)

Shipwreck. It’s one of those few words that stir the imagination of most people, conjuring up images of treasure, death, and destruction, of the Titanic, The Raft of the Medusa, and Robinson Crusoe. Everyone “knows” what a shipwreck is and defining “shipwreck” might even seem to be a pedantic exercise. That may be the case—what could be simpler than defining shipwreck as a wrecked ship? The adage “I know it when I see it” seems to apply here. But different people know different things when they “see it.” Shipwrecks are pliable heuristic devices used to order complex social, material, and cultural processes. A shipwreck can be a particular event, a distant memory, a bankable plot, a boon, a bust, and a narrative of loss or redemption. These divergent meanings are important because no matter how they are understood, shipwrecks link disparate groups of people to one another, to marine environments, and to (and through) various technologies. But how shipwreck is defined affects the character of these formative, dialectical relationships. People understand shipwrecks differently, and their definitions both reflect and shape entrenched power relations, particular places, and ways of knowing, operating in, and understanding the world. The cultural significance of shipwrecks is, in other words, as important as their material impact on communities, environments, and technologies. Simply put, shipwrecks are complicated and they matter largely because of these complications.

The Shipwreck—Wrecks, Wrecking, Wrecker, Wrecked

Shipwreck is a multifaceted word. The Oxford English Dictionary lists seven definitions, which include everything from “what is cast up from a wreck” and “destruction or loss of a ship by its being sunk or broken up by the violence of the sea, or by its striking or stranding upon a rock or shoal” to “to suffer the loss of” and “to cause (a person) to suffer shipwreck.”[1] The word does yeoman service, describing particular things, states of being, processes, and even people (the “shipwrecker” or “wrecker,” for example). It is a noun, an adjective, and a verb that can be used both literally and figuratively in a wide array of contexts. What one thinks, however, when they hear “shipwreck” is a function of who they are, where they live, what they do, and when they hear it. Nevertheless, shipwreck always connotes a story that links people, place, and mishap. It is an adaptable yet generic narrative, one of Western civilization’s master tropes.[2]

The common, everyday meaning of shipwreck refers to a specific object or event. A shipwreck is first of all a tangible thing. Google “shipwreck,” and one can peruse more than 1.6 million images of rotting hulks, rusting hulls, and submerged timbers. The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, protective legislation for underwater culture resources, offers this seemingly unambiguous materialist definition: “the term shipwreck means a vessel or wreck, its cargo, and other contents.”[3] Archaeologists measure and excavate shipwrecks as objects, and they combine the archaeological record with documentary sources to reconstruct the event of a shipwreck. Shipwreck-as-event is the stuff of front-page headlines, novels, memoirs, and movies—it’s the St. Paul running ashore in 1896, the Titanic­ hitting an iceberg in 1912, and the Stockholm ramming the Andrea Doria in 1956.[4] Shipwreck in both senses—as object and event—is anchored to a particular time and place. It is a thing to see and study, reconstruct and remember (or forget).

Shipwreck also denotes a process. Any shipwreck raises a number of questions—How did the vessel wreck? Who or what was responsible? What happened to it? And their answers suggest that any shipwreck includes more than just the physical remnants or the actual wrecking. Archaeologists, for example, examine the extant remains of wrecked vessels in light of the “evolution of a shipwreck,” which includes the initial process of wrecking and the post-depositional human and “natural” influences (e.g. the impact of salvage efforts, wind, waves, and sea-bed movement).[5] This expansive, materialist understanding of shipwrecks-as-process is a key concept because it points to the many factors that are included in shipwreck. It suggests that while a shipwreck has a beginning, it never ends. Further, even if the physical remains are salvaged or eventually disintegrate, a shipwreck’s cultural footprint in the documentary and oral record endures. The St. Paul, for example, was physically wrecked for less than two weeks in the winter of 1896 but discussion of its shipwreck has continued to the present.[6]

Finally, shipwreck can be understood as a heuristic device, a trope or master narrative that people use to order complex events, process, or states of being.[7] Conceptualizing shipwreck in this way is an attempt to overcome the ambiguity inherent in any shipwreck—i.e. Is it a shipwreck? When did it become one? Why? How? Etc. In this sense, shipwreck fits a complex of particular, proximate, and often contradictory occurrences into a coherent, already known narrative. But simplistic narratives can obscure as much as they reveal, and stories have important consequences. Calling a vessel a shipwreck, for example, has significant legal ramifications: salvage law, for example, becomes applicable. And a “shipwreck” draws reporters and crowds of spectators while a “working vessel” (typically) does not. But when does a disabled vessel become a shipwreck? What are the criteria? Who decides? The salvor? The vessel’s owner? A distant insurance agent or judge? These are complicated questions whose answers are bound in intricate social, cultural, and legal webs. Shipwreck is, in short, a plastic, resonate way of dealing with complex phenomenon. Its adaptability and importance, however, means that shipwreck narratives can be (indeed have been) hotly contested.

The most sophisticated understanding of shipwreck acknowledges that it is a pliable but influential heuristic device. Such a definition requires a processual view of shipwrecks that incorporates a multitude of social, cultural, and material determinants. And focusing on the stories people tell about a shipwreck(s) offers a way to analyze the array of conflicts, compromises, and consequences that both surround the material shipwreck and shape both social relationships and the physical world. The drama of a shipwreck, in short, involves more than a riveting narrative of destruction or salvation.

Different people understand shipwrecks in different ways, and they tell different stories about the same phenomenon. In Down with the Old Canoe, Steven Biel traced the conflicting representations of the Titanic disaster in various cultural ephemera, including novels, blues songs, sermons, and speeches. He argued “the sources” of information about the shipwreck “may have been standardized, but the responses were not”—the Titanic, in other words, was “contested terrain.” Socialists, for example, fashioned a subversive narrative that implicated the entire capitalist system for the tragedy. This was radically different from the “conventional” narrative of first-class heroism articulated by the “ruling class.” Meanings of the Titanic, Biel concluded, have always been “contingent and contextual rather than inherent or timeless.”[8]

A number of factors influence how particular people/groups understand and narrate a shipwreck. The length of time and physical distance separating a discussion of a wreck from the actual event and/or object are the two most immediate determinants. Time and distance impact both the type and availability of information and the level of “risk.” For example, efforts to free the Mississippi River of obstacles (shipwrecks and other “snags”) during the nineteenth century garnered considerable debate at the local, state, and national levels. But the abstract political debates in Congress over “internal improvements” contrasted the practical, material concerns of hazard removal on the river.[9] Congressmen and rivermen debated the same wrecks and their actions altered the geography, social relations, and technologies on and along the river. Yet they used different language, knew different things, and affected the world in markedly different ways.

More fundamental than time and distance, however, are the technologies of knowledge and cultural baggage that shape how groups and individuals understand and interact with shipwrecks. There are many relevant actors in most shipwrecks—captain, crew, passengers, rescuers, salvors, local residents, spectators, the media, insurance adjusters, law enforcement, lawyers, and judges (just to name the most obvious). And these actors “know” shipwrecks in from a multiplicity of viewpoints—those onboard the wreck, for example, experience the event first hand, but even their experiences differ; the captain and crew’s knowledge will be quite different from that of most passengers. For first responders and salvors, shipwrecks are their business—a problem to be fixed and money to be made—and they have specialized knowledge about shipwrecks from extensive direct, professional experience. The shipwreck becomes more abstract for insurance and legal interests; it is a risk to be sold or another case to litigate.[10]

A shipwreck is ambiguous, open to a wide range of definitions and interpretations. It is neither a static object nor a singular event, but a fulcrum for oftentimes unconnected social, cultural, and material processes. A shipwreck is a story that attempts to order a complex world. Authors of these stories come from different vantage points and their stories reflect their particular cultural baggage and technology of knowledge. Importantly, shipwrecks matter—they have material and socio-cultural effects. And while there are many books about shipwreck, few historians have used shipwrecks to investigate broader historical questions; shipwrecks make compelling copy, but their ambiguity and complexity has apparently obscured their wider significance (to contemporaries and for historians).[11]

Visible Vibrations and Hidden Processes; Or, Why Salvage a Shipwreck(s)?

Shipwrecks matter because they actively shape the wider world and expose hidden or underlying social, cultural, and material processes. Most shipwrecks occur close to land, so it impacts both the ship (and the people, things, and groups connected to it) and the coastal communities near the wreck site.[12] The immediate impact of any shipwreck is of course limited and varies greatly depending on the context. Thoreau’s observation that the wreck of the St. John “had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society” highlights just how mundane a shipwreck could be for some coastal communities.[13] Yet even in these communities, shipwrecks caused a flurry of activity, generated profits, and captured the attention of people, if only for a short time. The visible effects of a shipwreck stemmed from both the physical wreck and cultural representations of it.

Before addressing these effects, however, it might be useful to describe a “typical” shipwreck. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a fairly standard shipwreck metanarrative had become established (at least along the Atlantic seaboard). News of a vessel in danger set in motion a flurry of activity. Local rescue efforts (of federal “life savers” or local volunteers) began even as the vessel’s crew endeavored to free their vessel or just survive. The salvage effort, operating within the well-known and comprehensive bounds of salvage law, began as soon as possible. Salvors were remarkably successful, and they often salvaged the entire vessel. Remnants of the vessel that were not salvaged were formally abandoned or sold. Unless the salvors failed to save anything, they filed a suit against the vessel, its owners, and insurers for the salvage award in admiralty court, which adjudicated the case according to well-established guidelines.[14]

The immediate effects of a shipwreck were fairly obvious—it disrupted a routine voyage and set people, machinery, and organizations in motion. Shipwrecks could result in death and destruction to property, and they impacted the marine environment by disturbing the seafloor and introducing flotsam and jetsam as well as ligan and lagan. A shipwreck could destroy the fortunes of its owner(s), captain, crew, and/or passengers. On the other hand, a wreck could be a financial and/or material boon to local residents and salvors. Residents of isolated coastal communities, for example, were often accused of being “land pirates” who illegally plundered (if they did not indeed purposefully cause) shipwrecks.[15] And particularly deadly shipwrecks, like the 1854 wreck of the immigrant ship New Era, often led to the dedication of permanent memorials near the wreck site. While these were relatively fleeting, arguably insignificant effects, they mattered to the lives they influenced and the landscapes they altered.

A shipwreck also could affect wider, more lasting changes. Particularly dramatic shipwrecks could galvanize support for improvements to aids to navigation, maritime safety, and rescue infrastructure. The development of the United States Life-Saving Service, a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard, was punctuated by decisive shipwrecks that promoted the agency’s growth, and brought it both honor and criticism.[16] The wreck of the Titanic prompted international agreements on wireless communication, ice patrols, shipbuilding regulations, and safety regulations. Twenty years later, the wreck of the Morro Castle prompted Congress to update the Titanic-inspired agreements and legislation.[17] No historical scholarship (that I am aware of) examines the long-term environmental impact of shipwrecks on the seafloor, sea life, and coastal environments. Yet shipwrecks formed artificial habitats for marine life, and they physically altered coastal environments, forming a hybrid landscape that obscured “natural” and “human-made” seascapes and shaped people, place, and environment.

Shipwrecks matter for more than their immediate tangible effects; they can be invaluable for historians because they expose often hidden socio-cultural and natural processes. A shipwreck was what Antonio Gramsci called a “conjuncture,” a crisis where the contradictions or problems of the dominant order are laid bare, challenged, defended, and altered.[18] Alice Garner described such an instance in Shaping the Shore. She traced the efforts of “outsiders” to force so-called improvements on a French fishing village that suffered the tragic loss of eleven vessels in one storm. The fallout from the wrecks offered Garner a way to investigate the tendentious relationship between locals and outsiders in the dynamic littoral zone. The devastation of the wrecks left the community in disarray and created a space for an outsider to infiltrate and irrevocably change the fishing community. The shipwrecks created a crisis and they exposed underlying social conflict between locals and outsiders and between technological innovation and tradition.[19]

Shipwrecks could also reveal lines of conflict and cooperation beyond the local. Literary scholars, for example, have mined shipwreck narratives (both fictional and non-fiction) in ranging discussions of crises in gender roles, conceptions of empire, and American identity. While it offers compelling close readings, this literature generally consists of decontextualized readings that ignore the dialogic nature of cultural production and consumption.[20] Felix Driver and Luciana Martins have offered a more grounded analysis in their examination of the multiple discourses surrounding the wreck and salvage of the HMS Thetis between 1830 and 1854. They argue the wreck was a conjuncture, or as they write: “in the course of this event, the [imperial] network of power and knowledge was momentarily broken.” They trace the scientific, legal, artistic, and popular retellings of the shipwreck that domesticated the disaster for a range of weary audiences and reaffirmed British power and authority, concluding that while the wreck of the warship brought into question the power of the British Empire, post-wreck analyses and its successful salvage effectively reconfirmed and solidified British hegemony.[21]

Examining more than one shipwreck can also illuminate what are often hidden or opaque processes. Pierre Camu, for example, examined Canadian shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River between 1848 and 1900 and argued that the transition from wood and steel and sail to steam significantly improved the safety of waterborne transportation.[22] While his article is more exploratory than comprehensive, Camu suggests the utility of studying shipwrecks in the aggregate. Other scholars have focused on particular ship traps, sites where an unusually high number of shipwrecks occur. Martin Gibbs and Ewen McPhee have argued that colonial authorities’ efforts to survey and mark the “safe” passages along the treacherous Great Barrier Reef, “inadvertently created ‘ship traps’ that focused not only use, but also shipwrecking, on particular areas.” Gibbs and McPhee highlight how natural, cultural and social processes interact and shape human behavior and the natural environment. Through a detailed analysis of the ship trap around Rain Island, they suggest that cultural dispositions for risk-taking and risk management, as well as human error and features of the marine environment only exacerbated the dangers of a wreck-prone locale.[23]

Finally, shipwrecks matter because they resonate with such a broad spectrum of people. Beyond their material effects and their potential as analytical tools, shipwrecks grab people’s attention, they spur action, and they are retained in individual and collective memories. Yet, why and how they resonate has only begun to be historicized. Alain Corbin offered a preliminary guide for such an analysis. He suggested that the destruction and horror of shipwrecks played a definitive role in shaping the rising popularity of the sea and shore in the early nineteenth century. Shipwrecks, he argued, were never inherently popular, appealing, or fashionable. Rather, their popularity was a function broader technological, social, and cultural trends that facilitated the production, distribution, and consumption of shipwrecks. In short, there were a lot of shipwrecks, increasing numbers of people along the shore to see them, and a cultural milieu that was receptive to reading about experiencing marine disasters (as both actual and armchair spectators). Only with the aesthetic and perceptual revolution spearheaded by Rmanticism, he argues, was “the shipwreck promoted immodestly to the rank of a spectacle…one of the tourist attractions of the coast.”[24]


Shipwrecks are ambiguous processes, and they matter because they influence social relationships, cultural modalities, and physical environments. A shipwreck is not just a wrecked vessel and its contents. Neither is it only the wrecking event. A shipwreck is a story, a narrative that simplifies a complex of distinct yet overlapping processes. Shipwreck stories offer historians a way to salvage the complex, daily interrelations of people, place, and culture. As dramatic, yet surprisingly frequent conjunctures, shipwrecks suggest that life on the littoral was a constant negotiation shaped by the physical environment and guided by disaster and triumph, humanitarianism and profit, outsider and local.

[1] OED Online, Second Edition, 1989, s.v. “shipwreck.”

[2] Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997).

[3] Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, Public Law 100-298, 100th Cong., (April 28, 1988).

[4] For a discussion of the importance of the moment of shipwreck, shipwreck-as-event, see: George Landow, “Shipwrecked and Castaway on the Journey of Life: An Essay Towards a Modern Iconography,” Revue de Litterature Comparee 46 (1972): 569-596.

[5] The standard account remains: Keith Muckelroy, Maritime Archaeology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 157-214.

[6] I examined this shipwreck and the diverse contemporary and post-wreck literature in my research and writing paper: “A Seaside Spectacle: Shipwrecks, Salvage, and Disaster Tourism Along the Late Nineteenth-Century American Coastline,” (2009).

[7] There is a growing body of literary scholarship that examines shipwreck narratives. This literature focuses on published accounts and mostly examines issues of gender, sexuality, and national identity. These works offer incisive close readings of the narratives as such, but their discussions are generally removed from any discussion of the social and the material. See for example: Keith Huntress, Narratives of Shipwrecks and Disasters, 1586-1860 (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1974); Robin Miskolcze, Women and Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001); Daniel W. Lane, Nineteenth-Century American Shipwreck Narratives (Dissertation, English, University of Delaware, 2002).

[8] Steven Biel, Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster (New York: Norton, 1996), 118, 97, 226.

[9] Paul Paskoff, Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and Public Policy, 1821-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2007).

[10] On maritime law see: Robert M. Hughes, Handbook of Admiralty Law, 2nd ed. (St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1920). On marine insurance see: William Gow, Marine Insurance: A Handbook, 2nd edition (New York: Macmillan Company, 1900); Solomon Huebner, “The Development and Present Status of Marine Insurance in the United States,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 26 (September 1905): 241-272. An interesting exploration on how different groups have understood shipwrecks see: John Rousmaniere, After the Storm: True Stories of Disaster and Recovery at Sea (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002).

[11] There are many popular history books on particular wrecks or many shipwrecks. Classic examples of this apparently lucrative genre include: David Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952); Donald Shomette, Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders, and Maritime Disasters along the Delmarva Coast, 1632-2004 (Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

[12] This argument is based on my own research as a definitive accounting does note exist. See: the Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service (1876-1912);.

[13] Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, Library of America (New York: Penguin, 1985), 854.

[14] Dorothea Dodd, “The Wrecking Business on the Florida Reef, 1822-1860,” Florida Historical Society 81, no. 3 (1963): 182-203; See also notes 10, 13, 15, and 16.

[15] There is a sizable popular literature on the myth of land piracy and wrecking. For the best overview and assessment see: Oral Coad, “The Barnegat Pirates in Fact and Fiction,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society 81, no. 3 (1963): 182-203; Ralph Ireland, “The Rise and Fall of a Myth: Land Piracy on Long Island,” The Journal of Long Island History 7, no. 2 (1967): 24-35; Birse Shepard, Lore of the Wreckers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961).

[16] For a good survey of the development of USLSS that discusses the influence of particular wrecks see: Dennis Means, “A Heavy Sea Running: The Formation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1846-1878,” Prologue 19, no. 4 (1987): 223-243.

[17] Alex Roland, W. Jeffrey Bolster, and Alexander Keyssar, The Way of the Ship: America’s Maritime History Reenvisioned, 1600-2000 (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

[18] This articulation of conjuncture comes from Antonio Gramsci as discussed in Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997), 22.

[19] Alice Garner, A Shifting Shore: Locals, Outsiders, and the Transformation of a French Fishing Town, 1823-2000 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), 67-84.

[20] See note 7.

[21] Felix Driver and Luciana Martins, “Shipwreck and Salvage in the Tropics: The Case of the HMS Thetis, 1830-1854,” Journal of Historical Geography 32 (2006): 556.

[22] Pierre Camu, “Shipwrecks, Collisions and Accidents in St. Lawrence/Great Lakes Waterway, 1848-1900,” The Northern Mariner 7, no. 2 (1996): 43-66.

[23] Martin Gibbs and Ewen McPhee, “The Raine Island Entrance: Wreck Traps and the Search for a Safe Route Through the Great Barrier Reef,” The Great Circle 26, no. 2 (2004): 24-25.

[24] Alain Corbin, The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside, 1750-1840 (New York: Penguin, 1995), 244.



Filed under Dissertation Digest, Notes from the Field, Shipwreck culture, What's in a Name?

8 responses to “What is a shipwreck?

  1. Buck

    Very interesting post today!

    I have family connections to Abaco, Bahamas and the local lore is that the inhabitants sabotaged the lighthouse at Elbow Cay in order to keep the shipwrecks coming, and the wreckers’ profits with them. Ultimately, of course, the wreckers lost their livelihood to better navigation and better lighthouses, but there was a period in history when a lot of revenue came from salvage.

    • Jamin Wells

      Thanks for the comment. Bahamas and Key West profited greatly from shipwrecks. In 1860 Key West was the richest town per capita in the entire country–all thanks to shipwrecks and wreckers!

  2. A ship becomes a wreck when the cost to save the vessel exceeds the salved value. This is when salvage becomes wreck removal.

    • Jamin Wells

      Hi Dan,

      Many thanks for commenting. As someone in the salvage business, you know more than most know what makes a shipwreck a shipwreck. I’ve very interested in today’s salvage industry (most of what I know is limited to its development during the 19th century.). Where do I go to learn more? Do you know any ‘oldtimers’ who would be willing to be interviewed?

      Thanks again!

  3. are you a phenomenologist? ’nuff said. that was fab!

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