Not With A Bang But A Whimper

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Mostly, these shipwrecks were avoidable. The Portuguese knew how to build fine ships for overseas voyages, and they had good men to sail them; the trouble was that unseaworthy oversized vessels (hastily built, and hence poorly built, because time meant a great deal of money) were preferred because more cargo could be crammed into them. The homeland kingdom was so over-extended that its stock of good seamen was running thin. The skipper had little to say about how his ship was loaded or when it should sail. Laws intended to make navigation safer were gaily disregarded. The individual merchant was all-powerful; nothing mattered but his desire to have a ship carry the last ounce of cargo that could be got aboard, even if part of it (as very often happened) had to be tossed overboard in the first mild gale of wind.

So there developed a sad history of shipwrecks, and a whole Portuguese literature dealing with them, and it is with these stories that Mr. Duffy is concerned. He tells some fine tales of marine disaster here, but he is not primarily out to spin a set of hair-raising tales. He is actually tracing the decline of an empire. This sea trade fell into tragedy, he remarks, because of the extent to which “the moral stamina of the Portuguese had diminished. Shipwreck was one dramatic manifestation of a general decline.” The great sea empire was coming apart, even while it seemed to be at its zenith. There was no sudden crash; just a chain of accidents, with greed and recklessness replacing the great skill and daring of the old days. All anyone could see was a series of shipwrecks, but a society was in decay. The world does sometimes end, not with a bang but a whimper.

Shipwreck and Empire , by James Duffy. Harvard University Press. 198 pp. $4.