Shipwrecks capture the imagination more than any other piece of history. While shipwrecks tell stories of conflict and disaster, they are also a living testament to their time period. In examining shipwrecks from around the world, one can learn about the culture and values of its ill-fated crew and passengers.
The RMS Titanic is, without a doubt, the most famous shipwreck in history. Sinking on its maiden voyage on April 14, 1912, about 1,517 souls went down with the “unsinkable ship.” In the ensuing decades, countless expeditions were launched to find the Titanic, with some investors even seeking to raise the doomed liner from the depths.
None of these expeditions were successful until 1985 when a mission led by underwater archeologist Robert Ballard tracked down the ship. Ballard and his crew learned that the Titanic had split in two on the ocean floor, and the wreck encompassed a massive debris field. The 2001 UNESCO Convention now protects the wreck.
The Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Lusitania, suffered a similarly grim fate. Launched in 1906, the Lusitania served as a passenger ship and was briefly the largest ocean liner in the world. While many largescale British passenger liners were converted into hospital ships during World War I, the Lusitania remained a commercial vessel.
On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania near Old Head of Kinsdale just south of Ireland, killing 1,193 passengers and crew. The sinking of the Lusitania was condemned throughout the world as a war crime and steered American public opinion against Germany.
Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet
In 1274 and 1281, the Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan tried to invade Japan, sending two massive fleets comprising hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of soldiers. In both instances, Khan’s fleets were wiped out by horrific typhoons, destroying most of his ships and killing the majority of his soldiers as well.
The destruction of Khan’s fleets is regarded as the biggest maritime disaster in history. In 2001, archeologists located one of Khan’s ships in the Imari Gulf. Another ship was found in 2015 near the island of Kyushu. Both wrecks produced countless artifacts from the Mongolian era.
The sinking of the steamboat Sultana is one of the largely forgotten tragedies of the American Civil War. The Sultana sunk on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee, on April 27, 1865, when her boilers exploded, killing 1,168 passengers. Most of the passengers on board were Union POWs heading back home after the end of the war. In 1982, archeologists uncovered the remnants of the Sultana in a soybean field on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi.