Mystic Seaport Museum


Last weekend my absolutely amazing girlfriend and I went to the Mystic Seaport Museum, which was awesome. It was her idea; her family used to go to Mystic on vacation when she was a kid and so had some nostalgia for the area, and she also knows I like boats. I have been to Mystic a few times, but never actually made it into the museum, despite the aforementioned deep love of boats. So on a particularly hot Saturday in July we packed up the DeLorean and head up to Mystic to check it out.

It was a great day to go to the seaport. We got there right when it opened at 10, and initially had some confusion about the ticket counter (well, I had some confusion), though after a security guard cleared it up for us we were right in. They were handing out a free book that day with admission, Through Hand and Eye by a guy named Ted Hood, who I had never heard of but is a sailor dude and apparently important (or self-important) enough to get an autobiography published of himself that normally costs $50. And more importantly, they were renting out sailboats FOR FREE!!!!


I was very excited for this because I very rarely get to sail and I do love it so. I guess on a normal day you can pay money to rent one of their sailboats, but given that large chunks of the museum were closed due to coronavirus, they were letting people just take boats out as a bit of compensation I guess. Since it was free, and first come first serve, I was anxious about getting there in time to be able to take a boat out. So I speed walked us right over there and arrived before the boathouse even opened up. I loitered nervously and made sure to get even closer when another couple arrived, though I shouldn’t have worried because they wanted a rowboat.

I was excited to take my girlfriend sailing because she had “maybe once, though I can’t remember for sure” gone sailing before. And I mean I talk endlessly about it. I even wrote an essay for a magazine about sailing mostly to impress her. So I was excited to take her sailing and show her both the literal ropes and the metaphorical ropes, and teach her all sorts of great vocabulary like “port” and “sheet.” To be able to take the sailboat out, you had to pass a rigorous knowledge test, which consisted of the person asking “do you have small boat sailing experience?” to which I cunningly answered “yes,” though I had specifically worn my 2009 Marion-Bermuda race hat to show off my sailing credentials.

So with a shove from the dockhand we were off! We were sailing in the river there and it was a lot of fun. The breeze was light but constant and there was plenty of room and not much traffic and we got to go around for like 40 minutes before I started to feel guilty and pulled us in with a slightly too aggressive docking maneuver (we made it anyways). I had her take the tiller for a bit and she did amazing, absolutely fantastic, because she is both absolutely amazing and absolutely fantastic. It was a great time.


The YP (Yard Patrol) craft!

Then we were off to see the rest of the museum. One of the more exciting bits was discovering that the Joseph Conrad (pictured up top) was owned by Alan Villiers. I own a number of his books so it was really cool to walk around his boat. That era of ships is also pretty astounding to me, because of how it spans different eras. The Joseph Conrad is a square-rigged sailing ship, but has an iron hull, you know? Villiers was of an era where you could both work on sail-powered cargo ships and then later also see the moon landing.

As we walked over into the shipyard area, I was also absolutely delighted to discover they had a YP! I almost didn’t recognize it at first because I walked up to it at a weird angle, and it was painted a super weird blue instead of it’s usual inspiring grey. I guess this one is owned by the Merchant Marine Academy, and was at the seaport because they’re experienced with working on wooden hulls. But my long and lasting experience with YPs (which I think I’ll detail next week) meant she couldn’t hide from me for long.


Walking around the rest of the museum was also very nice. It’s not a single building, but actually a small village-looking thing. Although like I mentioned, much of it was closed, there was still plenty to look at. There was a scale model of the river from 1870 or so, and an old US Life-Saving Service hut, and various buildings full of boats. In the above picture, I convinced my super amazing girlfriend to stand next to a triple-expansion steam engine, because I find steam engines very sexy. I am comfortable posting the above picture because she has a mask and that will provide her some deniability of my obsession with steam engines. Actually going through my camera roll I managed to take pictures of a whole host of engines that day:


So yeah. It was a great day at the Seaport Museum. We saw all sorts of ships and saw all sorts of nautical stuff and even got to go sailing!!! We managed to have lunch at a seafood shack not too far away, and after we were hot and tired from walking around and getting excited about nautical stuff we went to downtown Mystic and had some ice cream. After all that, the only other picture I wanted to post for you guys was the one below of the two little sailboats (one of these we had taken out earlier) because I thought they looked like they were racing. Maybe they were just going about the same direction at about the same time, but it my heart you can’t have two sailboats doing that and not believe they are racing:


Battle of Lake Tanganyika

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I’ve mentioned it before (briefly), but the Battle for Lake Tanganyika is probably one of the wildest naval expeditions to have ever happened.  During WWI, the Germans had set themselves up for naval dominance of Lake Tang, causing the British to launch an overland expedition to bring two tiny gun boats to the lake to try to even out the naval odds. It’s one of those tiny little episodes of history that are both nearly forgotten but also have a legend all their own (The African Queen is loosely based on it!). This post isn’t really about the battle, because I could hardly do it justice, there is so much crazy stuff that happened. For a long time I thought there wasn’t much to read about it, but I guess I finally googled it or something and came across Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden. Despite the name, it’s a book for like, adults, and is a colorful if straight history of the whole expedition (for a fictionalized account, A Matter of Time by Alex Capus is good if not entirely accurate).

Digging into the book, I was excited to discover that he had cited an article published in the October 1922 issue of National Geographic, which contained a whole series of photographs by the expedition’s historian, Frank Magee. With the power of the internet, I was able to buy the nearly century-old issue (which contained the “Special Map Supplement” of Africa), and it arrived on my doorstep mere days later.

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The point of this blog post was really to show you some of the pictures from the issue. There are like 30 of them. Unfortunately, the nature of my scanner is that I couldn’t really get good scans of the majority of pictures, though fortunately some were placed nearer to the margins and that is what you get to see here. These top two are nice because they actually show some of the ships involved in the battle, with the Mimi, one of the two gunboats, featured in the one up top. There are other, even wilder pics, including one of the gunboats being hauled up a hill by a whole team of oxen. If I can figure out a better way to get the pics scanned in, maybe I can give ’em a post.

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The bottom pic is at Lake Bangweulu.

The one point I wanted to make though is that in telling the story of the battle, the people that get lost in the tellings is the thousands and thousands of native Africans that were affected by it. I’ve written about the effect of WWI on the people of Africa before, and the short story is that it doesn’t go well. Fortunately, the Lake Tanganyika expedition doesn’t appear to have resulted in thousands of tenga-tenga dying or anything like that, but certainly the expedition couldn’t have happened without their support, as the pictures above illustrate. Giles Foden’s book actually touches on the lives of the people affected by the battle, and he goes to some lengths to find oral history about the battle from the people still living at the lake.

But when Foden tells his story, he has to rely on the primary sources, such as Magee’s article, and in those sources the story of these people is lacking. I’m not actually that familiar with 1920s era literature on Africa, so I can’t judge Magee against the standards of the time. I would judge him in a lot of ways sympathetic to the people, like when he tells the story of how at one point the expedition relied on “native women from local villages” carrying water in gourds and jars from eight miles away in order to fill the water tanks of the steam-powered tractors they were using the haul the boats. He notes that since water carrying is “domestic work,” the men refused to help, and expresses some disgust.

But way more often than he ponders the gender balance of work, he is concerned about all the cannibals he believes himself to be surrounded by. Graves of German sailors killed in the battle are guarded against natives “addicted” to cannibalism. On noting one particularly decked out chief, he notes “the origin of the spats and pink sunshade puzzled me somewhat until I remembered we were in the land of reputed cannibals.” But most of all the native population just aren’t characters in the story; the only Africa native that is mentioned by name in the whole article is a pet chimpanzee the expedition dubbed Josephine.

Then again who am I to judge? If you go back and read my blog articles from my time in the Peace Corps you won’t find a whole lot of names. A chunk of that is privacy, but a lot of that is just that, like the people on the Lake Tanganyika expedition, the people I met were more or less the background to my own adventures. In the link above (here it is again) where I mention the Battle of Lake Tanganyika, I was myself travelling to the lake to find a ship (the remains of one anyways). The people in that story don’t have names (even the ones that helped me along the way), and in that telling I treated them more has a hindrance to one white guy trying to find the material legacy of other white guys on their turf. I still have some lessons to learn.

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This photo is from the Nile river, not Lake Tanganyika, but I like dhows.



A coal bunker I got built for my Eagle Scout Project.

As I mentioned last week, my super amazing girlfriend and I traveled down to Maryland. I don’t quite know what to say about it, though I gotta say something because I am low on other potential blog content and although the aforementioned girlfriend is the only one that reads this blog, it’s important to me to get something out.


It’s kinda weird to talk about Maryland. I mean, not desperately weird to talk about the state itself. I’ll talk your ear off. But anytime I move someplace new now, the latest round being moving to New Haven to attend Yale, you gotta tell all sorts of people where you’re from. “Where are you from?,” they ask, and I respond “Maryland.” This just feels weird at this point because I haven’t really lived there for nearly a decade, since graduating from the Naval Academy. That’s not true either, as I have spent several months-long stretches living in my parents’ basement (“the guest room,” my mom insists on calling it). But I suppose that is where I grew up and for large swaths of time has been my legal residence, and it was to my parents’ house that much of my mail always went. But now that picture gets complicated, because my parents are moving, cutting my last real physical ties to the state.


“Where in Maryland?” is the follow-up question to where I’m from. I typically answer “Annapolis,” which is not really true. Much of the center bit of the tri-city (Annapolis, Baltimore, Washington DC) area is a sort of formless suburb of any or none of those cities, and I’m really from one of those suburbs. But then again it is sorta kinda true, because being from a formless sorta suburb there’s nothing really in my home town to latch onto as a sort of origin story waypoint, except for maybe a rather popular donut shop. I even went to High School out of my district. But then again if I’m from anywhere in Maryland, I do feel like I’m from Annapolis. I went to the Naval Academy for four years after all, an experience that feels often like an origin unto itself. When I go back to Maryland, it’s Main Street in Annapolis that I make sure to travel back to.


But my girlfriend had never been to Maryland, so it’s a half decent excuse to drag her around and show her some stuff. It’s also a good excuse to wander around some bits you don’t normally wander around. The day we visited Annapolis was sunny and hot. We parked a few streets from Main, instead of paying for parking right downtown. Much of Annapolis was closed that day; I couldn’t show her the Academy, which would have been most of the tour, and the historical sites like the Capitol building were closed to visitors. But we managed to wander up and see a cannon I had never seen, and I read a plaque which finally clued me into the identity of the Old Treasury Building. We got to wander into my favorite used book store before many of the crowds arrived. We had arrived in Annapolis before many people were downtown, but by the time we left the crowds felt somewhat oppressive in a COVID-19 world. We managed to get some ice cream though.


Besides Annapolis, we went to go visit a park near my house. This park’s main feature was a coal bunker, the building of which I had organized in pursuit of becoming an Eagle Scout. I’m still rather proud of the thing, and it is still standing and still bunkering coal 13 years or so later. It’s pictured up top. The coal bunker is next to a blacksmith shop, and the blacksmith shop is there because the park used to be a farm. In a nod to the park’s farm origins, there are a variety of animals kept by the local 4-H club, which included alpacas, which are viewed in high esteem by my girlfriend. So that was nice. In the same park we returned later with my dad and brother to look for deer, which when combined with the alpacas gave the whole event a lot of safari vibes. Or I thought so, anyways. We were just walking instead of bounding around in a Land Cruiser pickup.


Eventually we left Maryland and returned up here to New Haven, and the next time I head southwards my parents will have moved to Florida, leaving me without any convenient place to stay east of Silver Spring. I’ll be back in Annapolis again, for sure: there are Academy reunions held with vigor every five years. But I guess we have to see if it still feels like home.

Mt. Vernon


Yesterday, on the 4th of July (if I get this posted in time), my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Mt. Vernon (specifically “George Washington’s Mt. Vernon”). She is a big fan of presidential historic sites, and since we were in Maryland for the week so I could retrieve some things to store in my near-mythical storage unit, we decided to take the drive on down to see George Washington’s old digs. In addition, it seemed like a vaguely patriotic thing to do on a day when most fireworks displays were otherwise cancelled.

The particular bit of George Washington myth-making that intrigues me the most is the vision of a man who only really ever wanted to be a farmer, but kept acquiescing, with great reluctance, to lead a revolutionary army or serve as President of the United States. It is the central myth of George Washington, a myth that serves to embody in a man the notion that the revolution the founding fathers fought was for the people and by the people, and not for the aggrandizement of any one person. The nice lady at the tomb made sure to call out the myth explicitly: the one thing she said that stuck was her noting that peopled called ole’ GW the “American Cincinnatus.” It is also a myth that could be true. The facts are a matter of the historical record: George Washington did fight the revolutionary war, and did resign his commission when it was done. George Washington did serve as President of the United States, and did quit after two terms despite no one forcing him to. The story you tell around those bare-bones facts is a story about his motivation for doing so, the truth of which is unknowable without being in George Washington’s head.


Some of the vegetable gardens.

One version of the myth I toyed with as we explored the grounds of Mt. Vernon was George Washington as just a conservation farming nerd. I imagined him as willing to fulfill the duties to which he was called, but viewing those duties as a distraction from his true passions of soil improvement and crop rotation. I like to picture him meeting an ambassador for the first time, and sure, yeah, doing the whole diplomacy thing, but most desperately interested in having the ambassador send over seeds for exciting new crops. That’s a man that quits the presidency only because he just can’t get anyone in the government to get as excited as he does about manure processing.


Greenhouse framed with some palms.

Touring Mt. Vernon makes this an easy version of George Washington to conjure. Although there is a museum, the site isn’t a presidential library or anything of that sort, and besides for the whole President thing visiting Mt. Vernon is really just a plantation tour. Like my personal vision of the man, I too am a conservation farming enthusiast, and I thoroughly enjoyed walking around and checking out some of the traditional crops they have growing there and the extensive gardens. The plaques describe Washington’s extensive efforts at growing living fences, and makes note of the garden he would personally tend as he recorded the successes and failures of different experiments. His careful forest management, innovative barn designs, and greenhouse with exotic fruits are all lauded in detail.


As we wandered up towards the main house, which is surrounded by outbuildings, I wondered what it would have sounded like in 1798. This is my schtick at places like this; you can see the buildings easily enough, but can you really get a sense of the place? As all plantations were, Mt. Vernon was essentially a small town. It was fairly crowded on July 4th, 2020 (masks were worn and social distancing measures were in place), but there was a whole wide array of sounds the landscape was missing. What would it have sounded like with horses pulling carriages up the path? With the roaring fire in the greenhouse keeping the orange trees warm, fed by an enslaved tender? With enslaved women doing the washing in the wash house? With the enslaved blacksmith pounding away in the blacksmith shop? With an enslaved carpenter repairing the roofs on the buildings? With the enslaved cooks chopping meat in the kitchen?

The myth of George Washington as a humble farmer who just really wanted to tend to his fields works well in the 20th century, against the backdrop of the US presidency as the most powerful position in the world. Why would any one man give up so much power over the running of the entire country? But in 1797, the landscape was much different. The presidency was a small job in a new, daring, but weak nation. But at home, at Mt. Vernon, George Washington was instead the lord and master of over 500 enslaved persons, wielding over them the power of life and death. He was, as the museum tells me, one of the richest men in America. So that’s my other vision of George Washington, as a man who returns from his duties, back to Mt. Vernon, so he could finally exercise real power.


1983 monument to the enslaved persons of Mt. Vernon.


Slave Cemetery

Mt. Vernon confronts George Washington’s legacy of slavery, but it is in no way a reckoning. At the slave cemetery, nearby Washington’s tomb, there are two markers, one dating from 1929 and another from 1983, and archaeological efforts are ongoing. Throughout the site, there are constant references to the work that enslaved persons did. In all these references, the interpretation falls far short. They all report, I assume, facts, but fail to contextualize them in ways that speak to truth.


Near the main house, there are bunk rooms for both enslaved men and enslaved women. “Why Bunk Rooms?,” one plaque asks, before answering that “the unusual barracks-style1 bunk rooms were useful here because most of 59 adult slaves at the Mansion House Farm were either single men, or men whose jobs required them to live apart from their families six days a week.” That is a strange and underhanded way to phrase that George Washington, in his power over these people, decided it was more important that he have a butler on-hand than to allow these men to see their families for more than one day a week.


Punt plaque.

Down by the water, nearby a model slave house made up to look quaint and cozy, there’s another plaque describing a punt. A punt “is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow that was designed for use on small rivers or other shallow water.” At the bottom, the plaque tells a touching tale about how “Sambo Anderson, one of George Washington’s enslaved carpenters, had a punt that he probably used to cross Little Hunting Creek in order to visit River Farm, where his wife and children lived. Although Washington owned many boats, he sometimes borrowed Anderson’s small vessel. Years later, Anderson recalled that Washington always asked permission to use the boat and invariably returned it to the location where he found it.” This story tells us that George Washington was nice to the people he enslaved. He asked permission to borrow Sambo’s boat! And returned it to the same spot! The plaque doesn’t bother to delve into why Sambo was forced to live away from his family. The insidious task the plaque undertakes is to polish the sharp edges of the relationship between Sambo and George Washington. George Washington had the power to order Sambo killed at any time and for any reason. George Washington personally prevented Sambo from living his own life as he chose. If you’re George Washington, why not be nice to a fellow human being whose life you could end at any time?


Outside of the COVID-19 era, we might have come across it sooner, but it wasn’t until we were really heading out of Mt. Vernon that we found the portion of the museum dedicated to discussing the lives of enslaved persons on Mt. Vernon. Here, the museum works to paint a picture of a man torn in his very soul about the legacy of slavery. It’s a picture I just couldn’t buy.

In the submarine force, we had these training modules, called SOBTs (Submarine On-Board Training), that detailed events that lead up to various submarine accidents. Almost invariably there was a note in there, along the lines of “and the Quartermaster thought the ship was in trouble and this was a Bad Idea, but he told no one and did nothing about it.” I always felt you didn’t get credit for that; no one cares if you thought something was a bad idea if you didn’t do anything about it. Right from the start the museum spins a similar tale about Washington. It explains that his views on slavery changed over time, and towards the end of his life he thought it was a bad idea. But he didn’t do anything about it. You don’t get credit for freeing enslaved persons after you die and don’t need them anymore. I found frustrating the line that he was “unable to extricate himself from slavery during his lifetime.” That’s not true. What is true is that he couldn’t find a way to do it, and maintain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.

In my head as I was imagining this post it was an eloquent analysis of the mythmaking surrounding the founding fathers, a notion buoyed by a viewing of Hamilton last night on Disney+. It’s turned into more of a screed, but one that’s necessary, I think. The museum continues to shy away from truth while reporting facts. It discusses how slavery was economically unviable, how George Washington lamented that many of the enslaved persons didn’t really earn enough to make their “upkeep” profitable. That turns slavery into a charity case: these people couldn’t survive on their own, being unable to do productive work, but good ole’ George Washington keeps them on the farm anyways so they could stay fed and clothed. Let’s ignore why they were never able to save up for a retirement on their own.

The museum details the various punishments that George Washington could employ to keep the enslaved persons under control. The direst was selling them to the West Indies, which the museum noted was tantamount to a death sentence. This was reserved for only the most pernicious troublemakers, for whom George felt there was no real remedy. This puts the onus on the enslaved persons: if only they had acted better, Washington wouldn’t have been forced to send them to their deaths. The crimes for which these men paid with their lives? Fighting for their freedom and inconveniencing George Washington.

The most galling was the museum noting that freedom for many of the people George Washington freed in his will was “bittersweet.” Washington did not really own all of the enslaved persons on his farms; many he controlled via his marriage to Martha Washington, who had inherited them via the Custis line. Since the persons enslaved by Washington and persons enslaved by the Custis’ had intermarried, in some cases only parts of some families were freed upon Washington’s death. This is what made freedom “bittersweet,” in the museum’s telling. In that telling, sure, slavery was bad, but at least it kept families together!

The museum is wrought with, at first I was going to say “contradictions” like that, but “contradictions” is not quite right. There is no way to tell the whole truth of the life of a slaveowner and make that slaveowner look anything but evil. Whatever ideals George Washington fought for, he compromised them at home. The only question we have to answer is how much can a man compromise, and still get credit for fighting? In the year 2020, we can no longer accept a moral compromise that entailed the enslavement of hundreds of people so one man could continue to live a particular lifestyle. George Washington could have freed his slaves in his lifetime, but he just couldn’t figure out a way to do it and still be the “gentleman farmer” that he, or maybe just historians, imagined himself to be. When people argue against tearing down Confederate statues on the slippery-slope principle that, before you know it, we’ll be tearing down George Washington, they think they have a pretty rock-solid argument. Instead, I think we must reevaluate these men with every new generation. While it is imperative to learn about the context in which history happened, in order to actually understand the decisions people like George Washington made, we are not bound by the moral judgements of the past. It is the right of every present generation to look back and judge these men by the standards to which we would like to uphold, and only then take the lessons from their lives to help us live ours.

1I also want to say, the plaque notes that the bunkhouse as it is shown at Mt. Vernon today is based off of barracks occupied by Continental Army troops, which they make note of I guess as a way of citing their sources, but also seems to me says something like “look, George Washington treated enslaved persons just as well as Army troops! Couldn’t have been all that bad!”