Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks by Bruce D. Berman. Boston: The Mariners Press, 1972. Bibliography. 308 pages. Softbound $7.65. Clothbound $12.50.
Reviewed by James W. Watkins, Copley Books. Mr. Watkins is writing a maritime history examining nineteenth century naval, commercial and diplomatic activities and the role each played in the ultimate Americanization of the Pacific.
The mechanics involved in compiling a list of more than 13,000 domestic shipwrecks must have been overwhelming. But, while applauding the author’s effort and not wishing to fault his industry, the book has enough immediately recognizable errors and note-worthy omissions to scuttle it as a reliable source of information, whether for the historian or the scuba enthusiast. Granted, some of the mistakes are small, but minor errors in the vastness of Oceana can have major consequences-many of the shipwrecks listed are themselves mute evidence of that.
Listing the Spanish ship Trinidad down off the coast of La Jolla in 1540 with a cargo valued at $5 million is pure speculation. When last heard from in April, 1540, the Trinidad was at Cedros Island, and no one has offered substantial proof that she ever sailed far beyond that point. This reviewer does not wish to become involved in the ongoing controversy concerning the ultimate fate of the Trinidad, only to point out that including her in the list makes for great legend but not good history.
On September 8, 1923 (not September 3), seven four-pipers went aground at Honda, near Point Arguello. The author places them off Santa Barbara. Since sixty miles is a rather long swim, it seems that a skin diver using this information could well realize the same fate as the Trinidad and never be seen again.
On July 21, 1905, a ship exploded in San Diego Bay near the foot of H Street. This book lists that ship, the U.S.S. Bennington, twice, but only once with the correct information regarding the date, place and cause. It could well be two different vessels.
The San Agustin (not San Augustine) was wrecked in 1595, not 1599.
The Coronado Islands are not in the Gulf of Mexico as stated in one item. However, one of the worst disasters in American maritime history did occur in that area-the explosion of the French ship Grandcamp which resulted in more than 500 deaths at Texas City, Texas. It is not listed.
Also missing are the U.S.S. Peacock and U.S.S. Shark, both victims at the Columbia River. The Peacock is important in the history of the Pacific because it was a part of the famous United States Exploring Expedition when it wrecked in 1841.
A maritime mishap of local interest also did not make the list: the sinking of the floating pleasure palace S.S. Monte Carlo off the Hotel del Coronado in 1936. Its “treasure” is well-documented, for the local constabulary was hard pressed to stop souvenir hunters who collected roulette wheels, whole dice tables and bird cage games.
These are just a few examples of speculation, omission and misinformation. A lot of hard work went into this book, but as a reference work it cannot be taken seriously. It would have been better to concentrate on an accurate mile of shoreline than a nation’s entire coast. Hopefully, Mr. Berman will continue his research and someday present such a study, one that will have the necessary accuracy. In his introduction he enlists the readers’ friendly collaboration. This is our attempt to do just that.