Category Archives: Naval History

High Seas Trader: Games and Maritime History

Using video or computer games as pedagogical tools has always been a concept that I’ve harbored deep skepticism about. Perhaps it’s the old fogey in me that wants to say, “If it’s not hard work, it’s not learning!”

History is also more complicated than one person’s ability to control it. Thus, old games like Oregon Trail, though highly enjoyable for indoor recess, teach that when you’re faced with dysentery, for instance, your only two options are to (a) rest or (b) keep going. There’s no mention of the fact that you may be traveling in a wagon train with, say, a doctor, even if you’re not one yourself. But in real life, pioneers usually had other resources besides what was in their own wagons.

Historical video games on a larger scale, such as Age of Empires or Rise of Nations, though excellent fun, also teach a skewed view of history, most especially that war is always the way alliances and enmities are created. Don’t get me wrong–a game that involved long drawn-out diplomatic negotiations wouldn’t be that fun. But they don’t really teach an accurate view of how world politics and wars work.

So I’ve always been a little skeptical of the history people learn through computer games. But this past week as I sat in America and the Sea, I realized that much of the subject we were discussing–early exploration on the oceans–I had learned through a game.

High Seas Trader came out in the mid-1990s, I think. It’s a game in which you, the captain of a trading vessel, trade commodities across the known world, fight enemy nations and pirate ships, collect gold, and work toward promotion within the guild. It starts in 1650; you’ll die before the American colonies get their independence. You get to pick a nationality from several seafaring European nations: England, France, Holland, Spain, or Portugal.

There are certainly historical inaccuracies, and you definitely don’t learn anything about how to actually handle a ship. One major inaccuracy is that as a merchant vessel captain, you never have any contact with the navy of any nation, yours or another. (Especially if you’re British, this is a fiction. You definitely would have had contact with the navy, and not always a positive contact.) The ships you fight are always other merchant vessels or pirates.

But what you do learn is where commodities were cheapest (and most expensive), the historical names of a large number of ports, and how political alliances and territories changed throughout the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Here’s the intro to the game, compliments of YouTube.

I think this game is a worthy candidate for some updating and improving. It’s a great example of how gaming can enhance pedagogy digitally. Too bad in order to play it right now you have to play it in a DOS emulator. 🙂

Database of Officers of the Line

Becoming an officer of the line in the navy is a bit like getting on the tenure track in academia. Not all officers are created equal–officers such as pursers, sailing masters, and chaplains were classified as officers and received the preferential treatment given to officers. But they could never be captains–they were not in line for those sorts of promotions.


The Naval Historical Center has made lists available of the officers of the navy and Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900. This list is very useful, but it’s not in a format that makes it easy to see the data in the aggregate. It includes both warrant officers (non-tenure-track) and line officers (tenure-track).

I wanted to look at the promotion trends of line officers from the early republic. There was no way to isolate those records in the form the NHC provides. So I built a Google spreadsheet that tracks each line officer’s initial date of entry and his subsequent promotions.

Following my desire to track how social connections changed as the navy developed, I’ve divided the officers into 4 groups, or generations. I had initially planned to do 3 generations, but after doing all the data input, I realized that 4 was a more logical divide.

First generation officers entered the service before 1801, as a rank higher than midshipman.

Second generation officers entered the service before the Peace Establishment Act (or by the end of 1801), but as midshipman. Thus, they essentially became adults in the service, and they learned their craft from the first generation.

Third generation officers entered the service as midshipmen after the Peace Establishment Act but before the end of the War of 1812. Those officers in this generation who became captain rose to that rank in the 1830s and ’40s.

Fourth generation officers entered the service after the War of 1812 had ended. These officers saw almost no wartime service, and many of the ones who achieved captain found themselves having to decide whether to serve in the Union or the Confederacy during the Civil War.

I marked a few things that were interesting that weren’t specifically promotion-related. Though I didn’t record dates of exit from the service, if the officer was discharged under the Peace Establishment Act, I marked it in column G as “PEA.” I also marked records where the official record indicates that the officer was killed in a duel (an idle curiosity about whether duels were really as prevalent as most historians have claimed).


Promotions in the navy are a bit tricky because the system of ranks changed considerably from 1798 to 1849 (the end point I selected for my data). But there were four standard ranks that prevailed throughout that time period, so for consistency, I tracked only those four ranks: midshipman, lieutenant, master commandant (then commander, an equivalent rank), and captain. It took until the Civil War for ranks above captain (such as commodore and admiral) to be created, so I didn’t record those.

All told, there are 3441 line officers in the NHC database. I’m not interested in all 3441 of them, most of whom never made it past midshipman. Since my project involves social networks of influence, I’m mostly interested in those officers who stayed around long enough to have influence, generally those who made it at least to lieutenant. However, I put all the line officers into my spreadsheet in case someone else wants the data.

There are several specific limitations on my spreadsheet that anyone who wants to use it (all 2 of you in the world) should be aware of.

  1. There are a few rare instances in which an officer entered the service, resigned, and then re-entered later at the same rank or lower. In those instances, I did not mark the second entrance, but rather treated the officer as if he had never left the service.
  2. There are even rarer instances in which, during the late 1790s, officers were given the commission of captain in order to command galleys, but they were never subsequently given other commands. So I left them out of the record entirely.
  3. I noticed a few discrepancies in dates (promotion to lieutenant dated before promotion to midshipman, for instance). Where possible, I merely corrected the obvious typos. Otherwise, I highlighted the cell of the disputed date.


Merely recording all this data given me a better understanding of how the promotion system worked in the early navy. But I’d like to do some visualizations showing the relative speed of promotion, how batch promotions work, and a few smaller things. So far I haven’t found a visualization program that will do it. (Suggestions are welcome!)

I’m sure there are plenty of other uses for this data, as well. For myself, it will help me to see where promotions don’t follow the general pattern–these aberrant promotions may very well be indicative of an intervention by a social connection. But I hope other people will be able to use it as well.


2012: Year in Review

Today is my 27th birthday. This year has been a mixture of continuities and new things, sometimes both at once. I’d like to record just a few of the highlights of my year.

1. Starting my PhD at Northeastern University. It has been great to be back in school. I’ve been out of school for three years, so it felt a little strange at first, but I got over the awkward feelings pretty quickly.

Taking classes is, of course, nothing new. in fact, after the initial adjustment period, it felt a little like I’d never been away. (That’s actually a good feeling, I think.) Even though it takes more than emotional connections to accomplish something big like a PhD, the feelings of belonging and enjoyment certainly make me think I’ve chosen the right career path.

There were a few new things about the start of classes. For one, it’s the first time I’ve taken any classes not from my undergrad alma mater. And on the surface, the contrasts between that institution and Northeastern are striking, to say the least. Nevertheless, my upper-level undergrad classes were more than adequate preparation for the courses I took this semester. And the values of hard work, integrity, and preparedness were the same here in Boston as they had been in South Carolina.

The bigger difference this time was additional responsibilities at home, namely, my daughter. She certainly makes school different from my BA and MA studies. (The general topic of having children while in grad school is one I will save for another blog post, perhaps.) But I think I did OK in managing my time so that she never felt neglected. Getting to spend lots of extra time with Daddy was probably a bonus in her mind, anyway. 🙂

2. Introduction to digital humanities. Getting involved in digital humanities has definitely been a highlight of this year. Again, here, there are continuities and new things. I had a backdoor entrance into some DH ideas because of my husband’s connections to the DH world, but I wasn’t really interested until I realized how it could work with my own ideas about history.

My newfound interest in DH has opened up more opportunities than I ever imagined. Of primary importance for me is the incredible community I now feel at least a minor part of. My initial forays into the DH community through HASTAC blossomed into other more valuable connections I gained through THATCamp New England and (mostly) through Twitter.

Twitter has proved to be my primary path into the DH community. I was assured early in the semester that the community is very welcoming, and that claim has been substantiated many times over. From getting simple technical support for silly questions, to involvement in DigiWriMo, to having a voice in discussions about the future of higher education, Twitter contacts have enriched my academic life in ways unique and unexpected. I hope that I have managed to provide at least a little enrichment of the same kind to my Twitter followers.

3. Watching M grow. OK, I know I already mentioned her, but I love that little girl, and watching her grow from a 4-month-old into a very intelligent, very sweet 16-month-old toddler has been nothing short of amazing. 🙂


As 2013 arrives, I’m anticipating that its highlight reel will look very similar to this year’s. I’m greatly looking forward to my courses this coming semester, not least because one of them is about DH. My TA assignments also split evenly between maritime history and DH, so I anticipate a lot of great work coming out of those two assignments. I’m hoping to attend another THATCamp in 2013, maybe two, as well as one or two naval history conferences, so I hope to continue to build and strengthen mutually beneficial connections with people in my fields.

So here’s to a great 2013!

Poetry and War: Constitution v. Guerriere

USS Constitution v. HMS Guerriere. Public domain image from Naval Historical Center.

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of War of 1812, here’s an excerpt from Columbia’s Naval Victories, a poem about the naval victories of the Americans, written in 1813 by Benjamin Allen.

In war a lion, though a lamb in peace,

Hull [1. A brief biography of Isaac Hull can be found here.] bears the flag of freedom o’er the seas;[2. A motto often flown on ship’s flags was “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”]

Ready to vindicate his country’s fame,

And add new honours to her injur’d name.

Soon Albion’s banner rises on his view [3. A few weeks previous to this battle, the Constitution had successfully evaded the Guerriere, which had then been sailing in a squadron with several other warships. This time, on August 19, 1812, Hull decided to take the chance that the Guerriere was alone.]—

His dauntless soul impels him to pursue.

Of equal force, the ready foemen meet,

And with the cheer of gladness loudly greet.

Here England’s Dacres,[4. Captain James Richard Dacres, captain of the Guerriere] with a gallant band–

There the firm sons of blest Columbia’s strand.

Now roaring rolls the deathful cannon’s sound,

A novel thunder frights the floods around:

The pious soul attendant angels guard,

Or wait to waft him to his last reward.

Short is the contest, carnage soon is o’er,

For Albion’s banner falls, to rise no more.

Low in the briny deep the Guerriere lies ;

The finny tribes of ocean o’er her rise :

Like some forgotten wave she sinks to rest,[5. The author is taking some poetic license here: Though the Guerriere was indeed too badly damaged to be claimed as a prize, Hull ordered it burned, which did of course result in its sinking.]

In all her futile, fleeting, boastings drest.

Modest, but firm, the victor Hull is seen,

With sympathising kindness in his mien,

Aiding the vanquished: he receives them well,

And bide them with himself, like brethren, dwell.