Our special column focuses on a book written by John S. Sledge, exploring the people, ships, and cities that have made the Gulf of Mexico’s human history and culture so rich.
The book, titled “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History” is a work of verve and sweep that illuminates both the risks of life on the water and the riches that come from its bounty. In the modern era, the Gulf has become critical to energy production, fisheries, tourism, and international trade, even as it is threatened by pollution and climate change. The author also introduces a fascinating array of people connected to maritime life in the Gulf, among them Maya priests, French pirates, African American stevedores, and Greek sponge divers.
The book details gulf events of global historical importance, such as the only defeat of armed and armored steamships by wooden sailing vessels, the first accurate deep-sea survey and bathymetric map of any ocean basin, the development of shipping containers by a former truck driver frustrated with antiquated loading practices, and the worst environmental disaster in American annals.
Occasionally shifting focus ashore, Mr. Sledge explains how people representing a vast array of ethnicities built some of the world’s most exotic cities, such as Havana, way station for conquistadores and treasure-filled galleons; and New Orleans, the Big Easy, famous for its beautiful French Quarter, Mardi Gras, and relaxed morals.
Throughout history the residents of these cities and their neighbors along the littoral have struggled with challenges both natural and human-induced, including devastating hurricanes, frightening epidemics, catastrophic oil spills, and conflicts ranging from dockside brawls to pirate raids, foreign invasion, civil war, and revolution.
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