Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Stories Behind the Names of the Most Famous Ships in History

Having felt as much as heard the blast from the horn of the Queen Mary when it berthed at Southampton while I was visiting one Saturday afternoon, the subject of name origins was soon raised.

Queen Mary is one of the most famous names in modern shipping. The original Queen Mary took the name of the consort of George V, Mary of Teck. Similarly the original Queen Elizabeth referred to the consort of George VI, while what became known as the QEII eventually referred to her daughter, the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

However while undoubtedly the most famous ocean-going vessel of the twentieth century it also had the shortest life. RMS Titanic was named for it being the largest vessel ever to sail the high seas. Its dimensions certainly were 'titanic' in every respect: displacement of 52,310 tons, length 882 feet, nine decks, 3,547 passengers and crew were propelled at a cruising speed of 21 knots by the combined 46,000 horsepower engines.

As everyone knows this vast vessel sank on its maiden voyage with great loss of life. However 705 survivors made it to the New World thanks to the efforts of the captain and crew of RMS Carpathia. This vessel was named from the Carpathian Mountain range, itself traceable back to an early Proto-Indo-European word related to Albanian karpe 'rock' and simply describing 'the rocky mountains'.

Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, was probably the best-named vessel ever. It is certainly the longest serving vessel ever for, even though it has been in dry dock in Portsmouth for many, many years, it is the oldest commissioned warship in the world. The honour of the oldest warship still afloat is claimed by USS Constitution, clearly named to mark the signing of the American constitution which it defended in the War of 1812 against the British.

Another famous ship is HMS Temeraire, a vessel which would probably have been forgotten were it not for the 1838 painting by J. M. W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire which showed her being tugged home to be broken up. This very un-English name is due to the British custom of naming vessels after old prizes, the original being a French ship taken at the Battle of Lagos in 1759. The name is derived from the Latin temerarius and means 'casual, rash, accidental', what seems to us a very odd name for a vessel.

HMS Hood has been used for several ships since the mid-nineteenth century, all named after the Hood family which produced generations of mariners. The most famous is the battlecruiser launched in 1918 and in service until 1941. This particular ship was named after the eighteenth century Admiral Samuel Hood, who saw action in the Armerican Independence and French Revolutionary Wars and was also a mentor of Admiral Lord Nelson.

The Hood was sunk in 1941 by the Bismarck. Launched in 1939, the German battleship Bismarck was named after the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and, at over fifty thousand tons, the then largest warship ever commissioned. The other famous German vessel of World War II was the Admiral Graf Spee, named after the World War I Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee who was killed, along with two of his sons, in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914.

It may only be a part of Greek mythology, but the Argo is certainly one of the most famous in ancient history. It is named after Argus, the one hundred-eyed monster who built it. Another potentially fictitious name is generally known as Noah's Ark, although nowhere in the Bible is it referred as such. The word 'Ark', if it is of Ancient Hebrew derviation, does not refer to a boat or ship, it simply means 'box'.

One of the lesser known vessels, yet one which was certainly played a pivotal in English history, is the so-called White Ship. On November 25th 1170, off the Normandy Coast near Barfleur, the most impressive ship of its day sank with just a single survivor, a butcher from Rouen. The drunken revelry of the passengers and even the crew resulted in the deaths of many of the youth of the English court, including the only legitimate son of King Henry I, William the Aethling. This resulted in a dispute on the subject of succession following Henry's death, a war between Matilda, the king's daughter whom he had attempted to guarantee would succeed him, and Stephen of Blois who did eventually accede to the throne. It was written at the time how "No ship ever brought such misery to England". Clearly the vessel was painted white in order to stand out wherever it was afloat.

Cunard's RMS Lusitania famously sank off Ireland in May 1915 having been torpedoed by a German U-Boat who claimed it was bringing munitions from the US to Britain. The name of Lusitania is derived from the Roman province on the Iberian peninsula, roughly corresponding to all of Portugal with the addition of the Spanish lands as far as the Douro. The name referred to a tribe, the Lusitani, who lived here and who may have taken their name from Lus Tanus 'the tribe of Lusus'.

In 1947 Norway's Thor Heyerdahl built a reed boat and attempted to show the ancients could have travelled across the Pacific Ocean from South American to the islands of Polynesia. The vessel he named Kon-Tiki an earlier name for the Inca sun god Viracocha. The creator god was also known as Apu Qun Tiqsi, Wiraqutra, and Con-Tici depending upon the period involved.

The first man to complete a circumnavigation of the globe was Sir Francis Drake. He left in 1577 aboard the Pelican, however by the time he returned in 1580 Drake had renamed his vessel the Golden Hind. Drake had good reason for the name change, it was to commemorate the role played by Sir Christopher Hatton as patron of his journey, and whose crest featured a female deer, known in heraldry as a 'golden hind'.

A century earlier Christopher Columbus set sail for the west to prove it was possible to reach the East Indies by what he considered would be the shorter route. What he found was the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. He had three vessels under his command, led by the Santa Maria, originally named La Gallega as it was built in the region of Galicia, with two smaller vessels alongside, the Pinta 'the painted' and Santa Clara, more often referred to by its nickname of Nina 'the girl' and based on the name of her owner Juan Nino of Moguer.

Another famous crossing of the Atlantic took place in 1620, when the English Separatists, better known as Pilgrims, left Plymouth and sailed for the New World. Just where the name Mayflower came from is uncertain, although it certainly spawned a number of later vessels named such.

An infamous name is that of HMS Bounty, originally commission as His Majesty's Armed Vessel the Bounty, and named for its first botanical mission. The principal target was the breadfruit plants of Tahiti and transport them to the West Indies, hoping they would flourish and become a cheap and bountiful source of food for the slaves.

Also famous for its voyages around the eastern Pacific is HMS Beagle, which took one Charles Darwin on a voyage which led to the eventual publication of On the Origin of Species. There is nothing recorded as to why the name of the dog was chosen, however we do know the origin of the name of the hound, it comes from the French beegueule meaning 'one who whines insistently'.

Finally the famous research vessel of Jacques Cousteau, Calypso was named after the figure from Greek mythology. She is best remembered for her role in Homer's Odyssey in which she held the eponymous her captive. Calypso is generally held to be the daughter of the Titan Atlas.

It seems any name chosen was never meant to last. Whatever the reasons behind the selection when the vessel was launched or renamed soon become insignificant which is surely the lesson to be learned here. Perhaps a little more thought into new and significant names and less examples of old names being reworked and passed off as 'traditional'.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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