The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire


Shipwreck. The dread fate of sailors and their captains. 

The Black Sea was known for vicious storms and unforgiving harbors. Its coasts were known for the savagery of their inhabitants - both those who dwelt along the plains and those who kept to the alpine heights of the Caucasus. The Greeks called it Inhospitable. The Ottomans named it Black (Kara Deniz), and so it remains. 

Wrecks in the Black Sea were ordinary, minor, almost unremarkable occurrences. Though tragic at times, they lacked the spectacular qualities of the sinking of ocean liners or infamous pirate ships. In part this was because ship traffic on the Black Sea was dominated by small vessels: by single-masted sailboats and flat-bottomed boats drawn by oar. The double-masted ships carried inglorious cargo, their holds full of timber and butter, salt, smoked mackerel and caviar, wine and grain. They hugged the coastline, minimizing the amount of time spent on open water.

Yet storms regularly rose up out of nowhere to blow them off course for days at a time. Ships foundered on rocks or found themselves stranded at decrepit wharves that lacked the men and materials needed for repairs. They may have been waylaid and beleaguered, but often enough the crews survived. Some captains even managed to reclaim the cargo that washed up on nearby shores.

Their stories are part of Black Sea history. And some of those stories are part of Russia's maritime history. They are not always easy to recover, in part because they were so common. So unremarkable. But in the early nineteenth century, Russia installed customs officers in strategic locations and required overseers of coastal towns to report on maritime disasters. Those men did not keep the record with great enthusiasm or regularity, but here and there the lucky historian can find a few shreds of the record - shreds such as these.

Note on the shipwreck documents: The wrecks described here are all drawn from the annual reports "on the state of Feodosiia" produced by the city overseer (gradonachal'nik) in 1828 and 1829. The reports are held at the Russian State Historical Archive in the fond of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. 

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