Everything Mobile has been or will be is owed to the body of water south of Dauphin Island. Pleasure, pain, life and death all brought by the Gulf of Mexico, for us and others.
“I think [the book] gave me a more profound sense of how linked it all is. We think of our little isolated polities — Alabama, Mississippi — but we really share so much,” author John Sledge said.
Sledge’s new work, “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History,” underscores the ties between American, Mexican and Cuban ports ringing the 500,000-square-mile, warm-water sea and does so with relish. His fascinating insights on the Gulf — geology, ecology, weather and panorama of human interaction — in all its magnificence and fearsome wonder create a book that should be embraced by anyone living on its shores.
The author will hold a book signing at the History Museum of Mobile (111 S. Royal St.) on Nov. 13, 4 – 7 p.m., and at Pass Books/Cat Island Coffeehouse (300 E. Scenic Drive) in Pass Christian, Mississippi, on Nov. 14, 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. Two Florida events — Nov. 21 in Destin and Dec. 12 in Seaside — follow.
Sledge’s deep dive begins with the basin’s formation and our species’ most seminal event: the Chicxulub asteroid that walloped the Yucatan and ended the dinosaur’s reign, making Homo sapiens possible.
In a fitting device, Sledge employs the watercraft of the Gulf’s assorted humans to glide into each new age, beginning with description of indigenous peoples’ painstakingly crafted dugout canoes. His survey of native cultures reveals the depth of research.
“This was about a four-year project, but a lifetime interest,” Sledge said.
It shows. He resurrects tribes who thrived in tropical Florida and Cuba, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta’s Bottle Creek Mound settlement and the Yucatan peninsula where Mayan structures still tower.
“There’s a great account from the 1840s of a guy that traveled in the Yucatan and has all these great descriptions of the ruins. He didn’t know much about the Mayan people and how they built these things or used them, but just his sense of wonder was so beautifully conveyed,” Sledge recalled.
Spanish sails billowed into the Gulf, hidalgos and conquistadors driven by gold’s allure as much as the enslavement and slaughter of infidels. Sledge was struck by the Age of Exploration’s position at the juncture between the medieval and modern. He pointed to Christopher Columbus’s “fantastical ideas on monkey men.”
“Nothing he was seeing or experiencing was comporting with his medieval frame of reference and yet he never changed it. He never quite realized what had happened and that to me is a real lesson about having an open mind,” Sledge said.
René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, canoed from the Great Lakes region to the Mississippi River’s mouth and claimed the entire Mississippi Basin for the French crown. Sledge discusses the polyglot ethnicities — French, Canadian, Spanish, Native, Swiss, German, African — who created an exotic region dotted by cities whose mystique circulated the globe.
Sledge brings to life some of the region’s most enigmatic characters in pirate brothers Pierre and Jean Laffite who built Barataria, a rogues’ empire in the swamps south of New Orleans. American allies in the Battle of New Orleans, the Laffites relocated to Galveston, Texas, before a hurricane dismantled their enterprise’s settlement. The fact that Jean’s fate was never truly known added to his legend.
War is abundant. Tales of Civil War frigates, the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana, even German U-boats that sank 56 Gulf-faring ships during World War II ratchet action.
Fossil fuels bring bonanza and disaster, in 1990’s Mega Borg oil spill and 2010’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Sledge’s accounts illustrate deceptively fragile marine health.
So essentially, the book is the story of shifting tides and winds, economic, environmental, chronological and cultural. Motion is constant.
One insight resonant to Mobilians would be a technological innovation from Waterman Steamship Corporation with unanticipated downstream effects. Uniform container changes made cargo handling more efficient but eliminated thousands of shipboard and dock jobs, forever altering the feel of downtown Mobile.
“Sailors no longer swaggered down city streets. Dockside, vast concrete expanses meant to facilitate motorized transport and towering cranes operable by only one man replaced the bustle of wooden quays with cargo sheds and their singing roustabouts, exotic products, smells and piles of cordage. The economic benefits were enormous, offset by cultural impoverishment,” Sledge wrote.
Mountains of wealth poured into fewer pockets and erased part of Mobile’s unique flavor. Nothing in the Gulf is permanent.
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