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UNCATEGORIZED | 5 Minutes

History Comes to Life

Written by Ned Bustard

On May 27, 2006 my three daughters were walking down the center of historic Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in a parade celebrating the dumping of British tea on May 23, 1774, in the Chester River. And no, I do not have my facts mixed up, confusing the Chester River for Boston HarborBoston gets all the hype, but that town isn’t the only place where there was a tea party. And in Chestertown the patriots had their tea party in broad daylight! In the Chestertown Tea Party parade my eldest daughter, Carey Anne, was holding a large banner in front of a five-foot-long model of the Royal Navy’s smallest schooner, Sultana, and Maggie and Ellie walked alongside as the wee model rolled down the street. All three were decked out in colonial costumes that looked like they had walked straight out of an American Girl Doll television special about Felicity. Maggie waved a flag and threw candy while our youngest, Ellie, just tried to keep up. The girls had sailed through the waters of the Veritas Press Explorers to 1815 history program last year, and so this was a grand way to finish off the school year.

         In case you’re wondering, we don’t end every homeschool year with a parade. And just to keep things straight, the Sultana was nowhere near Chestertown in 1774. The tea that was dumped into the Chesapeake Bay tributary was from the brig Geddes. So why were my girls escorting a model of the schooner Sultanadown High Street? It is because the  schooner Sultana fills in for the Geddes each year for the reenactment, and we have a special relationship with the Sultana. And as you might have guessed, the Sultana floating in Chestertown today is not the original, but a recent reproduction. The original schooner was “well wrot and put together,” but there was no way she was going to last to today.

         For years the Sultana has been a popular vessel for model ship-builders, and it was her section in Harold Hahn’s book The Colonial Schooner: 1763-1775 that caught the attention of shipwright John Swain in 1996. By 1997 Swain had sold the idea of building a reproduction of Sultana to a group of regional supporters who formed a non-profit organization, now known as Sultana Projects, Inc., to facilitate the construction of the Sultana. Once a shipyard and the necessary tools were found, the keel was laid in October of 1998. The primary focus of the organization was education and community involvement. So 3,000 students on who knows how many class field trips, along with a core of volunteers, crafted the new schooner. In spite of the concessions made to comply with United States Coast Guard regulations for passenger-carrying vessels, the Sultana still is one of the most accurate replicas of a historic vessel in the world and is the only living example of the Marblehead Schooners pioneered by Colonial New England Shipwrights.

         The original schooner was built in the yard of renowned Boston shipwright Benjamin Hallowell in 1767, but was soon purchased to aid the Royal Navy in policing colonial merchant traffic for lead, paper, glass and tea that might be smuggled in violation of the Townsend Duties. During her service to the Crown, the Sultana had had her plans drawn up to keep on file and two sets of meticulous logs kept of the vessel’s position and duties for every day of her four and a half years of naval service. These, along with her muster books, makes the Sultana one of the most well-documented vessels of the colonial period.

         While the present-day Sultana was being built, my family and I took a tour of the shipyard. When I heard about the records and history of the schooner, my imagination was set on fire and I became convinced of the need to write a book about it. The story I ended up writing was Squalls Before War: His Majesty’s Schooner Sultana. In it the Boston Massacre, the Great Awakening, and even George Washington all play a part in the real life voyages of the Sultana, as she criss-crossed the waterways of the colonies from 1768–1771. The story offers a unique view of colonial life from the deck of a schooner, as the servants of the Crown struggled among the squalls of unrest that characterized life in a land that no one dreamed would soon be in a war for independence. Some readers have asked if this book is fiction or history. It is both—it’s fictionalized history. The plot of this book does not tell of a great romance, mighty war or treacherous quest. It merely follows the work of a boat enforcing the laws of the Crown in the middle of the eighteenth century. The sailors aboard the Sultana did not know that they were sailing in the headwaters of war or that they were playing a part in the formation of a new nation. They were just doing their jobs. Squalls Before War is a slice of history—showing the excitement and tedium of life on a schooner in the 1700’s.

                If you are planning to study the colonial time period this year, I hope you’ll consider using the book to complement your curriculum. The comprehension guide is stuffed with extra facts and fathoms of fun activities, and you may also freely download some extra projects (see Educational Helps, below). And if you can be in the area on November 3–5, you might join our family in Chestertown to celebrate the close of Sultana’s sailing season as traditional sailing vessels from around the Chesapeake gather in Chestertown for Downrigging Weekend. This year Downrigging Weekend will also celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the port of Chestertown in 1706. Vessels scheduled to participate this year include: Kalmar Nyckel, Pride of Baltimore II, Schooner Virginia, Lady Maryland, Schooner Sultana, Schooner When & If, Schooner Woodwind, Skipjack Elsworth, Skipjack Stanley Norman, Buyboat Annie D, and Buyboat Mildred Belle.