Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Book Review: "The Treasure of the San José"

I always try to take at least one maritime-related book with me to the coast for vacation, so I was intentionally in the middle of Carla Rahn Phillips' The Treasure of the San José: Death at Sea in the War of the Spanish Succession (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) when I headed up to Maine this year.

Phillips' subject is the much-fabled San José, a Spanish galleon sunk in a battle with English warships in 1708 off the coast of the Spanish Main. Using careful research of archival data, she provides the first in-depth historiographical analysis of the ship, its voyage, its crew, and its destruction - and as she does so, attempts to illustrate how historical memory can differ so wildly from actual events.

Some of the noteworthy elements of Phillips' treatment are her greatly detailed expositions on Spanish shipbuilding practices and measurement nomenclature, excellent biographical reconstructions of the ship's officers (very detailed) and crew (much less so), and a useful discussion of the Spanish imperial bureaucracy during the early eighteenth century. She dissects the available evidence regarding the still-missing and much-sought cargo that went down with the ship (and most of its crew), but certainly the most fascinating portion of the book to me was Phillips' minute description of the battle that resulted in the loss of the San José, drawing on the accounts of both the Spanish and English participants.

A good, narrowly-drawn, archives-based study of an important incident, Phillips' book does much to dispel longstanding myths and provides a close look at maritime practices as well as the difficulties posed by allowing memory to stand in for fact. While I thought the archival citations could in some places have been more extensive, the endnotes and bibliography were quite useful and welcome. I should add as well that the overall design is quite nice, and certainly added to my positive impression of the book.

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