Joshua Slocum and family aboard Liberdade

One nice thing about this blogging game is that you sometimes get useful feedback. For example: about two years ago I put up a post about Joshua Slocum and his bizarre homemade 35-foot dory/junk Liberdade, which he sailed from South America to the U.S. in 1888 with his family after they were shipwrecked on the Brazilian coast. This included a brief end note as to the fate of the boat, to the effect that it had been donated to the Smithsonian Institution, but that it wasn’t known whether the Smithsonian still had the boat hidden in its vaults, or whether Slocum had ultimately retrieved it.

Well… now I know what really happened.

According to Paul F. Johnston, Ph.D., Curator of Maritime History at the Smithsonian, the myth that the Smithsonian might still have the boat is a pop-up mole he is perpetually whacking down. After someone confronted him with a link to my original post, he contacted me and shared the following:

Joshua Slocum offered Liberdade to the Smithsonian (SI) in 1889, and we received it as a joint donation from him and its purchasers on 16 October 1890. I think it took that long, because he couldn’t afford to donate it himself and needed to find someone to buy it from him first. At 35 ft in length, it was too long to display indoors, so the SI left it outside, uncovered for years. The reasoning at the time was that it didn’t represent any particular style of boatbuilding, and it appears that the associative value with Slocum was unrecognized by the SI staff. My guess is that he may not have been as well-known then as he is now, although he worked on his image pretty hard for those days!

After Liberdade deteriorated too far, we asked Slocum multiple times to take it away. He always wrote back that he intended to visit DC “in the spring,” but he didn’t. Then he wrote that he wanted to take back a few bits but gave permission to the SI to destroy it. We didn’t. It was returned intact to his custody on 7 December 1906, and we have two receipts acknowledging the handoff transaction. Slocum took it down to a boatyard on the banks of the Potomac, dismantled it, cut it into pieces and stowed portions on his famous circumnavigation vessel Spray. He gave a few Liberdade souvenirs to interested DC waterfront locals; none of those souvenirs have ever turned up, to my knowledge. Our last accession file document on the tale is dated 1914. FYI, all this information is in the original accession file (SI NMAH Acc. 23653), if you should find yourself in the area.

Paul offered to answer any questions, and of course I had some. For example, I asked about those who purchased the boat to donate it, but more particularly I wondered why on earth the Smithsonian had accepted the donation in the first place. After all, Slocum was an unknown penniless sailor at the time, and clearly the organization didn’t think enough of the boat itself to take care of it.

Beyond saying the donors might have gotten a tax break, Paul left me to scratch my head, pleading that he was busy answering queries about the Titanic. (Don’t forget, the 100th anniversary of her sinking is next month! Be sure to get out your deck chairs and start rearranging them.)

So one of these days I’ll have to get my butt down to DC and have a look at that file. Meanwhile, the big take-away from this exchange is that there may well be bits and pieces of Liberdade lying around in attics and sheds in the vicinity of the Potomac. Some of you may want to check for these while looking for those deck chairs.

Also, I neglected to mention in my last post that a Welshman, David Sinnett-Jones, actually built a replica of Liberdade back in the late 1990s, to a design by Bruce Roberts-Goodson. He succeeded in sailing it to Brazil in 2000, and thence to the U.S. in a recreation of Slocum’s original voyage.

Here are some pix I found:

Liberdade replica under sail

Liberdade replica under sail. Photo courtesy of Bruce Roberts-Goodson

David Sinnett-Jones

David Sinnett-Jones holding a model of the replica. Ditto on the photo credit

Liberdade replica in 2005

Liberdade in 2005, wearing paint and a Monitor steering vane. Photo courtesy of Melville C. Brown

Liberdade replica stern

Liberdade replica tiller

Finally, two pix from Scanmar International’s website, from when Jones put the Monitor vane on the boat. How about that crazy tiller??? I wonder if Slocum had one of those on his boat???

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11 Responses
  1. Jordan Bettis

    Solcum didn’t have a tiller like that, based on his drawings, the helmsman sat at the small foot-well behind the mizzen mast.

  2. Mike Austin

    I crewed with David from Recife – Paranagua – Antigua where David was taken ill and flown back to the UK. I sailed her single handed from Antigua to Norfolk VA where David rejoined and completed the journey to New York and the Statue of Liberty – our goal.
    I am giving a talk on the voyage at the Royal Southern Yacht Club, Hamble, UK on the 13th March. I have many photos of the building of her. True there were some mods to the original drawings, but we were sailing in a different era and crossing oceans. David sailed single handed from Wales to Recife via the Azores. I first met him in 1998, in Horta when he was attempting to sail her to the US for the centenary of Joshua’s completion of his circumnavigation in the Spray. He failed to make it due steering issues – the Achilles heel of the boat.
    I also have several hours of video of our voyage. David’s last book is called “Passion For Life” and he passed away as I began reading it on a trip to Toronto – very ironic.

  3. Mike Austin

    Incidentally, we had two tillers. The short one was used for passage making and “crazy” one was used when manoeuvring at close quarters e.g. I raced her in Classic Week, Antigua 2000. The story of how David came to build her is rather special and the main part of my talk. His other books are “To The Cape of Storms” and “Not All Plain Sailing” – I have them beside me as I write this. David, a cancer victim like me, also completed a solo circumnavigation in his copy of the Spray. She sank off Southern Ireland in 1995 as David was sailing to the US to celebrate the centenary of Joshua’s departure. The story of how he tried to salvage her from 90 metres is the subject of a BBC film, “Back From The Deep”. I have a copy. The mission failed as the cable snapped halfway from the surface and he lost everything. As he bemoaned his loss, his good lady Suzanne said ” David, do what Joshau did when he was shipwrecked – build YOUR Liberdade”. David was a racing driver who lost an eye in a crash

  4. After the crash, he could no longer race and bought a hill farm in Aberaeron, west Wales. He was a keen diver and when undergoing a medical for a professional ticket they found a large shadow on his lung. A major operation removed the tumour which also affected his heart and vocal chords. He refused treatment and the prognosis was not good. He could no longer farm so sold his herd and rented out his land. He took up fishing but could not row very far so bought a 26ft Colvic bilge keel yacht which he used his woodworking skills to refit. His friends taught him to sail and, on the 15th August, 1981 he set sail alone to visit his daughter, as he had nothing to lose. Not too far – she lived in Cape Town!!
    On the return journey, accompanied, he began to read about Joshua. Back in Wales he set about building his own Spray and completed a navigation in her.

  5. His lack of a lung meant that he was short of breath and could only sleep on one side. He could not swim due lack of buoyancy (proper spelling). I hope you have enjoyed his story. Mine is somewhat similar. I am a retired BA Jumbo captain and have been a a cancer patient for 20 years. I competed in the 1994 Sydney-Hobart race while undergoing chemotherapy and later, on special leave from British Airways, competed in the BT Global Challenge aboard “Time & Tide”. The entire crew were either disabled or had survived a life threatening illness. I live in Port Solent, UK with my Dehler 35 “Up To Speed” moored at the bottom of my garden. I am a Cape Horner with 55,000 nms logged. As you can see, I have troubled waters ahead but, with fair winds and a good crew, I hope to find a safe passage — Mike

  6. Mike Austin

    We had two tillers. A short one like Joshua and the one in the photos we used for handling in confined areas such as a marina. I helmed the boat during Antigua Classic week, racing with some priceless classics. I could not have done so with the short tiller we used offshore.

  7. Ryan Jones

    This is interesting because I’m actually related to Joshua slocum he had two wife’s one Canadian another Australian I m related to his first wife from Canada down to the smith family.

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