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Prof. Boerner's Explorations

Thoughts and Essays that explore the world of Technology, Computers, Photography, History and Family.


Archive for November 4th, 2009
by Gerald Boerner


“There are many Manuel Alvarez Bravos.
Marlena Donohue

“I feel I h’ve done my part. I think I contributed something, in whatever way I did. I’m at peace in that respect.”
— Alvarez Bravo

“But the countryside, the daily life of the street is so much richer than doing nudes.”
— Alvarez Bravo

“For Alvarez Bravo almost all of his greatest pictures were made within 100 miles of his home.… [He was] completely committed to a body of work that had its grounding in the soil from which he came.”
— Alvarez Bravo

“The word ‘art’ is very slippery. It really has no importance in relation to one’s work. I work for the pleasure, for the pleasure of the work, and everything else is a matter for the critics.”
— Alvarez Bravo

“All the time, we were getting new inventions, new machines, systems, and laboratory techniques. I began when photographs were colorless, and I followed it to today’s perfection.”
— Alvarez Bravo

“It is amazing that [Alvarez Bravo] was even noticed at all. Yet his work has endured. Through revelations of timeless yet unremarkable moments, he identified the doors to the absolute.”
— Arthur Ollman

“A photographer’s main instrument is his eyes. Strange as it may seem, many photographers choose to use the eyes of another photographer, past or present, instead of their own. Those photographers are blind.”
— Alvarez Bravo

“One could think of a person who seems to have two opposing and contradictory sides to his personality; but it turns out that in the end the two sides are complementary. The same happens with an artist’s work: deep down, what appear as contradictory sides are merely different registers, different aspects of the reality that the artist inhabits…”
— Alvarez Bravo


Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902 – 2002)

Bravo Headshot Manuel Álvarez Bravo was a Mexican photographer. He was an adolescent living on the outskirts of Mexico City when the Mexican revolution (1910–1920) reached its zenith. Running over the hills during intervals of peace, he would sometimes find a body lying dead and abandoned, the victim of brutal and often random violence.

By the time Alvarez Bravo reached adulthood, nearly one million Mexicans had died due to starvation and fighting between rebel factions struggling for power. But his childhood was not lost to these disturbing realities. The experience of watching a local amateur working beneath the red light of a darkroom lamp remains a powerful memory for Alvarez Bravo from those formative years. It was his introduction to what became his livelihood and passion, the creative art of photography.

Bravo_daughter Álvarez Bravo came from a family of artists and writers, and met several other prominent artists who encouraged his work when he was young, including Tina Modotti and Diego Rivera. His grandfather was a photographer and his father was a patron of photography, painting and literary composition.

Manuel began studying painting and music at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1918. He received his first photographic camera in 1923, and in 1925 began his essays on aesthetics and the technical work of photography, but did not begin professional photography until 1925. Though he was never formally a member of the surrealist movement, his work displays many characteristics of surrealism, and he was exposed to many of its founders. His work often suggests dreams or fantasies, and he frequently photographed inanimate objects in ways that gave them humanistic qualities.

Bravo_optical_parableHis work bears some similarity to the work of Clarence John Laughlin, an American photographer who was working in New Orleans at around the same time. They both loved literature, and made references to the mythologies of their time visually and in the titles of their images. They both used old-fashioned cameras which were slower than the Leica which were becoming popular among other art photographers of the day. They also both knew Edward Weston, so it is possible that they influenced each other’s work.

Álvarez Bravo’s work was often political, referencing the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution both directly and indirectly. One of his most famous photographs, Obrero en huelga, asesinado (Striking Worker, Assassinated) depicts the face of a bloodied corpse lying in the sun is housed at The Wittliff Collections, (i believe this photograph is owned by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa) which houses the largest archive of modern and contemporary Mexican photography in the United States He associated with many revolutionary artists and writers, but did not let politics overwhelm the personal aspects of his work; he continued to create beautiful, dreamlike, photographs of life in Mexico until his death in 2002.

Bravo_profilePopular art is the art of the People. A popular painter is an artisan who, is in the Middle Ages, remains anonymous. His work needs no advertisement, as it is done for the people around him. The more pretentious artist craves to be famous, and it is characteristic of his work that it is brought for the name rather than for the work–a name that is built up by propaganda. Before the Conquest all art was of the people, and popular art has never ceased to exist in Mexico. The art called Popular is quite fugitive in character, of sensitive quality, with less of the impersonal and intellectual characteristics that are the essence of the art of the schools. It is the work of talent nourished by personal experience and that of the community–rather than being taken from the experiences of other painters in other times and other cultures, which forms the intellectual chain of nonpopular art. —  Alvarez Bravo

Bravo_eternalAlvarez Bravo’s first professional work in photography was as a freelancer for Mexican Folkways, a magazine dedicated to the cultural history of Mexico focusing on such topics as traditional music and burial customs. He obtained the position through the efforts of friend and fellow photographer Modotti, who came to Mexico City with Weston in 1923. Both Modotti and Weston were employed by Mexican Folkways, but when Modotti was deported in 1930 for political reasons, she turned her camera and her job over to Alvarez Bravo. He carried on her work, photographing murals, small toys and handmade items, and portraits of artists and musicians. Not only did his time at Mexican Folkways enhance his experience looking at objects before the camera, but it affirmed his ties to a subject matter rooted in the land and people of his native country.

Bravo_market_closingThe 1930s witnessed the distillation of a new form of photography for Alvarez Bravo in which the mundane became the basis for fantasy and allegory. In the 1920s, Alvarez Bravo had seen Weston experiment with refining details of his environment into abstractions with his camera. This approach was new in a medium that had struggled to prove its artistic merit by imitating the look of painting. By contrast, Weston demonstrated that a photograph could claim status as art when it took advantage of its capacity to directly describe discrete aspects of the material world. Through his work, he encouraged a way of looking at the world that emphasized the form of isolated objects and artifacts.

Bravo_barber Alvarez Bravo realized these ideals by the late 1920s in his photographs of close views of architecture, nature, and daily life to form dramatic compositions. As the 1930s approached, however, his interests shifted toward the urban landscape. Rather than producing artistic abstractions, he pictured small scenes of modern life in Mexico City. In The Evangelist (1930s), a man sits with a folded paper at a small table in a shaded courtyard, his intense expression offset by the chaos of jumbled articles surrounding him: overgrown vines, bowls, hats, a birdcage. In the act of photographing such a typical sight—a man relaxing in an outdoor café—Alvarez Bravo elevates him to a scribe among worldly things.

Bravo_05 The often bizarre theater of everyday existence came to shape Alvarez Bravo’s photography. Signs, cafés, shop windows, and street vendors offered a new and rich vocabulary for his evolving aesthetic. This is evident in two of his best-known images, The Crouched Ones (1934) and Ladder of Ladders (1931). In both instances the open street stalls and doorways of Mexico City serve as framing devices for evocative and compelling images. The Crouched Ones provides a view into a bar where five workers lean over a countertop, their backs to the observer. The partially closed gate to the café casts a long shadow over the men, who have been effectively decapitated by the darkness and whose feet appear bound by chains entwined around their stools. Using his camera to create a metaphor of isolation out of signs, architecture, and five men’s bodies, Alvarez Bravo creates a telling juxtaposition from the commonplace.

This transformation of the ordinary into something heightened and fantastic was also a feature of work by French photographer Cartier-Bresson, who exhibited with Alvarez Bravo in 1935, during an extended stay in Mexico. Cartier-Bresson shared Alvarez Bravo’s enthusiasm for mysterious imagery that drew upon the relationship between animate and inanimate elements easily found in urban settings. His embrace of the city’s activity and dissonance became a decisive force in the documentation of modern life.

Documentary, Landscape, Photojournalism

Bravo_ladder_of_ladders Alvarez Bravo’s photograph Ladder of Ladders includes what appears to be a random sampling of objects: a phonograph, workmen’s ladders, and a series of stacked coffins. The artist’s title adds to the strange complexity of the picture. The viewer immediately sees the ladders leaning against a door frame, but the stacked coffins form another kind of ladder symbolizing spiritual ascension, the climb toward heaven. For Alvarez Bravo, an avid reader since childhood, words can explain, provoke, even mystify. Adamantly opposed to leaving works untitled, he says that an obscure title "is the most real one—the one which most accurately defines the picture." Grasping the meaning of a photograph, he suggests, involves looking into hidden recesses that may escape the eyes of a casual observer.

Bravo_sleeping The provocative juxtapositions of objects as they appear in Alvarez Bravo’s photographs may help to explain his appeal to the European Surrealists, drawn to themes of chance and the unconscious. When André Breton, the leader and spokesman for Surrealism in Paris, came to Mexico in 1938, he gravitated toward Alvarez Bravo’s work. In a frequently recounted tale, the artist remembers that while waiting in line to receive a paycheck, he was interrupted by a phone call made on behalf of Breton. The caller asked the photographer if he would produce an image for the cover of the catalogue for a forthcoming Surrealist exhibition at Galería de Arte Mexicano. He quickly found the model, bandages, and star cacti that were to become his props for The Good Reputation Sleeping (1939). For many this is the artist’s most memorable if not most enigmatic photograph, merging elements of sexuality, the unconscious, danger, and healing. Like many of his photographs, its meaning is open-ended and alluring. Do the thorns symbolize protection of the dreamer or are they the source of her "injuries"?

Bravo_small_world Small vignettes created for his camera and scenes from daily life continued to inspire Alvarez Bravo for decades, but in the 1940s a new body of work evolved—the landscapes. The expansive Mexican landscape had spawned a rich artistic tradition in painting and was the source of great national pride for a country so connected to agriculture. Alvarez Bravo’s images show a vast and varied terrain comprised of cacti, meadows of corn, and flat open horizons sometimes articulated by stones and crumbling walls. Printed in deep tones of black and white, the landscapes suggest the wide-angle perspectives of film—a medium that had intrigued Alvarez Bravo since his youth, and which occupied him professionally from the 1930s through the 1950s, first as a filmmaker and later as a still photographer. This cinematic approach to photography differed considerably from the intentionally ambiguous and intellectually driven work done in Mexico City during the previous decade.

“I was born in the city of Mexico, behind the Cathedral, in the place where the temples of the ancient Mexican gods must have been built, February fourth, 1902. I went through primary education, beyond this I have been self-taught. I served the government of my country many years in accountancy work, handling much abstract money. Interested since always in art, I committed the common error of believing that photography would be the easiest; the memory of intents in other fields make me understand now that I found my road on time.”
— Alvarez Bravo

He is considered a profoundly influential figure in contemporary Mexican and Latin American Photography, and his work is widely published around the world.


Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Manuel Álvarez Bravo that can be found at…


Manuel Álvarez Bravo Biography…

by Gerald Boerner


“I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close. I will soon cease to be a servant and will become a sovereign.”
— James Polk

“Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.”
— James Polk

“In the murder of Mexicans upon their own soil, or in robbing them of their country, I can take no part either now or here-after. The guilt of these crimes must rest on others. I will not participate in them.”
— Joshua Giddings, Dissenter

“The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War.  Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.  We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
— Ulysses S. Grant

“Public opinion: May it always perform one of its appropriate offices, by teaching the public functionaries of the State and of the Federal Government, that neither shall assume the exercise of powers entrusted by the Constitution to the other.”
— James Polk

“This war is nondescript…. We charge the President with usurping the war-making power… with seizing a country… which had been for centuries, and was then in the possession of the Mexicans…. Let us put a check upon this lust of dominion. We had territory enough, Heaven knew.”
— Robert Toombs, Whig Leader

“As to Texas I regard it as of very little value compared with California, the richest, the most beautiful and the healthiest country in the world… with the acquisition of Upper California we should have the same ascendency on the Pacific… France and England both have had their eyes upon it.”
— Daniel Webster

“It is to the credit of the American nation, however, that after conquering Mexico, and while practically holding the country in our possession, so that we could have retained the whole of it, or made any terms we chose, we paid a round of sum for the additional territory taken; more than it was worth, or was likely to be, to Mexico. To us it was an empire of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means.”
— Ulysses S. Grant


Veterans Day: Remembering the Mexican-American War

Battle_of_Veracruz The Mexican–American War was an armed conflict between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848 in the wake of the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas. Mexico claimed ownership of Texas as a breakaway province and refused to recognize the secession and subsequent military victory by Texas in 1836.

In the U.S. the conflict is often referred to simply as the Mexican War and sometimes as the U.S.–Mexican War. In Mexico, terms for it include Intervención Estadounidense en México (American intervention in Mexico), Invasión Estadounidense de México (American Invasion of Mexico), and Guerra del 47 (The War of ’47).

The most important consequences of the war for the United States were the Mexican terms of surrender under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which the Mexican territories of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México were ceded to the United States. In Mexico, the enormous loss of territory following the war encouraged its government to enact policies to colonize its remaining northern territories as a hedge against further losses. In addition the Rio Grande became the boundary between Texas and Mexico, and Mexico never again claimed ownership of Texas.

Republic of Texas

Wpdms_republic_of_texas_200px The Republic of Texas.
The present-day outlines
of the U.S. states are
superimposed on the
boundaries of

In the years after 1836, Texas consolidated its status as an independent republic by establishing diplomatic ties with Britain, France, and the United States. Most Texans were in favor of annexation by the United States, but U.S. President Martin Van Buren rejected it; then the pro-independence Mirabeau Lamar was president of Texas 1838-41; then the U.S. Senate rejected an annexation treaty in 1844.

Under U.S. President John Tyler, Texas was offered admission to the Union as a state via, controversially, a joint resolution of Congress rather than a treaty. The bill was signed into law on March 1, 1845. It was ratified by Texas on July 4. Texas became the 28th state on December 29, a law signed by President James K. Polk.

Origins of the war

The Mexican government had long warned the United States that annexation would mean war. Because the Mexican congress never recognized Texas’ independence, it saw Texas as a rebellious territory that would be retaken in the future. Britain and France, which recognized the independence of Texas, repeatedly tried to dissuade Mexico from declaring war. British efforts to mediate were fruitless, in part because additional political disputes (particularly the Oregon boundary dispute) arose among Mexico, Britain, and the United States. When Texas was granted statehood in 1845, the Mexican government broke diplomatic relations with the United States.

The United States supported Texas when it claimed all land north of the Rio Grande, and this provoked a dispute with Mexico. In June 1845, James K. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to Texas, and by October, 3,500 Americans were on the Nueces River, prepared to defend Texas from a Mexican invasion. Polk wanted to protect the border and also coveted the continent clear to the Pacific Ocean. Polk had instructed the Pacific naval squadron to seize the California ports in case Mexico declared war. At the same time he wrote to Thomas Larkin, the American consul in Monterey, that a peaceful takeover of California would be welcomed.

In August 1835, President Andrew Jackson developed a "passion" to acquire all Mexican territory north of the 37th parallel north after a navy purser’s favorable report on the San Francisco Bay Area, and issued instructions to pursue this, but the suggestion came to nothing. In 1842, the American minister in Mexico Waddy Thompson, Jr. wrote to Daniel Webster, "As to Texas I regard it as of very little value compared with California, the richest, the most beautiful and the healthiest country in the world… with the acquisition of Upper California we should have the same ascendency on the Pacific… France and England both have had their eyes upon it."

In the winter of 1845-46, the federally commissioned explorer John C. Fremont and a group of armed men appeared in California. The Mexican authorities became alarmed and ordered him to leave. Fremont returned to California and assisted the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma, where a number of American settlers stated that they were playing “the Texas game” and declared California’s independence from Mexico.

On November 10, 1845, Polk sent John Slidell, a secret representative, to Mexico City with an offer of $25 million ($613,653,846 today) for the Rio Grande border in Texas and Mexico’s provinces of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México. U.S. expansionists wanted California to thwart British ambitions in the area and to gain a port on the Pacific Ocean. Polk authorized Slidell to forgive the $3 million ($73,638,462 today) owed to U.S. citizens for damages caused by the Mexican War of Independence and pay another $25 to $30 million ($613,653,846 to $736,384,615 today) in exchange for the two territories.

Mexico was not inclined nor in a position to negotiate. In 1846 alone, the presidency changed hands four times, the war ministry six times, and the finance ministry sixteen times. However, Mexican public opinion and all political factions agreed that selling the territories to the United States would tarnish the national honor. Mexicans who opposed open conflict with the United States, including President José Joaquín de Herrera, were viewed as traitors. Military opponents of de Herrera, supported by populist newspapers, considered Slidell’s presence in Mexico City an insult. When de Herrera considered receiving Slidell in order to peacefully negotiate the problem of Texas annexation, he was accused of treason and deposed. After a more nationalistic government under General Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga came to power, it publicly reaffirmed Mexico’s claim to Texas; Slidell, convinced that Mexico should be "chastised," returned to the United States.

On April 25, 1846, a 2,000-strong Mexican cavalry detachment attacked a 63-man U.S. patrol that had been sent into the contested territory north of the Rio Grande and south of the Nueces River. The Mexican cavalry routed the patrol, killing 11 U.S. soldiers in what later became known as the Thornton Affair after the U.S. officer who was in command. A few survivors were returned to Fort Brown by the Mexicans, including wounded sent in an ambulance.

Declaration of war

By then, Polk had received word of the Thornton Affair. This, added to the Mexican government’s rejection of Slidell, Polk believed, constituted a casus belli (case for war). His message to Congress on May 11, 1846 stated that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” A joint session of Congress approved the declaration of war, with southern Democrats in strong support. Sixty-seven Whigs voted against the war on a key slavery amendment, but on the final passage only 14 Whigs voted no, including Rep. John Quincy Adams. Congress declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846 after only having a few hours to debate. Although President Paredes’s issuance of a manifesto on May 23 is sometimes considered the declaration of war, Mexico officially declared war by Congress on July 7.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Once the United States declared war on Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna wrote to Mexico City saying he no longer had aspirations to the presidency, but would eagerly use his military experience to fight off the foreign invasion of Mexico as he had in the past. President Valentín Gómez Farías was desperate enough to accept the offer and allowed Santa Anna to return. Meanwhile, Santa Anna had secretly been dealing with representatives of the United States, pledging that if he were allowed back in Mexico through the U.S. naval blockades, he would work to sell all contested territory to the United States at a reasonable price. Once back in Mexico at the head of an army, Santa Anna reneged on both of these agreements. Santa Anna declared himself president again and unsuccessfully tried to fight off the United States invasion.


Although the United States declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846, it took almost two months (until the middle of June, 1846) for definite word of war to get to California. American consul Thomas O. Larkin, stationed in Monterey, on hearing rumors of war tried to keep peace between the States and the small Mexican military garrison commanded by José Castro. U.S. Army captain John C. Frémont, with about sixty well-armed men, had entered California in December, 1845, and was marching slowly to Oregon when he received word that war between Mexico and the U.S. was imminent and so began his chapter of the war, the "Bear Flag Revolt".

On June 15, 1846, some thirty settlers, mostly American citizens, staged a revolt and seized the small Mexican garrison in Sonoma. They raised the "Bear Flag" of the California Republic over Sonoma. The republic was in existence scarcely more than a week before the U.S. Army, led by Frémont, took over on June 23. The California state flag today is based on this original Bear Flag and still contains the words, "California Republic."

Northeastern Mexico

The defeats at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma caused political turmoil in Mexico, turmoil which Antonio López de Santa Anna used to revive his political career and return from self-imposed exile in Cuba in mid-August 1846. He promised the U.S. that if allowed to pass through the blockade, he would negotiate a peaceful conclusion to the war and sell the New Mexico and Alta California territories to the United States[29]. Once Santa Anna arrived in Mexico City, however, he reneged and offered his services to the Mexican government. Then, after being appointed commanding general, he reneged again and seized the presidency.

Battle of Churubusco by J. Cameron,
published by Nathaniel Currier.
Hand tinted lithograph, 1847.
Digitally restored.

Led by Taylor, 2,300 U.S. troops crossed the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo) after some initial difficulties in obtaining river transport. His soldiers occupied the city of Matamoros, then Camargo (where the soldiery suffered the first of many problems with disease) and then proceeded south and besieged the city of Monterrey. The hard-fought Battle of Monterrey resulted in serious losses on both sides. The American light artillery was ineffective against the stone fortifications of the city. The Mexican forces were under General Pedro de Ampudia. A U.S. infantry division and the Texas Rangers captured four hills to the west of the town and with them heavy cannon. That lent the U.S. soldiers the strength to storm the city from the west and east. Once in the city, U.S. soldiers fought house to house: each was cleared by throwing lighted shells, which worked like grenades.

Northwestern Mexico

On March 1, 1847, Alexander William Doniphan occupied Chihuahua City. He found the inhabitants much less willing to accept the American conquest than the New Mexicans. The British consul John Potts did not want to let Doniphan search Governor Trias’s mansion and unsuccessfully asserted it was under British protection. American merchants in Chihuahua wanted the American force to stay in order to protect their business. Gilpin advocated a march on Mexico City and convinced a majority of officers, but Doniphan subverted this plan, then in late April Taylor ordered the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers to leave Chihuahua and join him at Saltillo. The American merchants either followed or returned to Santa Fe. Along the way the townspeople of Parras enlisted Doniphan’s aid against an Indian raiding party that had taken children, horses, mules and money.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The Mexican Cession, (red),
and the later Gadsden
, (yellow)

Outnumbered militarily and with many of its large cities occupied, Mexico could not defend itself and was also faced with internal divisions. It had little choice but to make peace on any terms. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848 by American diplomat Nicholas Trist and Mexican plenipotentiary representatives Luis G. Cuevas, Bernardo Couto and Miguel Atristain, ended the war and gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, established the U.S.-Mexican border of the Rio Grande River, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. In return, Mexico received US $18,250,000 ($447,967,308 today)—less than half the amount the U.S. had attempted to offer Mexico for the land before the opening of hostilities—and the U.S. agreed to assume $3.25 million ($79,775,000 today) in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens. The acquisition was a source of controversy at the time, especially among U.S. politicians who had opposed the war from the start.

A leading antiwar U.S. newspaper, the Whig Intelligencer sardonically concluded that:

“We take nothing by conquest…. Thank God.”


Mexico lost more than 836,000 square miles (about 2,100,000 km²) of land, 55% of its national territory. Texas included. The annexed territories contained about 1,000 Mexican families in Alta California and 7,000 in Nuevo México. A few relocated further south in Mexico; the great majority remained in the United States. Descendants of these Mexican families have risen to prominence in American life, such as United States Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and his brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, both from Colorado.

Mexico_nebel A month before the end of the war, Polk was criticized in a United States House of Representatives amendment to a bill praising Major General Zachary Taylor for "a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States". This criticism, in which Congressman Abraham Lincoln played an important role with his Spot Resolutions, followed congressional scrutiny of the war’s beginnings, including factual challenges to claims made by President Polk. The vote followed party lines, with all Whigs supporting the amendment. Lincoln’s attack won luke-warm support from fellow Whigs in Illinois but was harshly counter-attacked by Democrats, who rallied pro-war sentiments in Illinois; Lincoln’s Spot resolutions haunted his future campaigns in the heavily Democratic state of Illinois, and was cited by enemies well into his presidency.


Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Mexican-American War that can be found at…

by Gerald Boerner


“As the commerce of Great Britain is very extensive, good policy dictates that we attack it in more than one sea…”
— Franklin and Deane to committee on Foreign Affairs

“What that brave and virtuous young American did and suffered on occasion… (became) a topic of conversation everywhere.”
— Silas Deane

“It appears to me to be the province of our infant navy to surprise and spread alarms with the fast sailing ships, when we grow stronger we can meet their fleets… (And) dispute with them the sovereignty of the ocean.”
— John Paul Jones

“As Sir John Fortescue wrote in 1911 ‘Generals with their armies and admirals with their fleets are mere weapons wielded by the hand of the statesman. It is for him to decide when to strike, where to strike and how to strike.”
— Sir John Fortescue

“Private correspondence which Black Prince had brought from England to members of the Continental Congress reported that the British Government was sending to America two unarmed brigs heavily laden with gunpowder and arms.”
— Letters which warned the Patriots of troubles to come

The Black Prince (USS Alfred) become the first U.S. Navy Warship

USS_Alfred_544px The Alfred was a man-of-war in the Continental Navy of the United States. She was built as Black Prince, named for Edward, the Black Prince, and served as Alfred.

Black Prince was built at Philadelphia in 1774. No record of her builder seems to have survived, but it is possible that John Wharton may have constructed the ship.

John Barry served as the ship’s only master during her career as a Philadelphia merchantman. Launched in the autumn of 1774 as relations between the American colonies and the mother country grew increasingly tense, Black Prince was fitted out quickly so that she could load and sail for Bristol on the last day of 1774. The ship did not return to Philadelphia until 25 April 1775, six days after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

Adams trumbull Fearing that American commerce would soon be interrupted, her owners were eager to export another cargo to England, so they again raced to load and provision her. Black Prince sailed on 7 May, this time bound for London. She did not reach that destination until 27 June. The ship left the Thames on 10 August but encountered contrary winds during much of her westward voyage and finally returned to Philadelphia on 4 October.

While the ship had been abroad, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been fought, the other colonies acting in Congress had pledged to support Massachusetts in its struggle for freedom, and George Washington had taken command of the American Army besieging British-occupied Boston. Moreover, private correspondence which Black Prince had brought from England to members of the Continental Congress reported that the British Government was sending to America two unarmed brigs heavily laden with gunpowder and arms.

As Alfred

As a result, the Naval Committee purchased Black Prince on 4 November 1775, renamed her Alfred four days later, and ordered her fitted out as a man-of-war. Her former master, John Barry, was placed in charge of her rerigging; Joshua Humphreys was selected to superintend changes strengthening her hull, timbers, and bulwarks as well as opening gunports; and Nathaniel Falconer was made responsible for her ordnance and provisions.

Hancock_Boston_Fox Continental frigates Hancock
and Boston capturing
British frigate Fox,
7 June 1777

Soon four other vessels joined Alfred in the Continental Navy: Columbus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, and sloop Providence. Esek Hopkins, a veteran master of merchantmen from Rhode Island, was appointed commodore of the flotilla. Alfred was placed in commission on 3 December 1775, Capt. Dudley Saltonstall in command, and became Hopkins’ flagship. Sometime in December 1775, the Alfred became the first vessel to fly the Grand Union Flag (the precursor to the Stars and Stripes); the flag was hoisted by John Paul Jones. This event was documented in Letters to Congress.

Cpt_John_Paul_Jones_432px The new fleet dropped down the Delaware River on 4 January 1776; but a cold snap froze the river and the bay, checking its progress at Reedy Island for some six weeks. A thaw released Hopkins’ warships from winter’s icy grasp in mid-February, and the fleet sortied on 18 February for its first operation. The Marine Committee had ordered Hopkins to sail for Hampton Roads to attack British warships which were harassing American shipping in Virginia waters; then to render similar service at Charleston, South Carolina; and, finally, to head for Rhode Island waters. He was given the discretion of disregarding these orders if they proved impossible and planning an operation of his own.

However, by the time his ships broke free of the ice, growing British strength in the Chesapeake prompted Hopkins to head for the West Indies. Knowing that the American colonies desperately needed gunpowder, he decided to attack the island of New Providence in the Bahamas to capture a large supply of that commodity as well as a great quantity of other military supplies reportedly stored there.

After Hopkins stripped the forts of their guns and all remaining ordnance, Alfred led the American fleet homeward from Nassau harbor on St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March, the same day that British troops were evacuating Boston. On 4 April, during the homeward voyage, Hopkins’ ships captured the six-gun British schooner Hawk and the eight-gun bomb brig Bolton. Shortly after midnight on 6 April, Hopkins encountered the 20-gun Glasgow. That British frigate–which was carrying dispatches telling of the British withdrawal—put up a fierce and skillful fight which enabled her to escape from her substantially more powerful American opponents. At the outset of the fray, fire from her cannon cut Alfred’s tiller ropes, leaving Hopkins’ flagship unable to maneuver or to pursue effectively. The American ships did attempt to chase their fleeing enemy, but after dawn Glasgow disappeared over the horizon and safely reached Newport, Rhode Island.

When Alfred and her consorts put into New London, Connecticut, on 8 April, the Americans were at first welcomed as heroes. However, many of the officers of the American squadron voiced dissatisfaction with Hopkins, and he was later relieved of command.

Serapis_and_Bonhomme_Richard The Franco-American squadron
closely engages the pair of
British frigates on
23 September 1779.

Alfred was inactive through the summer for a number of reasons, but high on the list of her problems were want of funds and a shortage of men. On 7 August, Capt. John Paul Jones, who had helped to fit her out as a warship and had been her first lieutenant on the cruise to New Providence, was placed in command of the ship. She departed Providence, Rhode Island, on 26 October 1776 in company with Hampden, but that vessel struck a “sunken rock” before they could leave Narragansett Bay and returned to Newport. Her officers and men then shifted to sloop Providence accompanying Alfred to waters off Cape Breton Island which they reached by mid-November. There they took three prizes: on the 11th, the brigantine Active, bound from Liverpool to Halifax with an assorted cargo, the next day, the armed transport Mellish, laden with winter uniforms for British troops at Quebec; and, on the 16th, the snow Kitty, bound from Gaspé to Barbados with oil and fish.

Because of severe leaks, Providence sailed for home soon thereafter and Alfred continued her cruise alone. On 22 November boats from the ship raided Canso, Nova Scotia, where their crews burned a transport bound for Canada with provisions and a warehouse full of whale oil, besides capturing a small schooner to replace Providence. Two days later, Alfred captured three colliers off Louisburg, bound from Nova Scotia to New York with coal for the British Army and, on 26 November captured the 10-gun letter-of-marque John of Liverpool. On the homeward voyage, Alfred was pursued by HMS Milford but managed to escape after a four-hour chase. She arrived safely at Boston on 15 December and began a major refit.

Captain Elisha Hinman became Alfred’s commanding officer in May 1777, but she did not get underway until 22 August when she sailed for France with Raleigh to obtain military supplies. En route, they captured four small prizes. They reached L’Orient on 6 October, and on 29 December sailed for America. They proceeded via the coast of Africa, where they took a small sloop, and then headed for the West Indies, hoping to add to their score before turning northward for home.

On 9 March 1778, near Barbados, they encountered British warships Ariadne and Ceres. When the American ships attempted to flee, Alfred fell behind her faster consort. Shortly after noon the British men-of-war caught up with Alfred and forced her to surrender after a half an hour’s battle.

After surrendering, Alfred was taken to Barbados where she was condemned and sold. She was purchased and taken into the Royal Navy as H.M. armed ship Alfred (20 guns) and was sold in 1782.

Other Events on this Day
  • In 1884…
    Democrat Grover Cleveland narrowly defeats Republican James G. Blaine in a presidential contest full of mudslinging.
  • In 1924…
    Nellie T. Ross of Wyoming is the first woman to be elected governor.
  • In 1939…
    In Detroit, the Packard Motor Car Company exhibits the first air-conditioned car.
  • In 1952…
    A computer called UNIVAC successfully predicts that Dwight D. Eisenhower will defeat Adlai Stevenson for president in a landslide.
  • In 1979…
    In Tehran, Iranian militants seize the U.S. embassy and 66 American hostages.
  • In 1980…
    Ronald Reagan defeats Jimmy Carter to become the fortieth U.S. president.
  • In 2008…
    Senator Barack Obama of Illinois becomes the first African American to be elected President of the United States.

Dates and events based on:

William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)

Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:

USS Alfred that can be found at…