I usually wonder why people do not paying attention to the naming of ships. But, why are ships really named? How are they named? Are they named very differently from other products with names?
Each individual ship discovered on Earth, like humans, has its own proper name. Ethiopia had privately owned ships like Axum, Gonder, and Harar before 1964. From 1964 to 1968, the Queen of Sheba, Lion of Judah, Lalibela, and Tana Haik were acquired.
Adulis, Meskerem, Karamara, Wolwol, Zuway, Hashenge Haik, Ras Dejen, Nebelbal, Key Kokeb, Abay Wonz, Abiyot, Netsanet, Andinet, Omo Wonz, Awash Wonz, were acquired and served from 1976-1989. Admas, Tekeze, Shebelle, and Gibe served from 1995–2008.
These days we have ships named after our regional state cities: Harar, Assossa, Bahir Dar, Gambela, Mekelle, Awassa, etc. I would not be taken aback if the next vessels were to be named after the remaining popular rivers, mountains, and historical places. As a matter of fact, no ship is given the name of the other; i.e., a ship cannot inherit the name of another that is living or that has been decommissioned.
Shamseer Mambra, from Marine Insight, informs us that the tradition of naming a ship ceremonially dates back thousands of years. While every other decision on the building of a ship is purely scientific, the decision on naming a ship has often been made after considering beliefs, customs, and even superstitions.
Historically, the naval community believed that a ship’s name played a significant role in bringing good fortune and safety to the vessel, its crew, and passengers. There are several pieces of evidence suggesting the naval community in Babylonia used to perform ship launching and naming ceremonies in the third millennium.
The US Global Security Organization, emphasizing the history of naming ships, stated that starting at the beginning of the 20th century, the Navy’s ships were named in accordance with a system, tailored to ship types. Names of states, for example, were carried by battleships. Cruisers were named for cities, while destroyers came to be named for American naval leaders and heroes, as today’s destroyers are still named.
Ships also bear feminine names, even if their names represent neutral things like rivers, lakes, mountains, historical places, legendary names, towns, etc. In ancient times, ships were given the names of mythical and legendary figures. Some had the names of gods and goddesses. By and by, the names changed to real names of people, mountains, rivers, towns, etc.
In the old days, because ships were owned and piloted by men, they wanted to name them after the important women in their lives, according to Sailing School Malta, dedicating ships to goddesses and mother figures who served as protectors of the ships. Men at that time showed affection to women close to their hearts by naming their ships after them.
Traditionally, ships were once dedicated to goddesses, as suggested in ancient history.
Boats are likened to mothers, because they give a sense of nurturing and protection because of their motherly instincts, according to Sailing School Malta. “A ship is likened to a mother taking care of a baby inside her womb. When people are aboard a ship, they are all inside her. She takes care of them until they are delivered safely to their destination, thus making them attribute a “she” to the vessel.”
For Mambra, whatever the reason, most ships, especially civilian vessels, have been named after females most of the time in the past. While naming after goddesses was a practice in the distant past, the names of queens and princesses were used in the later period.
At present, owners often choose names of important women in their lives or even popular female names to help others recognize their vessel. However, modern times have witnessed a significant decline in this practice, thanks to feminist language reform.
Sailing School Malta also tells us that some name their boats after great women who, they believe, guide their voyage.
Christopher Columbus famously crossed the Atlantic in a ship named after the Virgin Mary, the La Santa Maria. Historically, sailors and captains were primarily males, and the bowsprit of a sailing ship was often decorated with images of women, attributed to the spirit of a benevolent female.
Despite the mentioned facts above, the Naval History and Heritage Command in the US has stated that ship names in the Continental Navy and the early Federal Navy come from a variety of sources.
As if to emphasize the ties that many Americans still felt to Britain, the first ship of the new Continental Navy was named Alfred, in honor of Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex, who is credited with building the first English naval force.
Another ship was named Raleigh to commemorate the seagoing exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh. Some ships honored early patriots and heroes (Hancock and General Greene). Others commemorated the young nation’s ideals and institutions (Constitution, Independence, and Congress).
A 74-gun ship-of-the-line, launched in 1782 and donated to the French navy on completion, was named America. A Revolutionary War frigate named Bourbon saluted the King of France, whose alliance would further the cause of American independence.
Other ship names honor American places (Boston, Virginia). Small warships—brigs, and schooners—bore a variety of names. Some were named positive character traits (Enterprise, Diligence). Others had classical names (Syren, Argus) or the names of small creatures with a potent sting (Hornet, Wasp).
Moreover, the Command stated that on March 3, 1819, an act of Congress formally placed the responsibility for assigning names to the Navy’s ships in the hands of the Secretary of the Navy, a prerogative which he still exercises.
This act stated that “all of the ships of the Navy of the United States, now being built or hereafter to be built, shall be named by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President of the United States.”
According to the rule, those of the first class shall be named after the states of the Union, those of the second class after rivers, and those of the third class after the principal cities and towns, with care taken that no two vessels of the navy shall bear the same name.
Ships can be named for different reasons and by different classes. Among others, authorities are sometimes interested in having ships named for their own states or cities.
For instance, vessels which were acquired during the Derge regime were named after Meskerem (the downfall of the feudal system), Karamara (a place where Somalia’s expansionists were defeated near Jijiga), Wolwol (where Italian expansionists were defeated), Abiyot, Netsanet, and Andinet.
The same could be said of older US ships (particularly those on which they or their relatives served), for battles in which they or their relatives participated, or for people they admire.
Some exceptions did exist; one carrier was named “Shangri-La” after a fictional land; a cruiser was named “Canberra” after a foreign city. Originally, armored (heavy) cruisers were also named after states and battle cruisers after battles and famous ships.
While some name their vessels after living people, others prefer to avoid it. Those that prefer to avoid it believe only those who have departed this world may be honored by this world by having their likeness placed on money, stamps, and other places of high public honor.
The practice of using “she” with reference to ships started in the 16th century—at the age of Christianity in Europe. People no longer believed in pagan gods or goddesses; they believed in God.
A ship was protected by God’s blessing that was given during a ceremony of ship christening. The ceremony has its roots in the Christian ritual of baptism, when a child is given a name and God’s blessing. Sailors christened a ship because they thought God would protect it at sea.
The tradition of ship christening attributes human qualities to a ship but not a ship’s feminine. This cultural practice supports the cognitive metaphor: the launch of a ship is a baptism of people.
The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans called on their gods to protect seamen. The favor of the monarch of the seas—Poseidon in Greek mythology, the Roman Neptune—were evoked.
Ship launching participants in ancient Greece wreathed their heads with olive branches, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water on the new vessel as a symbol of blessing. Shrines were carried on board Greek and Roman ships, and this practice extended into the middle Ages. The shrine was usually placed on the quarterdeck, an area that continues to have special, ceremonial, significance.
Different peoples and cultures shaped the religious ceremonies surrounding a ship’s launch. Jews and Christians customarily used wine and water as they called upon God to safeguard them at sea.
Christians requested the intercession of the saints and the blessing of the church. Ship launchings in the Ottoman Empire were accompanied by prayers to Allah, the sacrifice of sheep, and appropriate feasts. The Vikings are said to have offered human sacrifice to appease the angry gods of the northern seas.
Mambra, writing about the procedures and practices involved in the naming of a ship, says naming ships has evolved over centuries. At present, the ships are named during the ceremonial ship launching, observed as a public celebration as well as a solemn blessing after completing the construction of the ship. Though there is no formal procedure for naming a ship, usually the ceremony begins with the launching of the vessel.
After the ship is launched, the vessel’s godmother (another traditional practice in which a female civilian “sponsors” a vessel to wish good luck and a safe journey) smashes a champagne bottle on the bow of the ship.
The christening ceremony will see the ship’s name being officially revealed in front of the invited audience.
While naming a civilian ship is solely a matter in the hands of its owner, the procedures for selecting a name for a new military vessel are different from country to country.
Country-specific launching could be said to mark the birth of a vessel, and people throughout history have performed launching ceremonies, in part to appeal for good fortune and the safety of each new vessel.
In France, ship launchings and christenings in the 18th and early 19th centuries were accompanied by unique rites closely resembling marriage and baptismal ceremonies. A godfather for the new ship presented the godmother with a bouquet of flowers as they both said the ship’s name. No bottle was broken, but a priest pronounced the vessel named and blessed it with holy water. Japanese ship launches incorporate silver axes, which are thought to bring good luck and scare away evil. Japanese shipbuilders traditionally order the crafting of a special axe for each new vessel; and after the ceremony, they present the axe to the vessel’s owner as a commemorative gift. The axe is used to cut the rope which tethers the ship to the place where she was built.
In the UK, sponsors of English warships were customarily members of the royal family, senior naval officers, or Admirals. A few civilians were invited to sponsor Royal Navy ships during the 19th century, and women became sponsors for the first time.
In 1875, a religious element was returned to naval christenings by Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales, when she introduced an Anglican choral service in the launch ceremony for the battleship Alexandra. The usage continues with the singing of Psalm 107, with its special meaning for mariners.
In the US, ceremonial practices for christening and launches have their roots in Europe.
So, is it a must for a ship to be named? Yes, it is, for the simple reason that it must be identified with its proper name. But why are they not Judaized, Zoroasorized, Taosied, or Islamized? Are you surprised?
Contributed by Teshome Berhanu Kemal