Deeper into Jeopardy! XXXVI: The Spanish-American War – $200

It’s been quite some time since we’ve done some straight-up history (even if South American Capitals ended up being basically a lesson in that continent’s history), and while Ancient Greece was tempting as always, we did just do a Greek myth category a couple weeks ago. So I managed to convince myself to do the Spanish-American War, a topic I know pretty much 100% less about. Exciting!

Jeopardy! category: THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR (19-1-2015)

$200 clue: Fitzhugh Lee, U.S. Consul General in Havana, advised President McKinley not to send this ship to the city; he was ignored

Correct response

The gist: Along with the Alamo and the Titans, it’s on the list of things patriotic Americans are meant to “remember.” “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” was shouted by many a war-hungry American after the Spanish lost their trial in the court of public opinion regarding what caused the battleship to explode in Havana’s harbour in February 1898. The U.S. Congress authorized construction of the 324-foot, two-gun, steel-plated battleship in 1886, in response to the perceived threat of the navies of both the European powers across the Atlantic and an ascendant Brazil, which had recently launched the Riachuelo, in the Western hemisphere. The U.S. began to see its lack of naval power as a liability – should another country decide to blockade American ports, the navy could do little to break them. Unfortunately, the rapidly changing realities of both American geopolitics and naval warfare in the late 19th century meant that the Maine was quickly outclassed even during its own construction, and by the time it was launched it lacked the firepower of a proper battleship and the speed of a proper cruiser. Nonetheless, with nearly five million dollars sunk into the project, the ship was launched in late 1890, after numerous delays in its construction, and was commissioned in 1895. It was sent to the Caribbean in January 1898, in order to protect American interests during the Cuban War of Independence against Spain… and sunk the following month.

During the night of February 15, five tons of gunpowder ignited and exploded in the fore of the ship, destroying the front third and consigning 260 men to death, plus another six later from sustained injuries. While an official naval inquiry concluded that the explosion was caused by a naval mine, the day’s great news magnates, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, took it upon themselves to elaborate. In what is now seen as an early example of “yellow journalism,” both men’s newspapers (the New York Journal and New York World, respectively, although the former was the more egregious offender of the two) ran sensational stories blaming the Spanish for the disaster in no uncertain terms, despite shaky evidence and shakier journalism. Both newspaper profits and American outrage skyrocketed, and though the destruction of the Maine was not cited as a casus belli when war was declared against Spain, historians agree that pro-war public sentiment, largely fueled by a self-interested press, was a major reason that President McKinley elected to start the war.


The USS Maine in Havana harbour, three weeks before its demise


The clue: Is this something Americans learn in high school history? To me, a Canadian with little to no background in the subject, this seems like a very specific clue for a $200 slot, but perhaps it’s better known to the Americans that Jeopardy! considers its main audience. In any case I like how the clue is written, as it frames the event in an interesting way instead of just saying, for example, “the explosion of this battleship near Havana played a role in starting the War.”

In Jeopardy!: The USS (or U.S.S.) Maine is no slouch in the J!Archive, as far as specific ships go, with 12 regular and two FJ! clues about it, beating out all the American vessels on this arbitrarily-chosen internet list of famous ships except the USS Missouri and the USS Constitution (aka Old Ironsides). All but three of them (this one included) are about it sinking, getting destroyed, blowing up, etc. About half mention Havana, and a couple more mention Cuba. You should know around when it served in the navy (i.e. the late 19th century), that it blew up near Havana, and that it’s related to the Spanish-American War, and that’ll keep you afloat (har har) if it comes up on the show.

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