Is the tide turning?

June 29, 2001

Margarette Lincoln and Nigel Rigby preview Maritime History Week and a brace of conferences that acknowledges the oceans' role in Britain's evolution.

We're a maritime nation - we've grown by the sea and live by it," proclaims the very English hero of Erskine Childers's 1903 novel, The Riddle of the Sands . He was right. The history of our islands is intimately bound with their relationship with the sea. But from the inception of maritime history as an academic discipline in the late 19th century, their relationship has been explored in rather narrow terms.

While never entirely sidelined, the predominantly military approach to maritime studies did not manage to integrate itself into mainstream historical trends, remaining a separate sub-discipline - rather populist in nature and perhaps a trifle lacking in theoretical rigour.

But the approaching anniversaries of Elizabeth I's death in 1603, the battle of Trafalgar and death of Nelson in 1805, and the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 clearly illustrate that British maritime history plays a central role in politics, national identity, exploration and empire, trade, and the movement of peoples, as well as in warfare.

Historian Felipe Fernandez Armesto has argued that "maritime history is world history" - a claim that holds a general truth despite its obvious limitations when applied to landlocked countries. As such, maritime history is undergoing a sea change and is increasingly viewed as a sub-discipline of enormous scope.

Increasingly, too, maritime subjects are attracting interdisciplinary interest as scholars investigate their impact on society, literature, art, design, even music. Captain Cook is a case in point: once the preserve of maritime historians, his voyages are now the focus of a whole range of intellectual approaches and have raised acrimonious academic debate.

University centres specialising in naval or maritime history have been recently established or are expanding - among them Exeter, Greenwich, Hull, King's College, London, and St Andrews. There are now four chairs of maritime or naval history at British universities.

The 70th conference of Anglo-American historians, titled The Sea, takes place at the Institute of Historical Research on July 4-6. It is, as far as we know, the first mainstream historical conference to be devoted to maritime matters and one that reflects the growing significance and status of the subject.

The conference will tackle a broad range of topics, including literature, race and class on slave vessels, the impact of the decline of British shipbuilding and much else besides. It is the second event in a coordinated week of maritime history in London - the first being the conference Maritime Empires, at the National Maritime Museum, July 2-3, which will focus on British imperial maritime trade during the 19th century, incorporating sessions on the impact of technology on imperial expansion and the cultural effects of maritime commerce and communication.

As a rule, maritime museums have a reputation as passive partners in academic activity, being seen as, at best, the popular face of a marginal sub-discipline. Museum collections, though of interest to specialists, have held less interest for mainstream historians. But this is changing and the National Maritime Museum's collections - the most extensive archive of maritime-related objects in the world - are now studied by a broad range of scholars. The museum has formed partnerships with Goldsmiths College in London, Manchester University and Princeton University in the United States to encourage interdisciplinary study of its collections. But just when academic interest is growing, popular awareness of the sea's importance is in decline. When most people travel abroad by plane and when large ports are generally located far from urban centres, most people are unaware that we are still heavily dependent on marine transport.

As well as its collections, the National Maritime Museum has several web projects, including Port, a gateway to maritime-related conferences and events, and the Journal for Maritime Research .

Maritime History Week illustrates the growing interest in maritime history and the ways in which museums and academic institutions can work together to develop fresh approaches to the subject. Now we just need our own Simon Schama to front a popular television series on the history of the sea.

Margarette Lincoln is director of research and collections and Nigel Rigby is head of research at the National Maritime Museum ( ).

From food to finance, the sea delivered

For most people in Europe, the sea is the backdrop for holidays and fun, a pleasurable diversion from the urban landscape of their everyday lives. But without the sea, civilisation as we know it would not exist.

Philip de Souza, senior lecturer in classical studies at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, says that the study of the sea has too often focused on naval battles and overlooked other aspects. He has sought to redress the balance in his book Seafaring and Civilisation , the official publication of next week's Institute of Historical Research conference, The Sea.

The book covers everything from marine archaeology and the impact of sea transport on food and health, to the spiritual and commercial ambitions on which the European empires were built.

One of the main questions de Souza seeks to answer is why European empires dominated other sea faring empires, such as China and India. He identifies a combination of factors, including the construction of European nation-states as small, competitive monarchies where kings and queens could delegate over great distances. "You just needed a letter from the king to claim South America," he says.

The Indian and Chinese empires were more diffuse and, because they covered such large land masses, tended to be more inward-looking.

"The European monarchies were fairly evenly matched. They did not have huge areas to administer so could be ambitious in seeking new territories," de Souza says.

Geography might also have played a role in Europe's dominance. The fact that Europe looked out onto the Atlantic probably served as "an invitation" to travel.

De Souza, an expert on piracy, says that one of the things that struck him during his research was how the distance between the seats of power and the new territories "left people free to behave in extravagant and destructive ways", just as pirates behaved outside normal conventions and developed their own frameworks. He says the distant Catholic church took a long time to come to terms with the very different cultures being encountered by her subjects and had little to offer them spiritually.

Perspectives on the European empires have changed in recent years, de Souza says, with a "more balanced" view emerging on issues such as slavery, set in the context of what was happening at the time.

"The popular image of slavery was that it was mass slaughter and that the slaves were all packed in like sardines, but it was not in the traders' interests that the slaves should die. They tended to select those most likely to survive. They were cruel and inhumane, but they were not trying to murder peopleI Their behaviour needs to be seen within the conventions of society at the time."

De Souza believes the broadening of historical inquiry is behind its increasing popularity. "There is an interest in all aspects of history," he says.

Ironically, many universities are cutting back their history departments, for which he blames the government's focus on skills over intellectual development. "Developing the life of the mind is one of the things universities are brilliant at," he says.

Seafaring and Civilisation is published by Profile Books on July 2, £12.99.

Maritime History Week

Maritime Empires . National Maritime Museum, July 2-3
70th Anglo-American conference of historians: The Sea. Institute of Historical Research, July 4-6


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