Nautical Lives Seminar Report

This one-day seminar organised by Laura Rowe, of Exeter’s Centre for Maritime Historical Studies, showcased research on a range of topics, but all the papers dealt in some way with nautical lives, with the role of the sea, seafaring, and maritime enterprise in personal experiences and social developments.

In the first panel, Andrew English, who is currently working on his Ph.D., spoke about the Laird Rams, two ships built in England initially for the Confederates during the American civil war; Andrew began with the political intrigues as the US’s agents attempted to intervene. After the ships were built, the English government claimed them, and the two Rams were used as guard-ships in the Caribbean and Hong Kong. During questions, Andrew brought out the important context of widespread experimentation in this period of rapid technological change. The second speaker, Alston Kennerly, compared the sea careers of Joseph Conrad and Frank T. Bullen. Both born in 1857, Conrad and Bullen sailed across the globe before both became popular writers in the 1890s. Alston used these two figures to explore the question of ‘globalisaton’ – from the first use of globes in navigation during the sixteenth century – and the changing self-definition of professional seafarers according to the voyages they have sailed.

After lunch, I opened the second panel with a paper based on my Ph.D. Looking at the experiences of London seafarers during the British civil wars, I examined how the conflict disrupted their labouring lives, and the networks of trust that bound different British maritime communities together, ultimately forcing Londoners to accept parliament’s claims to authority at sea. Next, Michael Farquharson-Roberts gave a paper from his doctoral research which addressed the thorny issues of leadership, management, mood and morale in armed forces, taking a lead from studies of the army. Tijl Vanneste finished the panel with a paper  – also based on his Ph.D. – about the role of outsiders in diamond mining and trade in eighteenth-century Brazil. Although historians have focused upon the Portuguese colonial elite, Tijl showed how African slaves, rogue miners (‘garimpeiros’) and women together were important in enabling the diamond trade to Europe but also, by resisting the colonial government in various ways, developed a vibrant regional identity that would contribute to the later independence movement in Brazil.

In the final panel, Helen Doe argued that Isambard Kingdom Brunel, though an undeniably well-known figure in British history, is in many ways a ‘forgotten man’ of the Industrial Revolution. Starting with Brunel’s popularity (ably demonstrated by his appearence, played by Kenneth Brannagh, in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and by Isembark Kingdog Brunel), Helen went on to consider the vast range of projects, maritime and otherwise, in which Brunel was involved, and then rather more surprisingly the dearth of scholarship about him, despite the substantial amount of source material that survives. For the last paper of the day, Adrian Webb introduced Greenville Collins, also a figure deserving more attention. As hydrographer royal, he produced charts of the English coast during the later seventeenth century that would remain in use for almost a hundred years. Adrian talked about Collins’ techniques, but also his political savvy, for example renaming one ‘King James Bank’ – a nod to James II in a chart produced in 1685 – as ‘Collins Bank’ in later versions, after William III and Anne had taken the throne.

The papers, though diverse, collectively emphasised a number of themes: the impact of seafaring upon those who make it their career, the continuous struggle to improve navigational and shipping technology whether for profit or power, and the social consequences of maritime commerce and conflict far beyond the shoreline. The CMHS’s next event will take place on 12 February, and feature Alessio Patalano and Edward Hampshire speaking on ‘The Changing Face of Modern Seapower’.

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