Maritime History in the U.S.: Hiding in Plain Sight


The United States, for the most part, ignores maritime history—including our own. We have thought of ourselves as “continental” for so long that we no longer feel connected to the seas around us in a historical sense. We have only a vague awareness of our histories as maritime colonies of European empires—Spanish, Dutch, French, English. When we think of the sea historically, we tend to think of it as a barrier, crossed by intrepid (or rapacious, or both) adventurers, and then settlers, who survived long ocean crossings, settled along the coasts, then moved inland. We tend to forget that, for the first three hundred years of European settlement and African enslavement in North America, our ancestors were connected to each other and to their extended networks of kin, culture, political allegiance, trade, and in many cases sustenance by the sea. These people moved in ships, whether by choice or by force, and not just one way. They went west, but they went east, too—and south, and north, and every other point of the compass that swung in the binnacles of thousands of wooden ships under sail.

We no longer move in ships—though our stuff does: about 90% of it. We are as connected by the sea economically as we ever were, but not politically or socially. We are no longer primarily a maritime society—but our ancestors were. Ships crossed the oceans and landed in ports. Boats carried people and small cargoes along the coasts, up and down creeks and rivers, to trade, to move, or just to visit neighbors. Forests were thick and roads were few and bad. The railroads did not “open up” the West to white settlement. Steamboats did.

The peoples who were here before all that did not use the oceans the way Europeans did. They had come here in the distant past over a land bridge that was long gone. But they used the streams and rivers and bays and sounds just as much as anyone, for travel and trade and fishing. Africans had long done the same. Those who were captured and chained and brought here—over twelve million were loaded on ships, though not nearly that many survived the passage—either found themselves on labor gangs, producing crops for export overseas, or, if they were more fortunate, living lives that allowed them some degree of direct participation in the American water-world—padding a canoe, steering a periauger, sailing a ship.

The economy of what became the United States was built on shipping crops grown on slave plantations to market, and building the ships, barrels, and supplies necessary to do that, and to bring manufactures to people in the Americas who wanted and needed to buy them. It was built on sailing ships to Africa, loading prisoners, and bringing them back to America for sale as forced labor. The revolution that fractured the British Atlantic Empire started on the water. The party in the power in London saw a chance to use the Navy to enforce customs and taxes on British American ships—in their own waters. It was effective—too effective. Angry British Americans attacked ships flying the Royal Navy ensign but built in British America by American shipwrights.

The Revolution ruined the British American economy because the British American economy was maritime, and it only recovered when the Royal Navy once again allowed it to use the sea. By the 1860s, American ships were giving British ships a run for their money around the world. The races of the British and American tea clippers from China to western markets weren’t just business; they competed under their countries’ flags, like Olympic teams, and the results were the hottest news.

The catastrophe of the Civil War and the drive to conquer the Far West put an end to that. Eventually, we became a naval power—later the greatest—but we were no longer a maritime people. Not in general, anyway. New England, naturally enough, has always tried to keep the flame of our maritime history burning. The Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, published our premier scholarly maritime history journal, The American Neptune, for 61 years, but it finally folded in 2002. There is no scholarly print journal in maritime history published in the United States. Of the two premier journals in the field, one was founded in Canada and published there for 25 years. It is now edited and published in England, along with the other. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology is published in England. The journal of the North American Society for Oceanic History is edited and published in Canada.

Our task as U.S. maritime historians is, in one sense, the same as for every other maritime historian: to write the best maritime history we can, based on the best research we can do. But for the public, it is to do our best to remind people of the story I just sketched out—to remind people how central our maritime history is to who we are and where we came from. To commit professionally to maritime history in the U.S. is walking uphill. There is very little funding because there is so little interest. We are a thoroughly international discipline, appropriately enough, and those of us who live in this wealthy nation are acutely aware of the challenges we face in getting our work paid for relative to those elsewhere. That will change when and if we manage to tell this story to enough people. There’s a thriving group of talented people working in the field here. Help us get our story out, because it isn’t our story. It’s the country’s story.


Doing “pre-industrial” history of technology

Earlier this month, I got to present a paper in a session I organized for the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in St. Louis. I have two things to say about that. One has to do with the paper and the session, and the other doesn’t.

SHOT and the field it promotes are overwhelmingly concerned with “industrial” and “post-industrial” technology, and the relationships between those cultures and the technologies they produce and use–as well as those they don’t. That does not mean, however, that those of us working in earlier periods are unwelcome; I had 12 scholars who signed up, which means I had to propose three sessions. SHOT accepted only one, but they re-distributed most of the other scholars, and their papers, to other suitable sessions. The session was well-attended, the presenters enthusiastic and compelling, and SHOT was kind enough to find us a most suitable chair/commentator who took an obvious interest in the papers and the proceedings. We learned about the competition to build an astounding number of Gothic cathedrals in late-medieval Europe, the relationship between the building and operation of mills and the social and power structures of medieval England, and what the artisanal craft of shipbuilding in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British Atlantic might teach us about doing history of technology in general. (That was mine, of course.) I thank Anne McCants of MIT, Adam Lucas of the University of Wollongong, and our chair and commentator, independent historian Pam Long, for making this work. If you’d like to learn a little about what they work on, you can use these links (links will open in a new window):

Anne McCants

Adam Lucas

Pam Long

I also thank those who signed up for our sessions and either couldn’t make the conference or presented in other sessions: David Zvi Kalman, Moritz Nagel, John Pannabecker, Steven Walton, Yovanna Pineda, Rob Johnstone, Dustin Studelska, Gideon Burton, and William McMillan.

The other thing I want to say is about winning–and not winning–awards and grants. I was up for two at this conference: the prize for best paper by a first-time, early-career presenter; and a no-strings-attached postdoc worth $10,000–plenty to complete the research I want done for this book. I knew I wanted to win them, but I didn’t realize how badly until I found out I didn’t, after which I confess I threw a bit of a tantrum (in private), which made clear to me not only that I don’t like to lose, but that I’d got quite used to winning things lately. The inescapable truth, though, is that when you play this game, you will win some and you will lose some. They’re all seriously competitive, whether or not they have big checks attached. I can’t objectively complain about the number of such cap feathers I have on my CV at this point. (But, as the indefatigable Joe Walsh so memorably sang, “I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do…”) If you’re a young scholar or an aspiring scholar and you’re reading this, first of all, thank you, and also, remember, when it counts (which is when you’ve been rejected for something you want and you’re in the middle of that gross feeling), that the only proper response is to try again as soon as possible. The biggest thing I ever won, I won the second time I applied for it. The whole equation changes each time; as long as you’re qualified, your name should be in that hat.

The acknowledgements sections of academic books, usually included in the introductions, can be terribly intimidating (at least they used to be for me), because they typically list all the grants and prizes and fellowships the author won that facilitated the completion of the book. What they do not contain is all the grants, prizes, and fellowships the author did NOT win. I have resolved to note this in the acknowledgements section of my book (if the editor will let me, of course), so as not to daunt any new or would-be scholars who might be reading.

That’s enough blogging for now. Back to that other thing… Thanks for reading.

PS the picture at the top is the ceiling of the bar in the Union Station Hotel in St. Louis where the conference was. They put really cool light shows up there during happy hour. The picture is off-kilter and blurry. That is how pictures taken in bars by current patrons should be.

Update, and remembering someone special

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Right after dissertation defense, 8 February 2017; Skip Fischer is on the far right in the picture. Neil Kennedy is on the far left. In the back are Barry Gaulton and Danine Farquharson. You can figure out which is which.

It’s been a while; here’s a brief run-down of what’s in the pipeline right now.

First, though, it’s only proper for a professional maritime historian to acknowledge the death on 11 February 2018 of one of our field’s guiding lights, Professor Lewis “Skip” Fischer, co-founding-editor of both the International Journal of Maritime History and of The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord. When I got accepted to study maritime history at Memorial University, where Skip had taught since I was in about sixth grade, I was hopeful that I would get to work with him at some level. I must admit I was a bit intimidated when my advisor, Neil, first took me over to meet him, but I needn’t have been. He was simultaneously warm and frank, in a way that I try to be. He let me know that his approval, based on his old friend and my old professor Carl Swanson’s recommendation, was why I was there, and that he had every confidence I would do well based on that recommendation. I read the technical history of the ship for Skip, and our one-on-one discussions were of course a great privilege. I learned that he was generous, sometimes to a fault, with students, though he was quite clear about what he considered good work and what he did not. The man truly was a walking library. His office mirrored that externally; to find him, you had to navigate a warren of bookshelves with barely room to turn around between them. It’s Neil’s office now, and it looks quite different.

All of us who were trained at any level by him, mentored by him, lectured by him, are lucky. The maritime history world is only beginning to celebrate his life and work.

Meanwhile, we do what he would want us to do: keep working. Neil was kind enough to tell Skip, a few days before he died, that my book manuscript was coming along well, and indeed it is. I will do everything I can to get Sea Venture: The Merchant Ship and the British Atlantic, 1600—1800 in a publisher’s hands, and a contract in my own, by the end of this year. I’m happy to have received a small but important grant from the Anderson Bequest of the Society for Nautical Research for some research assistance in Bristol and London, and that is underway now. I also just found out that an edited collection, Cultural Economies of the Atlantic World: Objects and Capital in the Transatlantic Imagination for which I will be contributing a chapter, “Conveyance and Commodity: The Ordinary Merchant Ship in the British Atlantic, 1600—1800,” was accepted by Routledge and should be forthcoming next year. (These things take a long time.)

I’ve got a few conferences in mind for this year, including the Society for the History of Technology’s in St. Louis in October, for which I have proposed an open session and actually have an interested collaborator! We hope to get more in the next couple of weeks. I’m also applying for a major fellowship from them. As my intellectual direction continues toward histo-techno, I hope to make a contribution to that field at the same time as I hope this project makes toward early America and the British Atlantic.

Thanks for checking in and stay tuned. If you care for maritime history, please raise a glass of something good to Skip Fischer.

The Myth of Montana


The mythical Wild West is as powerful a trope in U.S. history as any. As a maritime historian, I learned long ago to see that trope as distinctive, rather than take it for granted. Most U.S. citizens don’t know that, once the new republic recovered from the post-Revolution depression and disorder, its merchant shipping fleet began to challenge that of the former mother country’s—not just in the Atlantic, but in the Far East. The rivalry continued until the 1850s, at which point the two maritime powers—one, a still-young upstart New World spin-off; the other, the greatest maritime empire the world had ever known—were neck-and-neck both technologically and, in some trades at least, at the bottom line.

Then, two things happened, and their interrelationship did not bode well for the young country’s deep-sea trade—or, more broadly, for its sense of connection to the wider world. First, the U.S. was close to achieving its long-held expansionist dream (known in the history books as “Manifest Destiny”) of becoming a continent-wide power by defeating and displacing native powers with whom it had long uncomfortably co-existed or from whom it was too removed geographically to have anything to do with. As this process advanced, the burning question of the hour was, Would new Western territories permit chattel slavery, as existed in the South, or not?

As Walter Johnson makes clear in River of Dark Dreams, the Southern “slave-ocracy” was far from the languid, backward-looking, insulated European-style landed gentry it is often portrayed to have been, especially through the fuzzy lens of romantic historical fiction. These people were very much plugged in to their world; they were a restless group of businessmen in possession of vast wealth. Their “way of life” was not fading away; it was making money, and lots of it, and there was more to be made if they could expand their gang-labor plantations not just westward, but southward, into the Caribbean and Central America. American cotton was feeding an ever-growing demand for machine-made textiles in Great Britain and New England.

Outside the South, though, most people either worked for wages in a rapidly-industrializing North and Midwest, farmed their own small holdings, or dreamed of doing so, and looked West for that very opportunity. These people correctly saw their prospects and those of the slave-ocracy as incompatible. What they did not see was that there was no economic Great Wall of China at the Mason-Dixon Line; that they were all playing different roles in the same integrated economy.

As we all know, the question of how westward expansion would proceed was not resolved peacefully. In fact, the war from 1861—65 was unprecedented in its all-consuming savagery; military historians tend to see it as an ominous preview of the Great War of 1914—18—a preview unfortunately largely ignored by the European military establishments.

So, after having turned its attention westward, the U.S. turned the rest of its attention and energy to self-destruction and self-preservation. Its business was at best severely interrupted—or turned to war production—and at worst, destroyed. The main beneficiary? Her Majesty’s Dominions, as Great Britain won the maritime race when its main rival forfeited, and would remain unrivalled for another half-century or so. Queen Victoria was also Empress of India. She did not need American cotton. The South was isolated by blockade. Southern delusions were shattered. The South itself was shattered.

The myth of the cowboy, the open range, the freedom of the ordinary person to walk away from the hopeless mess and crowds and noise of settled society and strike out for a noble life of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, was born in the aftermath of a conflict that scarred this country so badly it would never recover—or at least it hasn’t yet. The cowboy has nothing to do with the factory or the plantation.

As more and more ordinary people migrated westward to fulfill that age-old dream of yeoman farming, out from under the landlord or the boss or the master, they formed towns and made rules. They went to church and conformed. Ranchers consolidated vast holdings of what had been the buffalo range. They took full advantage of a new invention: barbed wire.

The myth of the cowboy was fueled, not extinguished, by the extinction of the cowboy himself.

Ironically, the rancher, who as much as anyone was responsible for that extinction, took on the trappings of that myth, and retains them even today. Those trappings go far beyond the hat, the boots, the horse, and the rifle. The rancher—the mythical one, at least—defines his way of life by running a private domain stretching to the horizon. As long as he works enough to keep it going, he is master of all that surrounds him, including all the living creatures, human or otherwise, within his miles and miles of barbed wire—or imaginary lines on a map. To the maximum extent possible, he accepts no authority other than his own. Compromise with other people who have to live together is marginal to his existence. If the government tells him he can’t shoot wolves, he snorts in contempt and re-loads.

The cowboy, though, was an itinerant hired hand, living an arduous and insecure life. The cowboy did not chase wealth and stability. He did not chase power. He did not claim vast tracts of land as his exclusive personal domain.

The problem with The Myth of Montana, as it actually exists in our society, is that it is not the myth of the cowboy, but the expropriation of that myth by the rancher. It is, at its core, a blending of the desires for autonomy, personal space, and wealth. It seeks to take and possess as much as possible for the use and pleasure of the individual—to expropriate a part of the earth and post it—No Trespassing.

There are more than seven billion humans on this planet now. We cannot afford The Myth of Montana. Its attraction distracts us from the reality that we must live in societies, and that our best investment of energy and attention is in learning how to live in those societies with far more felicity than we do now, or that we have ever been willing to work for. That does not mean we become diminished, depressed shadows of our best selves, trudging along the well-worn ruts of a cooperative cop-out in some gray Nietzschean nightmare. We are terrified of “Ants Marching.” We are told that if we ever abandon our devotion to the notion of rugged individualism in the pursuit of personal gain—if we ever walk east, away from The Myth of Montana—that we will be headed straight for Erich Hoenecker’s East Germany.

We are right to be determined never to find ourselves in Hoenecker’s East Germany. We are right to approach “socialism” with skepticism. (We should approach everything but love with skepticism.) On the other hand, what attracts people to a Sarah Palin has to go. There is no more Montana—of the mythic sort, anyway. It is most fortunate that among American wilderness aficionados of the early 20th century was Theodore Roosevelt. We can visit Montana and Wyoming and Idaho and have our breath taken away by the rugged grandeur of those wide open spaces only because there are public lands out there, set aside for all of us. The ranchers own the rest of it. It’s posted—No Trespassing. National and state parks exist because societies made collective, cooperative decisions to create them.

There are vast, dangerous, and un-owned wildernesses left on our planet—the oceans. Unlike Montana ranches, though, the oceans connect us to each other, rather than isolate us from each other. The oceans—which the American collective consciousness has marginalized since the late 1850s—still carry 90% of the world’s trade. We live in an intricately bound and connected world—we always have, whether we choose to apprehend that or pretend otherwise. Isolationism will not do because it is not reality and it cannot be reality. We will not make better trade policy by making policy that cuts off trade. We will not solve problems related to different people moving around on the planet by building pretend walls in our minds or on our borders. We cannot create a good life or a good future for ourselves with barbed wire.

When I taught American history, the last question on my final exam showed the students two maps. One was of the eastern seaboard, the Atlantic, the coasts of Africa and western Europe, the British Isles. the other was the iconic map of the current continental U.S. that’s programmed into our brains in early childhood. I asked them which map accurately reflected the way British Americans and citizens of the young U.S. saw their country and their world. I must have done something right, because as I recall, they never got that one wrong. The ocean wasn’t a barrier; it connected the eastern shores to the West Indies and the markets of Europe, Britain, and, ultimately, Asia. We built ships.

I think we would be well-served by recalling this—something our forebears knew, but that we, as a society, have forgotten for so long now. This is our reality, not the Wild West. This is our future. We are very lucky to have Glacier National Park. We should treasure the West as we always have. But it is past time we let go of The Myth of Montana.

for Sal Mercogliano

35th Anniversary Alumni Conference, ECU Program in Maritime Studies

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Photo courtesy Dr. Jennifer McKinnon, ECU Program in Maritime Studies

People always say this, but I really was honored to be invited to speak to the alumni, faculty, and especially current graduate students in the Program in Maritime Studies, from which I graduated myself, 19 years ago. The two professors who taught my maritime history surveys back in ’96 and ’97 were both in the audience. Neither of them fell asleep or chided me afterwards. I’ll take that.

We were there to celebrate 35 years of this unique program, of which I’m proud to be an alumnus. My remarks were intended as an endorsement of the founders’ vision, based on my own experience doing maritime history at the professional level. Dr. Still and Dr. Watts were absolutely right; we can’t advance maritime historical scholarship without an inter-disciplinary toolkit based on training in history, archaeology, anthropology, and material culture.

I met some cool new people and re-connected with some cool old people (and some that aren’t quite old, but working on it–like me).

If you’d like to know more about the Program in Maritime Studies at East Carolina, click here to explore.

Happy 35th to a bunch of hard-working, hard-playing pirates.

“It’ ain’t Club Med…” –Dr. Brad Rodgers, Director

Save Our Ship in Alexandria, Virginia

Alexandria lecture liveWe had a great turnout Sunday evening (10/22/17) at The Lyceum in Alexandria for “The Ship IS the Treasure: Why Alexandria’s Eighteenth-Century Ship is Important,” an invited talk I gave for the City of Alexandria and the Friends of Alexandria Archaeology to help raise funds for the conservation and preservation of the unusually-well-preserved hull remains found at the construction site of the new Hotel Indigo on the city’s waterfront in January of last year.

My role was to explain to folks why the study of these remains is important for our ongoing attempt to understand ordinary merchant ship technology in our world in this period–a subject swimming in murkier waters than even some maritime historians realize. Judging by the questions we discussed afterward, and the obvious interest of the audience, I’m confident that those who were there will spread the word and support for this project will grow.

If you’d like to follow the progress of the conservation, you can do that via the site created by the conservators at Texas A&M University here. If you’d like to consider supporting the project, please visit Save Our Ship to find out more and make your contribution.

If you’d like to contact me about an invited talk, please see the Contact page for my e-mail address. And thanks for visiting!

“History won’t get us off the planet…”


Design for a Flying Machine, Leonardo da Vinci, 1488


When I first started my doctoral program, my supervisor and I were commiserating over how disproportionate research funding had gotten in favor of STEM and at the expense of the humanities and social sciences. Partly playing devil’s advocate and partly in earnest, my wife remarked that it was properly so, as “history won’t get us off the planet.” Her point being, of course, that we needed to do all we could to advance our technology to the point where deep space travel would be possible, as eventually, our dear Earth would become uninhabitable.

That was five years ago, and I never came up with a satisfactory rejoinder to that argument until last week. When it hit me, I was on a walk, by myself. I smiled a crooked smile and relished the feeling of being so clever, if belatedly. (I like winning.) When I got home, I warned her that she was going down. But I didn’t get around to it until this morning.

The core purpose of studying history is to understand, as best we can, the experience of people removed from us in time—just as the purpose of anthropology is to understand the experience of people removed from us geographically or culturally but not necessarily temporally. That understanding has intrinsic value, to be sure, but that’s not why we do it. We do it for two reasons. The first is to gain a better perspective on our own experience. To a small child, whatever the subjective experience is constitutes the totality of reality. It never occurs to the child that there is another “normal”—or, in fact, a myriad of other “normals.” If we do not invest ourselves in trying to understand others’ experience, we never develop beyond childhood. We never learn that what is normal to us is not normal for everyone else, that other people’s experiences are different from ours, that other people have different personal realities and different ways of perceiving general reality. Once we gain that perspective, we can perceive our own subjective reality is just that, and actually know it. We can’t define anything—distinguish it from something else—unless we are aware of the something-else. There is no blue without red and yellow and the other colors. Related to that is the reason why relativism, taken too far, is absurd; when a word means everything, it means nothing.

The second reason we study history is so that, having learned about other people’s experiences, we can empathize with them. We can, to a limited but important extent, imagine what their experiences were like, and how those experiences shaped their perspective on personal and general reality. When we empathize with people, they become actual people to us. We fear what we do not understand, and we hate what we fear. That’s how we’re wired. And what we hate, we try to destroy, given the chance.

We study all of the humanities and social sciences to understand ourselves and each other and how we live together, for better or worse. And our minds are not circuit boards; they are living things, able to rewire themselves—able to adapt, in real time, to input changes. Waiting around for evolution is not required. We are train-able, at the very core of our beings.

Right now, we urgently need to be doing that self-training—perhaps more urgently than ever. Our technological prowess has grown with our numbers, and both have placed enormous pressure on our own species and on the rest of this planet. But our development of empathy and the prioritization of understanding and cooperation over alienation and conflict have by no means kept pace with that. Not only is human progress not linear—it is not inevitable. It’s our choice. If we don’t start making some different choices as societies—if we don’t stop thinking it’s ok to know nuclear science and yet still conceive of general reality in basically medieval terms, if we don’t stop, as Vonnegut put it, painting crosses on tanks—then it doesn’t ultimately matter how much we fund STEM, because we will destroy ourselves long before STEM lifts us off this outrageously improbable and wonderful planet for a voyage to the stars. The only way we will ever be able to develop our capabilities that far is to stop investing our passions and energies and resources in short-term, selfish and destructive pursuits and conflicts, and start investing them in the long-term survival and well-being of the human species. Before that happens, our empathic skills have got to get a lot better. We humans have to learn to understand each other better, to help each other understand reality better, or humans will be long gone before the sun ever incinerates our dear Earth.

So that, my dear, is how history can get us off the planet—or at least help, along with the social sciences and arts and letters. History cannot build us an interstellar spacecraft. But it can help us stick around long enough, and better ourselves enough, to build one someday.


Saving Alexandria’s 18th-century merchant ship

This will be the site’s blog, where I’ll periodically update visitors with research progress and what’s on my mind having to do with maritime history at the moment.

In just a few days, I’ll be giving a talk for the City of Alexandria on the importance of conserving the remains of this vessel–which are so rare in our part of the world. In fact, the remains are already being conserved–now we just have to pay for it!

Meanwhile, if you’d like to learn more about the find, and the ongoing work, and would like to contribute (every little bit helps), please visit this link.

From that page, you can go to the conservation project’s page at Texas A&M University.

And check back here next week!