The first article I ever got published, in SAIL magazine, twenty-one years ago, hangs framed on my office wall. I’ve gotten somewhat used to it since then, but it’s still one of the most satisfying things I know, to sign a contract with a publisher. I will admit that it was also nice, with those trade magazines, to get a check in the mail to go with that, which does not happen with academic publishing, unfortunately. Still, I’m sincerely happy to report that I signed a contract for Book 2 on the date above. Based on the publisher’s standard guidelines, I assume it will come out next spring (2023); I will update this page when I find out something more definite, along with other details about the publication.
As far as I know, the manuscript they have is the manuscript they’re going to publish; we are working to finalize the images now.
For any of you reading this who supported this project, thank you. That support has now come to fruition.
I am waiting to hear from three grant apps now; two individual, one group. I should hear on one this month (July), and the other two in December. Meanwhile, I’m working on an article about an American snow on an Atlantic voyage from Delaware to Ireland, and then to the Caribbean during the Napoleonic Wars, where an attempted slaving trip ran afoul of the Royal Navy’s hunters.
First, the second book, A Boston Schooner in the Royal Navy, is under review by a publisher; that process started early January. How long it lasts is impossible to predict. It’s a waiting game. If you’ve supported the project, just know that I will do my very best by the book, and when I have some good news, I’ll post it here as soon as I can.
Meanwhile, I’ve committed to contribute articles to two journals this year. Both are group efforts; I was kindly invited by the researchers on the Global Sea Routes Database Project, based at the University of Trieste, to contribute to their takeover of an upcoming issue of Itinerario; and the second is a roundtable in the International Journal of Maritime History, an outgrowth of the Risk and Uncertainty in the Premodern World seminar series, hosted by the Institute for Historical Research, School of Advanced Studies, University of London, in which I presented in late 2021.
I also have an article, co-authored with Nick Burningham, coming out in the Mariner’s Mirror sometime this year, on the likely origins of the two-masted square rig in British Atlantic shipping. When we have a date, I’ll post it.
I have committed to joining a long-term research project on maritime commercial connections between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, contingent upon funding from the European Research Council; that application will be submitted by the end of this month. By 15 April, I will have applied for an NEH Fellowship for a book project on the maritime history of colonial North Carolina–for the second time; those applications have about a 7% success rate, which is a sad state of affairs, but the success rate for non-applicants is 0%. More funding for humanities research!
Right now, I’m working on the log of an American snow from 1805–6, procured for me by Prof. Guido Abbatista, principal investigator of the GSR Database Project. Initially, I intended merely to transcribe the log and plot the voyages in GSR, but the more I read, the more I realized that this is a rich source that asks some interesting questions; I have finished the transcription and I’m now deep into researching some of those, from Pennsylvania to Ireland to the Caribbean, and there is certainly a good article to be written from this. Stay tuned on that.
Finally, I’m looking forward to the 2022 North American Society for Oceanic History annual conference, to be held right here in Wilmington, hosted by Cape Fear Community College, where I taught as an adjunct from 2001 to 2011. I was the first to submit my abstract to present, so I’m told, and I’ll be helping out any way I can with the conference. That’s 22-25 June.
I’ve just finished the North Atlantic crossing of the little schooner at the center of my microhistory-in-progress. Even with the irregular zig-zags representing a sailing vessel’s progress along a track only discernible from a zoomed-out view, the plot, with its crisp, thin black line and red dots at five-day intervals, the visual rendering of this routine death-defying course through some of nature’s most powerful forces looks so precise, so definite.
That is an illusion; the visual representation both reveals and obscures the truth. The historical records upon which the plots are based are the logs of the commander and the master—two different people, each keeping his own journal, such that slight discrepancies are common and irreconcilable inconsistencies occur from time to time. Eighteenth-century ships’ logs are written in table form with labeled columns and consistent conventions for recording, in a special shorthand, the winds, the courses, the day’s run in miles, the estimated position, and the most important occurrences on board that day—sail changes, damage, sightings of other vessels, sightings of land or soundings of the bottom. The logs are neat and orderly, a utilitarian and quotidian human effort to distill what those who made them assumed would be most worth revisiting later—something fixed, in ink on paper, unlike the fickle memories that would not stick in the mind, of experiences so much larger than what was written down but gone forever as soon as they happened. The logs are yet another human attempt to impose order on chaos, written so carefully by someone wedged into a corner of creaking wood, making legible marks on a page by guttering lamp while the vessel that contained him pitched and tossed and rolled and groaned.
The letters and numbers in the log were not only an incomplete record of the day’s reality; they were an imprecise one as well, no matter how skilled the navigator, no matter how benign the conditions in which he worked that day. The compass and the octant, the chip log, and the human hands and brains that worked them all introduced slight deviations from the truth they sought, so that the exact truth—any exactitude at all—remained unattainable. No position ever plotted by an eighteenth-century navigator out of sight of land was exactly where on the surface of the planet his ship was—or, if it was, that was by chance. These navigators knew this. The skill of knowing how much confidence to place in any attempt to determine position was as important as the skill of knowing how to determine that position. Navigators used every means at their disposal to guess at their position—compass heading, corrected for magnetic variation; the angle a celestial body made with the horizon, converted to latitude with the help of an almanac; the speed through the water measured by a chip of wood pulling a knotted cord through a seaman’s hands or floating past the known length of the hull in a certain number of seconds. When currents were detected, they tried to estimate how far, and in what direction, the current might be setting them off course. Cloud patterns, sea birds, and—close to the coast—the depth and composition of the seabed could warn of approaching land. When, as was inevitable, the various techniques pointed the navigator toward slightly differing positions, it was up to his judgment to determine the best estimate. Even now, the positions we call “fixes”—those upon which we have the highest level of confidence—are marked by a dot surrounded by a small circle, because every navigator knows there is no such thing as a fixed point in the sea.
Plotting a voyage from 1768, using a geo-referencing application probably invented a decade ago, forced judgment calls at every point. At the entrance to the English Channel, the wind forced the schooner southward, toward Brest, France. The latitude and longitude recorded for that day put them in Brest, France. We know that’s wrong, but how wrong? We can use recorded bearings to known points, and distances from those points—accepting that those are estimates, made by experienced eyes and judgements, not precise instruments. The plot I made of that day’s run preserves the reality of the southward push, and the approximate location of the schooner’s track relative to the coasts of England and France, and relative to the following segment of the route. I make no claim that the schooner was ever exactly on any point of the track as I have plotted it. To counter the visual illusion that she was, I made notes for each segment, and when I reproduce the image in the book, those notes will be keyed to the red dots, and they will explain the uncertainties, the judgment calls, and how I used the source material to make those judgement calls about those uncertainties.
That these plots are valuable history despite their limitations is beyond question. They illustrate, as the words and numbers upon which they’re based cannot, the reality of crossing an ocean in a vessel that could neither sail anything close to directly into the wind, nor make progress against too high a sea. They remind the observer that, for their own reasons, groups of people routinely sent other groups of people out to sea to face the autumn gales of the North Atlantic from England to America on small wooden vessels sailing against the prevailing winds and currents. It took my little schooner two months to cross the North Atlantic that autumn. Looking at that plot shows you, rather than tells you, why. That’s why it’s worth using all the source material at hand, all the skills and experience I can bring to understanding what that material is telling me, and all the brain work required to make the judgement calls necessary to produce the best interpretation I can out of what I have. The result will never be—can never be—perfect. History is the craft of applying experienced judgment to all the relevant source material we can find. History can never perfectly present the past. That’s not why we do it. We do it because it is far better to have a good approximate idea of where we have been and where we are going than to have no idea at all.
When I was training to be a historian, I suppose starting with MA work, I managed to internalize the notion that “real” historians crunched data, drew conclusions from it, and presented it to their audience in the form of tables and graphs. One thing that most of the “real” history books I was assigned to read had in common was lots of tables and graphs. It would be reasonable to assume, then, based on what I just wrote, that I began to pay special attention to these tables and graphs, with a growing ambition to create my own as I developed into a “real” historian myself.
Reasonable such an assumption might be. It would also be wrong. I disliked tables and graphs. I never read them. My attitude was—and to some extent, still is—that the author had better tell me what conclusions are to be taken away from the tables and graphs without my actually having to peruse them. When I read a book, I want to read words strung together in well-crafted English. I do not want to look at numbers and make my brain do math.
The next reasonable assumption might be then, that I had a problem: I was training to be a “real” historian, I had internalized that “real” historians do research that results in tables and graphs, and yet I disliked tables and graphs, and thus was unlikely to want to do research that would lead to my producing them. This assumption would be correct. As superficial as it may come across, I think that helps explain why thirteen years passed between finishing my MA and beginning my PhD.
Doctoral training is, of course, literally on a whole other level, so I learned that “real” historians do all sorts of things, and by no means must one do the sort of research that leads to the production of tables and graphs. Nevertheless, as my study progressed, I realized that where it was headed was a shelf of books full of—yep—tables and graphs, so much so that I found myself often having to say to myself in my head, “I am not an economic historian, I am not trying to become an economic historian.” That was important, as I have had precisely one economics course in my academic career, as a college sophomore, and my performance in it was less than remarkable.
I found my way, and here I am, five years out, in the late stages of research for this second book. I’m still not an economic historian and have no ambition of becoming one. Yet, as you can see from the image that accompanies this post, I am sitting here producing—tables and graphs. What’s weirder than that is how much I am enjoying it.
I think this is best explained by an adage that has proved among the more generally applicable to life so far as I can tell. It can be expressed something like this: It’s striking how one can suddenly develop a keen interest in learning and using a skill for which, in the past, one had no such interest, when that skill proves necessary to accomplish something about which one actually gives a damn. I think this also gets at a perennial problem of pedagogy: trying to teach students skills and knowledge you know they need, but in which they have absolutely no interest, because they are not yet aware of when and how and why they will ever need those skills and that knowledge. If you gave a damn about learning your multiplication tables in fourth grade, good for you. I can assure you I did not.
Nevertheless, I’ve been getting up and going about my morning looking forward to sitting down and making columns of entries with numbers in a spreadsheet, computing percentages and making a series of preliminary tables that, on the best days, lead to one concise final table that answers the question that started the whole process. And then, I can open the Insert tab in Excel, hit the Recommended Charts button, and voilà! A beautiful colored graph appears next to the table, just like that. If I re-sort the table, it re-draws the graph accordingly. This is delightful! Whodathunkit?
So, as it turns out, tables and graphs are tools—means to an end—and I am learning to appreciate those tools and how to use them because I need what those tools can give me. I’m just compiling numbers and percentages and estimates; I’ve never had a statistics course in my life (“I am not an economic historian…”), but I need that stuff for this book. Those numbers have interesting stories to tell, and I’ve set myself the task of telling those stories.
As a bonus, I get to feel like a “real” historian in a way I haven’t yet, despite my accomplishments. I readily grant that this is a completely idiosyncratic sort of satisfaction; I’ve tried to explain where it came from. Other historians, I’m sure, feel like “real” historians when they first write a piece they feel really good about. We all come to this with different skills, interests, limitations, and prejudices.
I will end by thanking my fourth-grade math teacher, then. He also had a sign on the wall of his classroom that I hated at the time and love now: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” But that is a topic for a future rumination. If you have just read all this, thank you.
On Thursday evening, we arrived safely back home from the second research trip to Chestertown, Maryland, to examine the remainder of the log books and the muster books. If you don’t know what this is about, here is a brief run-down; see earlier posts for more. I’m working on a “microhistory” based on the four-year cruise of HM Schooner Sultana, built at Boston in 1767 and taken into the Royal Navy the following year at Deptford naval yard just outside London. The detailed records kept by the Navy allowed for an accurate reconstruction of the little vessel (she is, we think, the smallest vessel ever commissioned in the Royal Navy), and the new Sultana was launched in 2001. She is owned and operated by the Sultana Education Foundation of Chestertown, Maryland, which owns complete copies of all the master’s and commander’s logs and the muster books (lists of crew and their statuses) for the entire cruise, July 1768 to December 1772.
On the first trip, in September 2019, I completed the master’s logs, got about 10% of the commander’s logs, and looked at the muster books enough to know what they contained and how to approach examining them. From the master’s logs, I spent almost three months of full-time work extracting and analyzing sailing data, as well as instances of interception; Sultana‘s role was as a customs interceptor, helping to enforce customs duties and interdict smugglers at British American ports on the Eastern Seaboard, from Halifax to Cape Fear (where I live).
On this trip, I finished it all. (Well, almost; I took high-res images of what I didn’t have time to go through, and I’ll do that here at home.) Working was a little bit different this time; to keep me out of the main building for health reasons, SEF set me up in the rigging shop, at a long work table. I worked through the documents where several of Sultana‘s tackles were hanging, their blocks having been freshly varnished. Below, on the main shop floor, some of her spars rested on saw horses, awaiting fresh coats of paint. Her topsails and yards, wrapped in plastic, hung high up from the walls for the winter.
The President of SEF also made copies of his copies of two student papers on provisioning and clothing, as well as a complete copy of his copy of the sailing directions for various American ports, written in commander Lt. John Inglis’ own hand. (Fortunately, his hand is unusually neat.)
I want to thank Drew McMullen, the aforesaid President, for this and all his help, without which this project would never have started. I want to thank Aaron Thal, Sultana‘s captain, for the interview he sat down for via Skype before we went up, and for his logistical assistance in getting the heat set right and lending me some keys, and generally making me feel welcome. Most of all, I want to thank my patrons, whose donations made this trip possible, and the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, for the Research Grant.
I’ll be working through this stuff over the next two to three months, and I’ll post updates here. I hope to have an edited draft of the book this summer. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.
Exactly three months ago, I started transcribing the sections of Sultana’s master’s logs recording her ocean passages—156 days total, from August 1768 to early December 1772, for the purpose of extracting all the data and information on her sailing performance that I could possibly wring out of them. Ultimately, this project generated 38 separate summary documents and spreadsheets, the records of processing this information through multiple stages of analysis. I also plotted the wind directions and Courses Made Good for each of the 156 days on a 360-degree compass card pasted into 156 individual Word documents. Tomorrow, I am going to read a book. (“Required reading” for the project, but still, it’ll be nice to look at a different set of black characters on a white background for a few days.)
Working with this data brought up the basic challenges of trying to extract information from most historical sources. Those challenges start with this basic one: the source was not created for you, or with your agenda in mind. Whoever created it did so for their own reasons, and it’s highly unlikely it ever occurred to them that a historian three hundred years later would have the slightest interest in it. David Bruce’s log was written as standard procedure for the master of a vessel in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic, not for me. That set me up for the following basic challenge. My ultimate hope was to learn what sails Sultana was flying on what points of sail (angles to the wind), and in what wind strengths. This is the core of sailing performance, especially when the day’s progress is recorded, which in a log, it is. Unfortunately, I had to go about approaching this task in an oblique way, as the log only tells me some of what I want to know.
Generally, the log records three to four wind directions for the 24-hour day (noon to noon); North Atlantic weather is more fickle than steady. It also records between one and five wind strengths, along with other weather conditions—such as “moderate” or “strong gales and squally.” The third element of the equation is a Course Made Good (CMG) for the entire day’s run. Problem Number One is that the correlations between wind direction and wind strength are rough rather than exact. Much of the correlation must be inferred, by considering all the information presented. Problem Number Two is that only the day’s CMG, not the individual courses steered, is presented. So, if the wind came from three different directions that day, and it’s clear from the Remarks column that the crew made several sail changes indicating more than one point of sail, then we can assume that more than one course was steered. In order to know precisely the point of sail Sultana was on at any given time, we need to know what course she was steering when the wind was coming from a specific direction. The log rarely gives us that. So, plotting her points of sail meant plotting wind directions and CMG for the day, and inferring the points of sail from the angles of those wind directions to the CMG. Those inferences are, by necessity, approximations.
Problem Number Three is that Bruce is clearly inconsistent in recording sail changes. This is perfectly understandable. He was sailing master of a small vessel with 25 crew aboard, trying to stay alive and afloat in the unforgiving North Atlantic in all the wrong months of the year. He had much to do. He records that he reefs sails that he has not recorded ever setting. He lets one or more days pass without recording any sail sets or changes, yet then makes a remark that makes it difficult to assume that his sail plan was simply carried on from the last entry. Again, inferences must be made, and the unavoidable element of guesswork must be accepted.
So, in the end, my tables of percentages to the first decimal point would be most misleading if I did not qualify them with disclaimers like these; they imply a degree of precision of interpretation that is simply beyond our grasp at this point. We can say the same about so many such quantitative exercises in history—perhaps most of them. We have to take care not to ask more of our analyses than they can provide, and we must make clear to our readers what we have done, what assumptions we have made, and why.
Having said that, I am excited about what my analyses ultimately suggest. I am fortunate in that I should have the opportunity to discuss the results with the captain of the current Sultana; insights from his experience should clarify much of the uncertainty that remains, though even then, there are sure to be judgment calls of Bruce’s whose reasoning will elude us. We cannot, in the end, get inside another person’s mind. We can only know what they thought to tell us. Even then, that’s only what they wanted to record, or their own understanding of why they did what they did, and there’s likely even more to it than that. But that is a discussion for another post.
I’m deep off into transcribing parts of a ship master’s log. There’s the early, painful period of learning the writer’s handwriting (which in this case is particularly bad), and with any eighteenth-century script, learning the orthography, frequently by comparing one weird character to a similar one somewhere else in the text, thinking about context, until finally it clicks and you say “oh, it’s a Q!” I’m past that; it’s uncommon now that he stumps me. And, since I’m accustomed to the pattern of the content, and of his phrasing, I can transcribe pretty fast, despite the complete lack of punctuation and proper capitalization.
So, with the actual work now just being a matter of getting through it, and being careful, my brain has time to think about what to do with it. I’ve found myself thinking about how to use it, how to relate it to the secondary reading, what other primary-source material I may need, and how the book is going to take shape. Is it going to prove worth doing, or is the original purpose going to elude me, ultimately? Who’s going to publish it? How do I write it so that they will?
After I knocked off work yesterday, and had a little Brain Adjustment Juice (rum), I told myself to back off of all that. I reminded myself that we work like scientists; we have to let the evidence lead us where it will. Let the sources speak whatever they have to tell. We can’t do that if our own noise is getting in the way in our heads. It takes courage; we’re turning over control of the process to people who died over two hundred years ago, the only remains of whom are the scratchings on these pages, and what those scratchings represent and convey to us from across all that time and disparity of experience. If we’re going to hear all that, we have to be quiet and listen carefully. We can’t analyze the data until we have the data. We don’t impose our preconceived agendas on the evidence. The evidence may well demand a revision of any such agendas. That’s OK; that’s how we write good history.
I’m taking a short break from “real” work to write this little blog post, mostly because composing prose makes me happy and compiling spreadsheets is just work—work like weeding a flower bed, or rolling coins—monotonous, tedious, dry, dull. But also meticulous—every little detail—which makes it worse, compared to, say, pounding nails into a fence or scrubbing a deck. Mustering the discipline to keep at it, hour after hour and day after day, is also work. But this is the work that makes the payoff of doing history (or archaeology) possible. When you read the book or watch the documentary or tour the exhibit, you don’t see the mountain of tedious work that lies beneath that final product.
This is not a moan-and-groan. What I’m doing right now is going through the master’s log of HM Schooner Sultana—or, rather, my notes on it, as I went through the log itself over ten tedious work days last September in Maryland—and compiling a spreadsheet of every recorded encounter she had with another vessel in her four years on station in British America, from fall of 1768 to fall of 1772. I’m in the summer of ’71 right now and I’m up to Line 243. Date, location, vessel name, vessel type, from, to, cargo, action, outcome. Again. Again. And again.
But such tedious compilations are the gold mines of history. From this spreadsheet, I can think of so many interesting extrapolations already. What percentage of vessels stopped were schooners like her? What percentage of those were on coastal routes? Island routes? There’s a whole list in my head—and soon, there will be a list on paper. The fun is in manipulating the data to answer questions—but first, you have to compile the data. And that may be tedious, but it also requires understanding the source material. I could hire someone off the street to enter words in a spreadsheet, but I can’t hire someone off the street to understand what they’re reading so they will know what words to put in the spreadsheet. I’m trained to do that, and I’m the one who read the original source document. So it’s up to me, and knowing what I’m going to be able to get out of this keeps me going with it.
There will be more spreadsheets to do. And more source documents to spend more tedious days reading. But, in the end, it will all result in a great book that will bring this all back to life. My parents grew up knowing that if you wanted a good cotton crop, you’d be spending day after hot exhausting day chopping weeds with a hoe in the fields. This is a far cry from chopping cotton, but the analogy holds, at least so far as it can, given that we’re talking about work you do sitting on your butt in an air-conditioned room. Speaking of which, it’s good to get up frequently, blink your eyes, walk around, do something else for a few minutes. And then get back to it. The only way to the end starts with Line 244.
15 June 1771, near Sandy Hook, Diana, brig, Liverpool, New York, deal goods, F[ired 3 guns]
So quick in fact that I’m going to bullet-list it:
It so happens that two books are coming out on the same day–30 April–the edited collection to which I have contributed, and my first monograph. The Publicationspage has all the details; I just updated that. (Link will open in a new window.)
I am getting toward the end of the stack of secondary-source reading for Book 2. I probably have another six weeks. Speaking of Book 2…
As I wrote on the Publications page, and sent out over social media, I was unable to secure funding for the second necessary archival work trip to Maryland this summer, despite applying for all the grants and fellowships I knew about. So, to keep the project on schedule, as I’ve already applied for a big 2021 grant for Book 3, I started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the necessary $2,100, or as much of it as I could. If you would like to know more about that, it’s on the Publications page, and there’s a link at the bottom of each page of the website. We’re about 2/3 of the way there. Contributions in any amount are appreciated and will be properly acknowledged. (Links will open in new windows.)
I hope everyone reading this is well and getting along all right. We’re fine here.
We got home two days ago from a ten-day research trip to Chestertown, Maryland, funded by a Carter Fellowship from the Early American Industries Association. My second book project is a “biography” of sorts of HM Schooner Sultana, built at Boston in 1767 and used by the Royal Navy as a customs-enforcement interceptor on the Eastern Seaboard between 1768 and 1772. Because the Navy prepared accurate draughts of her hull and rig, made a detailed inventory of her equipment and specifications, and preserved her logs and muster books, we have a record of this vessel unheard-of for a similar vessel in normal merchant service. Based on that information, a dedicated group of people designed, built, and launched a replica of Sultana between 1999 and 2001, and she has operated as an educational vessel on the Chesapeake ever since, supported by the Sultana Education Foundation. During the design process, the Sultana group ordered copies of all the official documents pertaining to the original schooner from the Public Record Office in London. It is those documents that, thanks to the generous hospitality of Drew McMullen, Executive Director of the Foundation, and his staff,who were all friendly and supportive, I have been allowed to read.
Sultana had both a sailing master, David Bruce, and a commander–Lt. John Inglis, an American who would remain loyal and eventually retire from the Navy as an Admiral. On this visit, I got through Bruce’s log, which covers every day of the schooner’s constant service from July of 1768 until early December 1772. Through the sometimes-almost-inscrutable handwriting and “creative” orthography, I got a terse summary of day-to-day events far too demanding for our modern sensibilities of risk tolerance and comfort, from the harrowing gale-lashed passage from Deptford to Halifax, to the boarding and searching of merchant ships up and down the East Coast of North America in all conditions, keeping a crew of 25 on a vessel too small for that many men, with rampant desertions, occasional impressment, a few floggings, and at least two deaths, before a second transatlantic in the other direction which, like the first, almost proved disastrous.
Sultana was part of an effort to enforce the Townshend Acts, themselves intended as instruments of a reformed British Empire able to meet the substantial challenges of its sudden post-1763 expansion and its depleted Treasury. She and her sister vessels were effective–perhaps too effective–in this role, subjecting British American maritime commerce to a constant scrutiny to which it was not accustomed. The resentment created by the use of naval vessels for commercial policing ratcheted up tensions between London and America–and between Americans of differing stations and opinions–to a dangerous degree.
I am applying for funding to return to Chestertown for two more weeks of reading, and I will post updates on this project here from time to time. Thanks for reading, and if you are interested in knowing more about Sultana and the Foundation that operates her replica, visit http://www.sultanaeducation.org.