It’s only fitting to begin a new blog, on a new website with a story about another beginning.
I’ve often said that I’ve been sailing my entire life, and the truth is that I’ve only been half joking. My parents were in the New Zealand version of sea cadets as teenagers, and my mother for a time worked at a resort in southern New Zealand that focused on deep-sea sport fishing. After marriage, graduate degrees, a move to Toronto, my (as yet unburdened by children) parents purchased a Hobie 16 which they crewed together in regattas around Ontario. I was born in April of 1986 and I’m mostly sure that my mum was joking when she said that I had been duct-taped to the trampoline. My parents didn’t even waste one season before beginning my instruction in the One True Faith – that of the sea.
It was a few years later that I began to explore, or create a connection with naval history on my own. I was very young, I think no older than seven or eight years old, when I found my father’s collection of CS Forester’s Hornblower novels. They were the inexpensive Penguin editions, the paperbacks with the bright orange spines. And when I found them they were in fine condition despite I’m sure being from his childhood. I can see them as they sat on the second shelf, just where I could see them and pull them off the shelves. My Dad didn’t have the entire collection but they were certainly enough to get me hooked. The first book I read was The Happy Return; although not the first book in the series it was the first that Forester wrote. I loved those books and quite literally read each of those books so often that they fell apart. At the time I had no idea what the title referred to, but it’s a funny coincidence that my PhD research is in many ways defined by King Charles II’s “Happy Return”.
From that point my love for and interest in the sea blossomed. In the sixth grade I did a school project on James Cook, and around the same time, the highlight of a stop in Philadelphia while on a family vacation was a trip to the USS Olympia. When I was 14 I asked my mother to arrange for me to sail aboard a tall ship, and that summer I spent two weeks sailing as a trainee on the sail training brigantines STV Pathfinder and TS Playfair. A winter of lectures and work later transformed me into a Petty Officer. The next winter I was promoted to Chief Petty Officer, which I remained for two years. My time at Brigs was fundamentally important to who and what I am, and really imprinted upon me many of the experiences and perspectives allow me to interpret and study the history of the age of sail. I was voracious reader, going through anything I could get my hands on including the Bolitho books, books about maritime disasters and even my Dad’s Admiralty Manual of Seamanship, Vol I and III which I read from every day as if they were the daily lessons.
Somehow, I strayed from the path. Although at home and in my spare time I was always reading about the sea, I neglected my historical education. The only history course I took in high school was the mandatory Grade 10 course in Canadian history. When I applied to Universities, it was for programmes in Computer Science, and not History. I didn’t entirely neglect the subject, and in my second and third years every single elective was a history course. Eventually a realization that I had zero interest (or ability) in the mathematical fundamentals of computer science but on the other hand loved the academic discussion that were part of then more advanced history courses I had taken. Even then I was still focusing as much as I could on naval history. I wrote papers on topics ranging from the Caribbean Piracy to the Battle of Tsushima, and John Hawkins to the Battle of Jutland. The moment I committed myself to the study of history came midway through the second semester of my third year as I watched a production of the University’s theater group. The very next morning I made an appointment with my academic counsellor to switch programs, and I have never looked back.
I would not be where I am today, or have the opportunities I have to study such incredible things, without the amazing and direct influence of my parents when I was young. Happy Birthday, Dad, and thank you.
My intention is to use this blog to discuss some of the more interesting things that I work on, or come across during my course of my studies. By no means will I pretend that any of the arguments I will present in future instalments are complete. In fact I am more likely to write about the issues, the arguments and the questions that I am finding the most difficult to approach. Suggestions, criticisms, comments are more than welcome. I’m convinced that the best way for any historian to improve the quality of their work is to listen very carefully when others disagree, and I will listen very carefully to disagreements here.
My next post will discuss my first forays into the most basic elements of Digital Humanities with what I call my “Thirty Ships Project,” and will be posted next week.