Cheryl Fury, ed. The Social History of English Seamen 1650-1815. Woodbridge: The Boydell press, 2017. Hardback (£55.00, $95.00 US) ISBN 978-1-84383-953-8
By Erin Spinney, Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine (Oxford)
This edited collection is a follow up to the first Social History of English Seamen which covered the years from 1485-1649 also edited by Cheryl Fury. Primarily designed for teaching this book features summaries of research that have been published elsewhere, with the exception of new work by James Alsop on food and masculinity in the age of sail. The editor’s goal for the two volumes to “facilitate further study as well as university courses based on the English maritime community,” is certainly met here (p. 4). The chapters in this volume would make useful reading material for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as providing, helpful overviews of the state of British maritime social history of the long eighteenth-century.
Of particular interest to instructors looking for a general overview for their students is the first chapter “The Development of Sea Power, 1649-1815” co-written by Jeremy Black with Fury. This chapter charts shifts in geopolitical alliances throughout the various military and naval conflicts of the period, while also discussing the development of the British blockade, and naval administration. One of the concluding arguments that: “[i]t would indeed be possible to argue that the British navy of the period 1793-1815 was so much ahead of all other navies that it could be described as a modern navy, while other navies still were early-modern,” would provide much fodder for debate and discussion among undergraduates (p. 31).
Chapters Two and Three, by Bernard Capp and N. A. M. Rodger respectively, investigate seamen and officers in overlapping periods. Capp highlights both the hardships and unpredictability of being a naval or merchant seamen from 1650-1770 a period of political and religious change. Rodger takes his analysis from 1660 to 1815 to chart the evolution of the naval volunteers and officers into professional men, beginning with the “unprecedented and radical decision” of Charles II to require midshipman to pass a seamanship examination (p. 52). Both chapters also discuss the presence of women and boys on board ship.
Margarette Lincoln in Chapter Four “The Impact of Warfare on Naval Wives and Widows,” considers the lives of women left behind on land while their family members went to sea. Her analysis examines how the wives and female relatives of those at sea supported trade in naval-themed commemoratives, while also examining how wives and widows dealt with household management, financial matters, and their children’s education in the absence of their husbands. This chapter showcases an important facet of the maritime world, yet it must be noted that Lincoln’s primary focus is upon women in the middling and upper societal orders, leaving working-class women to be discussed only in generalities. Investigating the lives of women in the lower orders of society is a promising area of future research.
Chapter Five by B. R. Burg considers ship-board sodomy between officers and ship’s boys in the Georgian period. Burg uses the records of the Admiralty Courts to trace a pattern of transgenerational sex and contrast how punishment was often determined by the socio-political status of the officer rather than the boy’s testimony. Cashiering rather than death was the most common punishment, although the 29thArticle of War stated that such actions were punishable by death. Burg’s analysis also offers an interesting look at shipboard spaces and definitions of private and public environments.
Pertaining to my own personal research interests, Chapter Six by David McLean, chronicles changes in naval health and medicine from 1650 to 1815, including the development of naval hospitals, and improvements in ship-board surgery and the status of surgeons.
Economic historian Peter Earle considers the birthplace of naval men in Chapter Seven “The Origins and Careers of English Merchant Seamen in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries.” This chapter offers a comprehensive look at sailor’s origins from depositions given before the High Court of the Admiralty. Earle’s chapter pairs nicely with the following by David J. Starkey “Private Enterprise, Public Policy and the Development of Britain’s Seafaring Workforce, 1650-1815,” which considers patterns of supply and demand to suggest “how the seafarer contributed to and was affected by the development of Britain’s commercial, colonial and maritime interests from the 1650s to the early nineteenth century” (p. 149). The tables and graphs that accompany this chapter could also prove useful to future research.
As previously mentioned, Chapter Nine by Alsop is not a summary of the author’s previous research, but new scholarship. Alsop considers the complex question “what were the cultural meanings of a scarce and regulated commodity – food – within the virtually all male, hierarchically structured society of the eighteenth-century British sailor?” (p. 183). This question is answered through an examination of published narratives of time at sea and includes debunking popular tropes through the use of ships logs. The combination of literary analysis and archival research makes for an engaging socio-cultural study.
The final chapter by John C. Appleby charts the English states complicated relationship with pirates, privateers, and buccaneers, from 1650-1720. Appleby argues that shifting perceptions of piracy at the state level kept at bay “an anti-empire of sea rovers that preyed on the resources of ambitious, expanding and increasingly powerful metropolitan interests” (p. 214). At the same time, pirates through their own codes of operation challenged the hierarchical nature of the English (later British) navy.
Taken together the chapters in this volume provide a highly interesting volume of naval history. I would highly recommend it for the purpose for which it was designed – teaching – and could easily see myself using readings from it in undergraduate courses. It is also most useful for those researchers looking for an overview of current scholarship in the field.