Friel, Ian. Britain and the Ocean Road: Shipwrecks & People, 1297-1825. Pen & Sword Books, 2020. ISBN: 978156738363, 224 pages, £25.00 GPS.
By Deborah Kilroy
Britain and the Ocean Waves is the first part of Ian Friel’s two-volume study of British shipwrecks that, in various ways, considers the development – and decline – of Britain’s influence at sea. Starting with the disastrous crossing of an English fleet to the Zwin estuary in 1297, this first volume covers almost every aspect of British maritime activity up to 1825, with eight different wrecks illustrating different arenas: the Trade’s Increase for the early development of the East India Company and Britain’s rise to worldwide economic hegemony; the Great Yarmouth ships and the Regent for the start of a royal navy and le Berwick for the triumph of that navy in the Age of Sail; the three Resolutions for the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy; the Cog Anne and HMS Fury for Britain’s adventurous reaches into ‘unknown’ waters; Eliza for slavery. Each chapter is discrete, able to be read as a single, individual story, yet when taken as a whole the book forms a coherent narrative that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Friel’s choice of shipwrecks is refreshing, as well as understandable. With so much written about so few, there could be little new or original in covering the old ground of the Mary Rose or the Queen Anne’s Revenge, for example. In concentrating on lesser-known wrecks, it is likely there will be something new for even well-versed readers, and Friel’s hope is to provide impetus to archaeologists looking for those vessels mentioned – although there is little consideration of the perilous situation of wrecks at sea or of the need for better conservation. Furthermore, by refusing to chase after the spectacular and dramatic, the body count is relatively low; in fact, many wrecks were survived by most, if not all, of the crew. Friel, therefore, avoids the ghoulishness of recounting the annihilation of entire crews, bringing balance to the usually morbid tales of disaster. Britain and the Ocean Road does not relish descriptions of the deaths of the unfortunates who perished, but looks at their impact during their lives. The victims are not just defined by the manner in which they died, but by the manner in which they lived. In doing so, the wider implications of the wrecks are considered, including the impact on local, national and international treaties and policies, how the sponsors coped, and the effects and suffering of families and businesses left behind.
This approach has allowed room for original research in a crowded field. Friel has conducted meticulous archival research on the people involved. The social history of otherwise nameless people is told not just through the usual naval and administrative records, but through wills, church and manorial accounts, letters, even place names. Individual characters, such as the sponsor of a fifteenth-century pilgrim ship Robert Sturmy, come to life (pp. 34-9). These feed into the broader topic of the development of England and Britain as a state after 1707. Thus, the chapter on the Great Yarmouth ships covers the economic positions of Great Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports, using that as a means to discuss the herring and wine trades, the place of wine in society, and the role of the medieval aristocracy, as well as international relations, the Norman Conquest, the Angevin Empire, and medieval lawlessness. As such, Britain and the Ocean Road morphs from a maritime history into a complete social, economic, and political history of Britain from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Friel, however, does not neglect information on the mechanics of shipbuilding, the conditions experienced by sailors and passengers, maritime trade, and the role of dockyards and their administrators. There are discussions on the development of navigational techniques, the structures of ships and sail, and the changing nature of naval warfare. There are maps of battle positions and sea routes, and there are illustrations of ships throughout the ages. But all of this is background: the shipwrecks are drivers of a grander narrative.
Despite the originality of the project and the depth of the research, the nature of Britain and the Ocean Road necessarily limits its detail, and thus its relevance to an academic market. Although intended as a cross-over book, and as inspiration for future research, it is very much a popular history. The informal language and referencing style are suited to the general reader more than to the professional. Its size and accessibility make it a pleasure to read, while its approach and content add a reminder that aspects of history should not always be studied in isolation. Friel’s book cannot be considered maritime history in its purest form, or even as a work of popular history on shipwrecks in the style of Sam Willis’s book of that title.1 Instead, it belongs much more to the ‘History in 100 objects’ category, made fashionable by the likes of Neil Oliver and Neil MacGregor.2 Its appeal and reach are broad enough to attract readers for whom maritime history has previously held little interest, and absorbing enough to encourage them to study the genre further. Friel’s stated aim of inspiring others has therefore definitely been achieved; some will be itching to dirty their hands with new digs, but a great many more will be persuaded to consider the field of maritime history—and how it links to wider historical narratives—afresh.
Deborah Kilroy (@GetHistory) is a freelance historian specialising in seventeenth century Britain. In 2020 she won the international ICHRP Emile Lousse prize for her article in Parliaments, Estates and Representation and writes for a number of other historical magazines and journals, as well as managing her own website, www.gethistory.co.uk.