Richard J. Blakemore and James Davey, eds. The Maritime World of Early Modern Britain, Amsterdam University Press, 2020. ISBN: 9789463721301, Hardback, 324 pages, € 115,00. Available as eBook PDF at € 114,99.
By Dr. Samuel McLean
This is the inaugural volume of the new Maritime Humanities 1400-1800: Cultures of the Sea series and it is an excellent first statement in that series. The very high quality of the papers is exceeded only by their diversity of topics and approaches. Further, of the thirteen named contributors (including the editors of the volume), seven are women. This is the first time I’ve seen a maritime history volume of this nature where the ratio was even close to parity. So, from reading the Table of Contents my expectations were very high—and met.
The book opens with an explanation from the Editors about several of their choices—notably the use of “Britain” throughout, the use of ‘it’ instead of ‘she’ to refer to vessels, and the absence of ‘HMS’. None of these are particularly contentious, but that they listed their editorial choices to begin the volume—and indeed to set the table is lovely, beyond commendable. I hope that these explanations (and indeed, many of their choices) become standard practice going forward. The Editors also make a particularly fine effort in their introduction. The footnotes are a goldmine for beginning to research early modern maritime history, but I also very much personally appreciate their efforts at British-Inherent-Maritime-Power myth-busting.
The ten included papers are on a predictably wide group of topics. They begin with Bernhard Klein’s discussion of the service life of the Minion, which served in the navies (and commercial ventures) of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. This is a well-done biographical narrative. For my taste, I wish the author had mentioned the slave-trading voyages in the chapter’s introduction. They aren’t avoided, but as I primarily associate the Minion with John Hawkin’s slave-trading voyage, it seemed fairly odd that this wasn’t mentioned for several pages. Addressing these earlier would also remove any confusion about other (earlier) trading voyages to Africa.
Craig L. Lambert and Gary P. Baker, with their investigation of English, Welsh and Channel islands shipping in 1571/72, and Claire McLoughlin’s discussions of Ibero-Scottish trade, 1585-1604, are the other quite traditional papers in this collection, and they are both excellently done. I very much enjoyed the methodological discussion of how Lambert and Baker identified the fleet, although I wish there had been a graphic or map to illustrate the size and disposition of the fleet. McLoughlin’s study is wonderfully comprehensive, dealing with Spanish interests in the Azores and the Netherlands as well.
Alan James and Claire Jowitt use Sir Walter Ralegh as the anchor for two very different but complimentary discussions. Alan looks at the influence upon Ralegh of French Huegenots and in particularly Lancelot Voisin de La Popelinière, and successfully argues that there was a greater theoretical and geopolitical influence in addition to the technical and professional influence described by other historians of this period. Jowitt’s chapter is a delightful discussion of theatre and shows that Ralegh seems to have been as large an influence on characters in theatre as Thomas Cochrane is reputed to be on twentieth century naval historical fiction. I would say that I’d love to see more of this in maritime history (referring to both papers), but frankly that statement applies equally to all of the papers in this collection. Thankfully, there are two more delightful examples of maritime cultural history with Rebecca Bailey’s discussions of representations of King Charles I and the Ship Money Fleets, and Meredith Greiling’s chapter on Scottish Church ship models. Every time I read a paper like Bailey’s (or like Jowitt’s), I regret that I never took any undergrad or MA level English Literature courses because the discussions and sources are fascinating. In this case, Bailey’s discussion of the masque Britannia Triumphans is a great example of probably the best approach to coming to grips with conception of a pre-Restoration “Royal Navy”, given the lack of institutional definitions that would be created later. I also very much think the illustrations and images are especially helpful for those like me who aren’t familiar with them. In this chapter, as in Alan James’, the author refers to another later chapter. I’ve never seen that before, and it’s lovely to see that the authors are fairly familiar with the other papers in the collection. Greiling’s chapter is a lovely view into her research, and the connections between seafarers, the places they travel, and the places they worshipped. I especially appreciate the author’s attention to detail and explanations on how the ship models were built to be viewed in a church, with dimensions and that would look normal from below and at sharp angles. The way that she describes the process of identifying the model from Aberdeen as representing a Dutch-built ship clearly communicates her process. The comparisons to the Burntisland church (model), and other models. I also very much appreciate the author’s providing an example of a Dutch pulpit in a church at Bo’ness, as another example of Dutch materiel in Scottish churches. This paper shows more important aspects of British-Dutch interaction and trade in the latter half of the seventeenth century.
Cheryl Fury’s chapter on trials aboard East India Company ships is particularly interesting as the Royal Navy’s legal existence following the restoration was mostly due to Parliament defining the Lord High Admiral’s jurisdiction in the 1661 Act for the Establishing Articles. As I read this, I keenly wished for there to be more, for Fury to continue to delve into the awkwardness of how a corporation that is in reality a state-like entity has the authority—or can gin up the authority—to punish crimes or execute employees within the context of their years-long voyages. She mentions that ‘generals’ have royally-granted authority. This seems to be the crux of the awkwardness and I would love to read Fury’s analysis of the chain-of-authority, corporate charters, and all the legal and bureaucratic definitions. Alas, that is not contained within this chapter.
It would be a mistake to view Elaine Murphy’s chapter on “Women and the navy in the British Civil Wars” as the ‘token women’s history’ entry. It begins with a discussion of women aboard ships, from Queen Henrietta Maria gunrunning for the Royalists, to women being blamed for the loss of Royalist warships in Ireland, to General Venables bringing his wife with him on the Commonwealth’s voyage to Jamaica and the West Indies. Even better is the second section, which addresses the opportunities the Civil War created for women to generate profits. Further, it’s very interesting to hear about women petitioning the Navy Board and Admiralty and other authorities outside the context of Pepys’ Diary. As always, Elaine’s work is of the very best quality.
The volume concludes with Philippa Hellawell’s discussion maritime knowledge and science. I love that she uses the term ‘systematization’, as its perfect and avoids all the hang-ups with other terms like ‘scientific’ or ‘professionalization’ that imply some kind of value judgment and improvement. It’s a great dialogue concerning the 1670s discussions about systems of classification (Southwell’s ‘Discourse on Water’ and William Petty’s ‘Treatise of Naval Philosophy’, for example). Further, she begins her conclusion reaching back to connect with previous chapters. This was the perfect paper to end the collection. I very much hope that Philippa continues to work on this area. I hope that in the future she engages with the recent work of Richard Endsor, particular The Master Shipwright’s Secrets, and Margaret Schotte’s Sailing School.
This book is a good statement on the future of maritime history in the early modern period. It should be widely made available and all students of maritime history be encouraged to read it and be inspired. This was also the most cohesive edited collection that I’ve read.
Dr. Sam McLean is a graduate of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His PhD thesis examined the relationship between military institutional development and state development following regime change, specifically between the Royal Navy and the English/British state from the Restoration in 1660, to the replacement of the Articles of War in 1749. Sam organizes and writes for Global Maritime History and is a Councillor for the Canadian Nautical Research Society. He can be found on Twitter at @Canadian_Errant. Samuel’s Blog on this Site is “From the Gunroom” although he is currently blogging about the ADM 8 Database Project.