Thursday, 14 March 2013

An interesting direction for maritime history?



It has been over ten years since Karen Wigen and Jessica Harland-Jacobs asked ‘what if seas were shifted from the margins to the centre of academic vision?’[1] Although it was in a geography journal, it is a powerful question for anyone studying maritime spaces. Perhaps this is a tad loaded, as I have attempted though some of my work to utilise this method, but its strikes me that such an approach to maritime, and especially naval, history, might bring new perspectives to many areas of research. After all, the Royal Navy’s primary activity was at sea, not in offices at the Admiralty or in Whitehall, nor in the shipyards that built warships. That is not to suggest that histories of the Admiralty, or indeed naval technology, do not have a place in naval history, but that different approaches may enlighten and supplement these histories. Focusing on the maritime spaces that naval ships inhabited (and in this I include those places on the fringes of oceans such as bases, ports and coaling stations), the activities of the navy, its part in global politics, the actions it was involved with, and the infrastructure that allowed it to function become more important. They are also put into a global context, where distance, foreign dangers, and geographical features help to explain the priorities and actions of the navy. For instance, knowing the French had several bases on Madagascar helps explain the importance of Mauritius, just as the impending creation of the Panama Canal helps explain the renewed importance of Jamaica. Furthermore, by examining the vast distances between British stations abroad, it is easy to understand the need for telegraphic communication, and indeed why the Admiralty were concerned about these places being attacked by cruisers. By examining trade routes, it becomes clearer why stations such as Simon’s Town on the Cape of Good Hope, Suez, and Hong Kong were important.  This approach can also explain the cultural and social aspects of the navy, by exploring the hybrid and contested nature of the places that sailors found themselves in, especially at stations far away from home. Certainly it would help to better knit together histories of empire and histories of the navy. These are merely examples for the period 1870-1914, on which I have focused, but I am sure that this could be fruitful for other periods too. Perhaps these histories have already been written and I missed the boat?

Anyway, I would be curious to know what you think. Does this sound interesting/useful/crazy?



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