The history of the sea is going through an exciting period of rejuvenation and reinvention, evidenced by a number of recent innovative conferences, not least the 2017 ‘State of Maritime History Research’ held at the University of Greenwich. Across one body of water, our colleagues in Germany have also been thinking hard about things maritime, and a major gathering of German and international scholars was held in the historic Herzog August Bibliothek in the chocolate box town of Wolfenbüttel from 5 to 7 October 2017, generously supported by the German Research Foundation.
Organised by the Working Group on Early Modern History in the German Historians’ Association, this three-day maritime extravaganza was entitled ‘Das Meer: Maritime Welten in der Frühen Neuzeit / The Sea: Maritime Worlds in the Early Modern Period’. Twenty-three panels manned by a range of early career and established historians and curators, as well as maritime professionals, sought to explore some broad questions about the role of the sea in early modern history (c.1450-1800).
Schloss Wolfenbüttel, one of the conference venues
The conference dealt with some of the standard sources and ideas of maritime history, thinking about the sea as a contact zone between cultures, a commercial and migration superhighway, and, of course, a site of political contention. Yet the organisers also wanted to get the participants to think about, to use their words, ‘the perceptions, imaginations, and experiences of those living by, on, and off the sea’. This approach produced some of the most exciting papers, but also raised a number of issues.
As a conference with consecutive panels, I didn’t get to see everything that I wanted to, but what I did see provided much food for thought. The first panel on connected seas and oceans with examples from the North Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic set the tone for a conference that was genuinely comparative, and thoughtful in the comparisons it made. ‘Connectivity’ is a something of a buzzword, but here the links between the papers in terms of law and logistics were fascinating. My own panel, organised by the brilliant Dr Isabelle Schürch, thought about ports and their solid and liquid hinterlands as spaces of ‘transfer and transformation’, with examples from New Spain, Istanbul, and St Helena.
One of my favourite panels came on the morning of the second day, entitled ‘pirates matter / pirate matters’. Moving beyond the well-worn tropes of popular culture, this panel really showed what different frameworks could do to really help us understand experiences and perceptions of the sea and life at sea, from Richard Blakemore’s study of the role of violence to Claire Jowitt’s queering of piracy, to Daniel Lange’s excellent paper on English pirate maps in the later 17th century. Another superb contribution came with ‘a history of drowning and lifesaving in the 18th century’, where all the panellists had come to the topic of lifesaving through previous work on the history of suicide. A special mention must go to Charlotte Colding Smith of the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven, whose fellow panellists for the panel ‘Natur an Bord: Schiffstransport und frühneuzeitliche Wissensgeschichte [Nature on board: Maritime transport and the history of early modern knowledge]’ had been stranded due to a major storm disrupting transport in northern Germany. She gave her paper on the display of whales in early modern collections nonetheless, and it was one of the highlights of the conference.
The keynote by Neil Safier of the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island – another major repository of early modern learning – presented a number of fascinating ideas and challenges. He spoke about the success of the ‘oceanic turn’ in early modern studies that has challenged the dominance of the land, but at the same time, he argued, it has become clearer that we cannot talk about oceans without talking about continents – and vice versa. This oceanic turn, that has moved us away from stories dominated by the state and by swashbucklers to more mundane but important stories of ordinary sailors, indigenous peoples, and marine life itself, also then links the sea more closely with the land.
Before the keynote in the August Herzog Bibliothek
This is important. But it also poses problems for those of us who think about and value the sea as a distinct set of spaces, who appreciate links to the land but also understand that solid ground continues to dominate historical writing. Many of the papers at the conference in Wolfenbüttel were only tenuously maritime. In several presentations, the words ‘sea’, ‘water’, or ‘sailor’ weren’t even mentioned. This is the challenge of dealing with the ‘perceptions’ and ‘imaginations’ element of maritime history, and when ‘experiences’ become perhaps a bit too abstract. This is not to say that such approaches do not provide valuable insights. Rather, it is to say that we must perhaps be more precise in what we think we mean about this ever-challenging term, ‘maritime history’.
Dr Michael Talbot
Lecturer in the History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Middle East
Department of History, Politics and Social Sciences
University of Greenwich