Reinventing Maritime History

Article excerpt

IN THE INTRODUCTION to his magisterial six-volume book, The Royal Navy (1897), W.L. Clowes complained that the emergence of naval history as a serious subject for research had up to then been held back by an endless sequence of hagiographies and accounts of naval battles. These were fine on a popular level but, he argued, sea power was more than tactics and heroes. Although its importance had been ignored by the academic establishment, sea power was at the centre of a proper understanding of the history of Britain and, indeed, of civilisation itself (the two terms were used nearly synonymously at the time). In order for this despised Cinders to become Cinderella and take her rightful place at the academic ball she had to reinvent herself.

And reinvent herself she did around the strategic, technological and administrative aspects of the Navy, for it was mainly as naval history that the subject evolved as an academic discipline during the twentieth century. Today we are once more entering an exciting period of change, and centres of maritime research have been established at several British universities to encourage and cater for the new demand for more inclusive maritime history courses. This time, maritime museums working with university partners are playing a key role in helping to bring about the transition. Only five years or so ago, maritime historians were still making the argument that, as a sub-discipline of history, its definition encompassed more than naval history and that naval historians should unite with specialists in shipping to bring maritime history into the mainstream. But maritime museums in particular, aiming to make their collections more accessible and their sources more relevant to a range of subjects, have helped to push the debate much further. Museums have shown that they can be `neutral' spaces. Distanced from the competition between academic departments, museum conferences and seminars can and do attract researchers from a variety of disciplines, demonstrating how wide a range of different perspectives can be brought to bear on a chosen topic. In this their activities have mirrored the recent trend towards the convergence of subject disciplines, and have also benefited from multidisciplinary interests focusing on such areas as material culture and post-colonialism.

Maritime historians have always tended to look at a range of sources, both three-and two-dimensional, and were perhaps less likely to fall into the habit of relying mainly on textual sources, inserting the occasional image into the final product by way of light relief. But the recent inter-disciplinary interest in the traditional subject matter of maritime history has brought a greater awareness of theory to a subject that is certainly under-theorised. Paradoxically, just when the public's general awareness of the sea and maritime issues seems to be at an all-time low (probably because most people's experience of the sea is now reduced to an occasional trip on a cross-Channel ferry), academic interest in Britain's maritime past is definitely on the increase. This is not surprising, since it is as difficult now as it was in Clowes's day to reach an understanding of many aspects of British history without an awareness of the importance of the sea, and the huge impact that the Navy and shipping had on the lives of people who never went to sea themselves. …