Sign Posts: Maritime History

By Cordingly, David | History Today, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Sign Posts: Maritime History


Cordingly, David, History Today


SIGN POSTS: MARITIME HISTORY

Maritime history is one of those specialist areas, like architectural history or garden history, which has had to struggle to gain attention. Thanks to a wave of television programmes, garden history has enjoyed a boom in recent years, but maritime history has not had such an easy time. In Waterstone's and WH Smiths the maritime and naval books are hidden among the acres of shelves devoted to 'Military History', and fine studies of Nelson and other naval heroes are shelved under the same heading instead of the more obvious and accessible heading of 'Biography'. Very rarely does a non-fiction work on a maritime subject find a place on those coveted tables at the front of the shop.

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This apparent contempt for maritime history is curious because there are plenty of signs that ships and the sea and naval heroes and underwater archaeology are still extremely popular subjects. James Cameron's Titanic of 1997 (the third movie devoted to the subject) proved to be the highest grossing film of all time--while every museum exhibition devoted to the subject has attracted queues of visitors. The recent ITV television series Hornblower had good reviews and respectable viewing figures. Patrick O'Brian's historical novels now have a cult following and have introduced many new readers to the mysteries of life above and below deck in ships of the Nelson era. Peter Weir's excellent film Master and Commander, which was loosely based on two of O'Brian's novels, earned serious attention at the Oscars and has joined the pantheon of films which enjoy regular repeats on television. And Dava Sobel's Longitude (Fourth Estate, 1995) showed that a book on a technical maritime subject could become an international bestseller.

Anniversaries of great maritime events occasionally remind the British public that we are an island race which has been saved from invasion at critical times by the stretch of water separating us from the Continent. The Spanish Armada exhibition staged by the National Maritime Museum in 1988 proved a blockbuster, with crowds of people having picnics on the lawns outside. More recently the bicentenary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar were a useful reminder that Britain really did rule the waves in the years following Nelson's annihilating defeats of the French and Spanish fleets. Thanks to Colin White's clever drip-feeding of new information about Nelson to the media, the interest was kept up for months, culminating in the massed assembly of warships for the International Fleet Review, which took place on a windy day in the Solent in June 2005.

The finding and excavating of shipwrecks can often be front page news. Robert Ballard's discovery of the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck made headlines and so did the raising of the Mary Rose off Portsmouth and the recovery of the Wasa in Sweden. Sunken treasure ships have always attracted keen interest. And so have the pirates, a phenomenon that can only be explained by people's fond memories of books such as Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Swallows and Amazons and a number of pirate films, rather than any knowledge of the real pirates whose lives were usually short and brutal, while the recent exploits of the pirates off Somalia are symptomatic of an alarming increase in attacks worldwide.

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