The Mobilities of Ships

By Birtchnell, Thomas | The Geographical Review, January 2018 | Go to article overview

The Mobilities of Ships


Birtchnell, Thomas, The Geographical Review


THE MOBILITIES OF SHIPS. Edited by A. ANIM-ADDO, W. HASTY, and K. PETERS, vii and 120 pp, London, UK, Routledge, 2015, $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 9781138905207.

A popular beginning in many academic works is to establish that a lacuna--that is, an unfilled space or gap--exists in a scholarly area and to then attempt to fill it. The Mobilities of Ships is no exception here and from the get-go the special issue-cum-edited book launches down the slipway with just such an argument. As the book's abstract highlights, the "unexplored waters" the collection "tacks through" are the mobilities lying offshore, which so far in this social sciences paradigm represent a lacuna of research. Nautical literary devices are irresistable in a collection such as this and, to join in, the etymology of the word "lacuna"--obvious when pointed out--is "lake": an empty space. Indeed, a lacuna is apparent in cultural studies, sociology, and human geography in maritime socialities when movement is taken as an optic. Here then the authors in this volume represent a degustation of interests bridging a number of distinct disciplines bound by this maritime focus.

After the introductory first chapter, the following three chapters involve historical instances of maritime mobilities. In chapter 2, the editor and author William Hasty, from the University of Glasgow, details the tenebrous world of piracy in the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Ships have their own geographies and the close spaces on and below deck involve all sorts of interesting sociological issues arising from the micropolitics between prisoners, crews, mutineers, and the both tyrannizing and charismatic pirate leaders.

From felonious ships to quotidian ones, the chapter by editor and author Anyaa Anim-Addo, from the University of Leeds, is a survey of steamship technology in the British Empire. Before transoceanic undersea telecommunications cables, the world's major geopolitical entities were utterly dependent on the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company for the circulation of information, alongside telegraphy. Some engaging and lively accounts from archival sources set the scene for a broad survey of steamers in this era. The theme of rhythm is an overt concern for multiple chapters in this book and here the timetabling of vessels reveals frictions between operational and social rhythms. The synchronicity of mobility between various ports across unpredictable oceans inevitably causes delays and disruptions. The "uneven rhythms" reveal themselves as various "pauses" in transit to ensure rhythmic efficiency at the expense of social occasions: early and late arrivals would disrupt the Sabbath and were a cause of friction and complaint.

University of Liverpool's Andrew D. Davies, a coeditor too, also broaches the rhythms of mobilities in his chapter on the discipline of sailors within the spaces of the Royal Indian Navy in the mid-twentieth century. Here, immobility and immurement take precedence with politics "ashore" affecting offshore life. Interesting here is the various ways naval sailors were "conditioned" by the apolitical laws of the sea. While certainly disciplining sailors, the sea life did not prevent mutinies and relations between officers and those under their command were crucial in maintaining colonial cohesion.

The collection really finds its sea legs with the chapter by Emma Spence, a research student at Cardiff University in Planning and Geography. Her vessel of choice is the "super-yacht," the preserve of high-net-worth individuals. These ships, or boats, are fascinating precisely because they resist being tied to schedules between points on land. Spence's case studies from research with super-yacht crews reveals itineraries utterly decoupled from spatial restraints. For Spence's super-rich afloat a weekend jaunt depends not on geographical issues (how far is it?), but cultural ones (who is the DJ at the exclusive night club? …

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