Rethinking Maritime History from Below

Posted on Tue., Oct. 24, 2023 by James Davey and Kevin Dawson
A painting of a man sitting under a tree canopy with a canoe on the shore next to him.

Un nègre fugitif (Figure 90) in Pierre Jacques Benoit’s Voyage à Surinam; description des possessions néerlandaises dans la Guyane, 1839. | Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

Maritime history is undergoing a long-overdue academic resurgence as historians and literary scholars discover new stories of humankind’s relationship to the sea, including the experiences of sailors, transported prisoners, enslaved people, and Indigenous Americans.

In recent years, scholars who focus on people of African, Asian, Pacific Island, and European descent have begun focusing on how these people engaged with oceans and freshwater systems, looking at voyages, navies, and mariners of all descriptions as fertile topics for analysis. It’s been overdue. Studies of maritime history had typically focused on traditional and standard topics. Today, a new form of maritime history is being practiced, one that delves into the histories across a range of ethnicities and geographies, as well as one that looks across multiple disciplines to incorporate more intellectual rigor, ask new questions, and present new findings.

This revival comes as the result, in part, of the tireless efforts of historians who have thought about the maritime world “from below”—that is, examining who’s not on the deck, but rather, who and what is below it: enslaved people, for instance, or smuggled goods. Piracy, smuggling, slavery, and warfare are but a few subjects that are once again drawing scholarly attention, making this is an ideal time to organize an event that explores and celebrates a revitalized approach to this history. The “Maritime History from Below: Rethinking Societies and the Sea” conference, which takes place Nov. 3–4 in Haaga Hall, does just that.

The Huntington is the perfect place for a conference that pushes the boundaries of what maritime history is and what it should be. The institution is home to extensive maritime archives that comprise one of North America’s most important collections on the history of seafaring. The conference precedes the upcoming and highly anticipated Huntington exhibition “Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight,” which speaks to some of the conference’s themes. Further, The Huntington provides support for maritime studies through its annual Kemble Fellowship, created for scholars who examine such topics as the history of oceans and oceanography, coastlines, global trade, and migrations, among others.

Although we come to the subject of maritime history from different academic traditions, we are both committed to exploring the past “from below.” We organized this conference to serve as a state-of-the-field event that would reframe and extend the discipline.

Illustration of a river with boats and a fort, surrounded by trees and homes.

Paramaribo, Surinam, 1808, in John A. Waller’s A Voyage in the West Indies, 1820. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The conference brings together scholars whose interests are chronologically and thematically diverse, allowing for explorations of contrasts and continuities across geographies, time periods, and institutions. Take, for example, the opening panel, “Solidarity and Resistance at Sea.” Niklas Frykman, from the University of Pittsburgh, will discuss hydrarchy (the way people are organized on a ship) and offer new insights into scholarship on protest and collaboration. [Dawson will consider the ethnic makeup of crews and how they form “communities of belonging.”]

The conference also will explore oral and written histories that have been passed down through generations, shedding new light on the history of Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the sea. Akeia Gomes of Mystic Seaport Museum will consider African and Dawnland (New England shore) histories, while Josh Reid of the University of Washington will focus on Pacific explorations by Indigenous individuals. The conference will then address maritime economies, with UCLA’s Tawny Paul and the University of Exeter’s Helen Berry offering papers on the complex and nuanced ways men and women were able to turn maritime opportunity to their economic advantage.

The second day of the conference will begin with a panel that examines the challenging task of recovering sailors’ voices: Indiana State University’s Isaac Land will discuss sailor memoirs, and University of Cambridge’s Sara Caputo will look at medical sources. [Davey will investigate courts martial records.] A subsequent panel will consider some of the new approaches that could expand maritime history in the coming decades. Jason Kelly, from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, will discuss oceanic networks during the current geological period, the Anthropocene, the age when human activity has had a substantial impact on global climate and ecosystems. Mary Conley, from the College of the Holy Cross, will talk about same-sex disciplinary charges across the British Royal Navy. The conference concludes with a roundtable discussion on the future of maritime research in an effort to help shape the exciting scholarship to come.

Sketch of a man and a woman on a shore.

Mather Brown (1761–1831), Sailor on Shore-leave, no date, ink and wash heightened with white on paper, 9 1/8 x 7 3/8 in. (23.2 x 18.7 cm). Purchased with funds from the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Funding for this conference has been provided by the John Haskell Kemble Maritime Fellowship Endowment and the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute.

James Davey is a lecturer in naval and maritime history at the University of Exeter and the 2020–21 Kemble Fellow in Maritime History at The Huntington. He is the author of Tempest: The Royal Navy and the Age of Revolutions (Yale University Press, 2023).

Kevin Dawson is associate professor of history at the University of California, Merced, and the 2022–23 Kemble Fellow in Maritime History at The Huntington. He is the author of Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), and he is working on a new book, Seizing the Helm: Black Ship Pilots and the Creation of Trans-Atlantic Communities of Belonging.