A Very Palpable Hit: the State of Maritime Historical Research Conference 2017

Greenwich, 0900, Saturday 9 September: will anybody actually come? will the speakers be any good? will the technology work? is this, the first conference that the Society for Nautical Research has ever staged under its own auspices, going to be a success?

Greenwich, 1745, Saturday 9 September: yes, they did; yes, they were; yes, it did (eventually); yes, it was, and resoundingly so; and yes, never has a pint in the Trafalgar Tavern tasted so good.

I need to start with a disclaimer. I have a distinct bias when reviewing Saturday’s event, just as I had a vested interest in its success, as the idea for it had largely emerged out of the SNR’s Research and Programmes Committee, which I chair. Somehow, I found my way into the conference programme as an ‘organiser’, although others did the hard work – a special shout-out here to Cathy Pearce, effectively the liaison between SNR and the conference’s other co-host, the Greenwich Maritime Centre, whose staff did a tremendous job – and, in the unavoidable absence of the SNR’s chairman, Admiral Sir Kenneth Eaton, I had to do quite a bit of ‘compere’ work, e.g. making the opening remarks, chairing the final round table, etc. (Hence the welcome nature of the pint at the Trafalgar.) But don’t take my word for it that the day went well: search Twitter under #MarConf2017, and you’ll get a sense both of the nature and range of the papers, and of the terrific ‘buzz’ in the auditorium.

The first business of the day was the presentation of the Society’s first ever Anderson award for lifetime achievement to Professor John Hattendorf. I don’t intend to recite John’s many achievements and publications here, nor attempt to summarise his colossal contribution to maritime history; suffice to say that I’ve known him for some 30 years now, have worked with him on a number of projects, and was therefore hugely honoured to be able to present him with his Anderson medal. John then presented the day’s first keynote address, which immediately struck an upbeat, positive tone. In his view, the last 20 years or so have seen the discipline become ever broader and more vibrant, with more journals appearing and more dimensions being studied; therefore, it’s time for us to stop worrying about the state of the discipline, and get on with research and writing.

Energised by John’s uplifting assessment, we moved onto the first session proper, with two historians at opposite ends of the career spectrum – Susan Rose, the doyenne of medieval naval historians, and Benjamin Redding of the University of Warwick, who has only recently embarked on his postdoctoral career. Susan provided a broad analysis of university provision for maritime history in the UK, noting its very patchy nature (and its depressing but probably inevitable focus on pirates) and the distinct neglect of her own medieval maritime field. Despite this, a number of major projects, such as the French Oceanides project, several new databases, and ongoing archaeological work on the likes of the Newport Ship, were making a major difference and reaching wide audiences. Ben, in turn, focused on the issues involved in bringing early modern naval history – a subject obviously very close to my heart – before undergraduate audiences, particularly in an inland university, and noted how the study of naval history in general was becoming ever broader, and, perhaps, had less of a ‘stigma’ attached to it than was once the case; the Mary Rose, for instance, is a perfect teaching tool for the social and political histories of the Tudor age.

Moving into the next session, we had a ‘double act’ from Susann Leibich and Laurence Publicover, who were looking at maritime literary cultures. Laurence, a literary scholar, is interested in representations of the sea in literature, travel writing, etc, while Susann is a historian of reading, a sub-discipline which has seen an increasing recent emphasis on the importance of geography and place. They produced some fascinating quotations to show, in Laurence’s case, how complete landlubbers adjusted to their first experiences of sea voyages, and in Susann’s, how voyagers fell back on their reading (for instance, of the classics) to interpret what they saw around them. The two are working on a database of voyage diaries, which should provide some fascinating new evidence. This paper, like several others on the day, demonstrates conclusively how scholars who would never define themselves as ‘maritime historians’ are now interacting with, and providing hugely important new perspectives on, our discipline.

This was emphasised again in the next paper in this session, from Sam Robinson of the University of York, who provided a fascinating survey of the history of ocean science – a discipline which, for much of the 20th century, was hugely important for military reasons (providing the science that underpinned, for example, anti-submarine warfare in World War II, and undersea surveillance during the Cold War), and which is now arguably even more important as a source of evidence of climate change. Sam drew our attention to a number of important books in the field, to the social media hashtag #histocean, and to the website oceansciencehistory.wordpress.com – all of which will be receiving my serious attention from now on!

Last up in this session was Cathy Pearce, one of the conference organisers, who addressed the question ‘is coastal history maritime history?’ Cathy suggested that maritime history needs to engage more directly with the history of coasts, and discussed the sorts of questions that coastal historians are asking, for instance at the hashtag #coastalhistory: the nature and occupations of coastal people, the shape, depth and influence of coastal zones, the extent to which these zones extend inland, ‘coastal squeeze’ (where different uses of the coast conflict with each other), and so forth. All of these questions had particular resonance for me, who grew up on the coast and who still does a fair bit of work on the history of that coast. (Incidentally, Cathy’s talk was also the best illustrated of the conference, with some stunning photographs of coastal scenes, many of them of her own taking.)

And so to lunch, including the inevitable frantic networking, connecting Person A with Person B, etc etc…

Now a tip for conference organisers: you need to ensure that you schedule a post-lunch speaker who will be dynamic, entertaining, and will keep the audience awake, and few people fit that bill better than Professor Eric Grove, our second keynote speaker. As ever, Eric was brilliantly iconoclastic, demolishing the notion that the defeat of the U-boats in World War I was due primarily to convoy, and in World War II to the pace of allied shipbuilding. In the case of the former, he argues that the organisation of food supply was the most important factor, with the quantity of imports of wheat, oats, etc, actually at its highest in what is traditionally regarded as the ‘crisis’ quarter of 1917. In the second war, the hugely improved pace of ship repair was more important than shipbuilding as a factor in winning the Battle of the Atlantic (or battles, as would Eric would have it). This talk demonstrated that naval historians have to cast their nets far beyond the study of ships, and even further beyond what are traditionally seen as ‘naval’ sources, in order to get a fuller and more accurate picture.

We then had a session on the changing world of the maritime museum, with Claire Warrior, from the National Maritime Museum, looking at the changing ways in which polar exploration had been presented at the museum – from being completely ignored, to having a presence in a basement (albeit only from 1951 onwards), to the current ‘Death in the Ice’ exhibition about the Franklin expedition (well worth a visit, and it’s nice to see the name of the expedition member who I’ve researched standing alongside Sir John Franklin’s outside the museum!), to the new permanent gallery that will open in 2018. Jo Stanley then provided a fascinating insight into ‘moving minorities from the margins in maritime museums’, focusing in particular on some of the exhibitions to which she’s contributed, and which seek to explore issues of race, gender and sexual orientation in maritime history: for example, the ‘Black Salt’ exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the Wrens exhibition at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, and the touring exhibition ‘Hello Sailor’. Jo was frank about the ‘political’ difficulties that such exhibitions sometimes face from conservative trustees, outraged letter writers and even tabloid newspapers, but overall, the picture is an increasingly positive one, with an ever greater willingness to address the role of minorities and connect them to more mainstream themes. Above all, Jo came up with one of the day’s most memorable quotes, ‘museums need academics, academics need museums’. This, indeed, was one of the day’s main themes – the breaking down of the artificial, and invariably false, barriers that have often been erected between different disciplines and perspectives.

The final session proper took a regional focus, with Oliver Gates of Cambridge University providing a whistle-stop tour of maritime history in west Africa, which, he argued, is (or should be) much broader than the older literature, which focused overwhelmingly on the slave trade, or the newer sort, which focuses primarily on security. Mark Matthews, chair of Morol, the Institute of Welsh Maritime Historical Studies, then addressed a subject very dear to my heart, namely the state of maritime historical research in Wales. Mark had done some remarkable research on theses under way or completed in UK universities, which demonstrated the tiny number that could be defined as ‘maritime’, and the even tinier number that could be defined as ‘Welsh maritime’. In some respects, the picture in Wales is quite gloomy, with the recent deaths of many of the most eminent practitioners, the loss of university courses, and the lack of a national maritime museum; but the saving graces, as Mark suggested, are some excellent local museums, such as those in Nefyn, Holyhead, Porthmadog and Milford Haven / Pembroke Dock, plus the existence of the splendid journal Cymru a’r Mor / Maritime Wales (to which I’ve contributed several times, and which desperately needs an online presence to raise awareness of it).

So we came to the final keynote, given by Professor Richard Harding of the University of Westminster. Richard valiantly overcame certain unfortunate ‘noises off’ and delivered an excellent overview of the sometimes fraught relationship between historians and social scientists, asking what they could learn from each other and stressing the multi-disciplinary nature of maritime history before ending on what might perhaps be regarded as a slightly controversial note, suggesting that the discipline might be becoming more theoretical. This was followed by the final round table, with yours truly in the chair, which saw some lively contributions from the floor being fielded by our panel of the three keynote speakers. It was the sort of round table where we could easily have gone on for another hour or two at least, and I certainly got the sense that the subject matter could easily have sustained a two day conference. But the draconian chairman ended the session bang on time – after all, the pint at the Trafalgar was beckoning!

Finally, thanks again to Dr Tim Acott, Director of GMC, and to everybody who contributed to make the day a success. Finally, I’ve got a request for those of you who were there: we’d really like your feedback about how you thought the day went, what was good, what not so good, etc. (Use either the ‘contact’ page on this website, or the contact details on the SNR site.) That will help us with addressing the $64,000 question: will we do it again?

Watch this space for the answer!

1 Comment

  1. […] at the fringes of the Greenwich conference on 9 September, the thrust of which can be found in my previous blogpost, was that of the perceived division in maritime history between ‘professional’ and […]

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