Maritime history has provided me with many satisfying and pleasurable moments since I started studying it seriously *cough* years ago, but there’s something a bit special about chairing a conference session where [a] all the speakers are running pretty perfectly to time [b] the subject matter is interesting [c] if the chair’s attention does momentarily wander (heaven forfend), he can look out of the patio doors behind the audience and see the port side of Brunel’s SS Great Britain, just a few feet away. While that was a minor personal highlight of last weekend’s Connecting the Oceans conference in Bristol, examining the impact of global steam on the maritime world in the nineteenth century, it was far from being the only one. It would be invidious for me to comment on the quality of the organisation, as I was one of the co-organisers, but everything seemed to run smoothly, nobody got lost, and the ‘buzz’ from the audience was generally very positive indeed. So all in all, it seemed to be a success, and the conference proceedings are likely to be published before the end of this year in the Society for Nautical Research’s online open access newsletter, Topmasts.
One can never tell from a bare conference programme whether a common theme is going to emerge, or whether speakers are going to go off in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions. From the off, though, it was clear that this conference was going to present a pretty united front. Admiral Sir Ken Eaton, chairman of the co-sponsors the Society for Nautical Research, and Dr Helen Doe of Exeter University, provided broad overviews, with Helen concentrating on the businesses behind the rise of steam. We had two further keynote papers, from Dr Graeme Milne of Liverpool University and Captain Peter King, both looking at different aspects of the impact of steam (particular kudos to Peter for making the triple expansion compound engine interesting!) The panel sessions were varied and lively. James Boyd of the SS Great Britain Trust looked at steam’s aspect on migration, Jonathan Stafford of Nottingham University looked at boredom during long sea voyages (of which more anon) and Tim Carter of the Norwegian Centre for Maritime and Diving Medicine considered the different health hazards on steamships compared with sail. The next panel saw Morten Tinning of the Danish Maritime Museum look at the rise of the rise of the mighty Maersk line from humble beginnings (and opposition from those who thought steam had reached its technological limit), Tim Beattie looked at the impact of steam on the port of Falmouth, and Joanna Mathers of the SSGB Trust presented her preliminary findings about the nature of the labour force on UK steamships. In the primarily naval panel, which I chaired, Benjamin Miertzschke of the University of Potsdam looked at the introduction of steam in the German merchant marine and navy (significantly later than in the UK), Zachary Kopin of the University of Michigan looked at how the transition from sail to steam affected African-Americans (badly, with many of the opportunities previously open to them in the sailing navy being closed off), and Alistair Roach of the SNR and SS Great Britain Trust discussed Brunel’s extraordinary designs for Crimean War ‘stealth gunboats’, some even intended for water jet propulsion, not dissimilar in appearance to modern littoral combat ships or even low-profile drug-smuggling craft.
From my point of view, though, the most surprising theme to emerge from the conference was the serious thought now being given to the subject of boredom at sea, which came up in a couple of papers and was the principal subject of Jonathan Stafford’s. The long steamship passages out to India or Australia could become monotonous, and passengers’ letters and diaries give a good impression of this. (I’ve actually studied some of these myself – Sir Arthur Stepney, a member of the family I’ve been working on for many years, travelled extensively by sea from the 1870s to the 1900s, and his papers would be an excellent source for researching this theme.) By coincidence, not long after I got back from the conference, an email turned up with details of a talk in London on the exact same topic. Clearly boredom at sea is now ‘a thing’, but I think this sort of analysis could be extended well beyond the transition to steam in the nineteenth century; I’ve read countless ships’ logs and descriptions of sea voyages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and let’s be brutally honest, not a lot happened for much of the time. This can pose a bit of a problem when I don my other hat as a writer of nautical fiction, which, by definition, demands constant excitement to keep the reader hooked. To his credit, the ‘daddy’ of our genre, Patrick O’Brian, is pretty good at conveying the tedium of long voyages at sea, but I sometimes wonder whether he would have found a publisher in the present day and age – I know quite a few people who’ve given up on O’Brian chiefly because little seems to happen for chapters at a time. On the other hand, to constantly emphasise the exciting aspects of life at sea, whether it be in fiction or in writing ‘real’ maritime history, is arguably to present the reader with a distorted and unrealistic experience of what it was actually like. That being so, I can exclusively reveal that my next novel will be entitled Matthew Quinton Watches Paint Dry.
Finally, a plug for another conference! The New Researchers in Maritime History conference is always one of the highlights of the calendar, providing a chance for those just starting out in the field to try out their ideas and to meet both others in the same position and ‘old lags’, including some of the most eminent figures in the field. Next year’s conference will be held in the splendid setting of Chatham Dockyard, and the call for papers is below (NB the website given hasn’t caught up yet, so the online form isn’t yet available). Although I haven’t been a ‘new researcher’ for at least *coughs again* years, I’ll be there!
New researchers 2020