Teaching

Short Teaching Module: Using Ships as Guides for Transnational Adventures through World History

Brandon Tachco
Photograph of a large ship loaded with shipping containers Photograph of a ship with three masts tied to a dock. Painting of a Spanish Galleon at sea firing its canons Painting of a Chinese junk at sea with the emperor and several functionaries on deck

Overview

Ships travel across oceans and in doing so connect people in disparate places across the globe. In this essay, Brandon Tachco explains how a focus on ships as a theme can add much to the study of world history. As "in between" places like ships are transnational by definition and they provide engaging sources for students to study. Since much of the current global economy is predicated upon shipping to transport commodities to their intended destinations, ships also provide many useful connections for students' daily lives.

Essay

One of our main goals when studying world history is to de-emphasize individual states or nations so we can evolve beyond the notion that national divisions are the natural way of organizing the world. In doing this, world historians hope to break the restrictions of national definitions and give due attention to the people and places that have not received proper coverage in traditional historical narratives. However, when working with large-scale history it is easy to fall back on more generalized historical definitions that are a throwback to nation-based histories. Focusing on the transnational nature of history is one way to keep our attention on the in-between spaces and the people that live there. One method for keeping a world history study focused on such spaces is to look at the micro in the macro by using specific examples of individual people, places, or things that represent the world historical trends a study or course should cover. This method not only helps keep the historical narrative specifically focused, but it also gives personalized examples and stories that keep the history relevant and interesting to readers and students alike. As this essay will briefly discuss, ships provide one of the best such examples of transnationalism for world history courses and studies.

In an age dominated by air travel it is easy to forget how much we still rely on shipping for most of our daily necessities. As the sources included with this essay show, the impressive cargo ships of today can reach over 1,300 feet long and carry over 21,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit shipping containers). Shanghai and Singapore, the two busiest ports in the world, can respectfully process as many as 37.13 million and 30.9 million TEUs a year. Therefore, as described by Vaclav Smil, while most might think of computers, telephones, or the internet as the driving forces behind today’s globalization, it is actually the engines of ships like these that are the “prime movers” of our current interconnected world (Smil, Prime Movers of Globalization). The technology we enjoy, the clothes we wear, the food we eat – most of it was certainly on one of these behemoth cargo ships at one point before it reached our homes. Though often taken for granted, the immense global maritime trade network these ships represent connects people across the planet through a complex web of sailors, shipbuilders, materials, companies, investors, laborers, politicians, and consumers.

Of course, this is a present-day example from a fully globalized world, but it helps provide context when considering that the roots of this global system are found in world history. For example, the Balclutha, a steel-hulled, square-rig cargo ship that is currently a museum ship in San Francisco, California. Ships like Balclutha represent the origins of today’s complex container shipping system as it existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. San Francisco, along with countless other globally connected cities and regions around the world, owes its very existence to ships like this one. Spanish galleons provide another representation for the origins of our current global system as it existed even earlier. And even earlier than that, throughout history and concurrently with these other shipping systems, there existed countless interregional maritime trades that serve to represent the transnational nature of world history. The Pacific is the largest ocean in the world and Austronesian peoples, from the Lapita to the Polynesians, were sailing across it for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. This means that for hundreds of years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, Pacific peoples had well-established ocean-based trade networks extending for thousands of miles. There was also a thriving trade centered on the Indian Ocean for hundreds of years before Europeans forced their way on the scene. This trade connected Africa with regions as far as China and Japan via complex networks through India and Southeast Asia. Each of these transnational and interregional trade networks demonstrates a system that is similarly complex to today’s global container system, connecting people through labor, trade, investment, and migration. And at the center of each of these networks were the ships that made them possible.

While most stories and histories about ships focus on a ship’s life, which can represent many such transnational and transregional physical connections, a ship’s construction is at least as rich in transnational historical examples. For one, consider the reason for a ship’s construction. Even warship constructions can have very transnational stories to them, but a ship built for trade, for example, was likely built with a particular trade in mind that matched current regional or global market trends. In these cases, there is not usually much purpose in constructing an ocean-going vessel to accommodate a local trade, so it is almost always the case that a ship would be constructed to accommodate an industry or export that developed in another region or even across the globe.
As one example, Balclutha was built in 1886 on the Clyde River in Glasgow, Scotland, during a ship building boom that developed in conjunction with another local economic boom halfway around the world in California, where wheat was grown in the San Joaquin Valley following the Gold Rush and its farming and export was orchestrated by wealthy merchants based in San Francisco. Wheat would be loaded in San Francisco and sailed around the Southern horn of South America - one of the most dangerous shipping passages in the world - to England and Europe, where wheat was needed. Then, the ships would return with a variety of British and European goods, but mostly coal, which would be used to light and warm California metropolises like San Francisco and power the steam ships of the San Francisco Bay. Some of this coal was then even loaded on other ships and shipped across the Pacific to be sold in Japan and China. The agricultural export prosperity of one urban center - San Francisco - led directly to the production output prosperity of the other - Glasgow. And Glasgow was not the only place. On the eastern coast of the United States, too, ships were being constructed to take advantage of the California wheat trade.

The global trade in ship parts and materials, likewise, was precipitated by the increase in shipbuilding in both these areas. Ships are complex commodities built by many smaller commodities. The web of materials and people needed to construct a ship like Balclutha stretched worldwide, involving a number of world historical themes like migration, business, social class, labor, environment, and state, corporate, and regional imperialism. Considered in this way, each individual piece that goes into a ship’s construction is a rich example of world history. Going back to the example of Balclutha, there were many materials that went into its construction, but the most common were steel, iron, and wood. Some of these were found easily in the British Isles; others were not. At the point of Balclutha's construction, Britain had depleted most of its wood reserve after hundreds of years of construction and upkeep of wooden ships to maintain its massive maritime empire, so most of the wood in Balclutha's construction came from other regions. The pine required for the ship’s decks was from places like Canada and Scandinavia, while the teak that was essential for the ship railings and margins came from Burma (present-day Myanmar). There are many great examples of commodities as framings for world history and when tracing the commodity chain of teak in this way, we find that Balclutha's construction connected landowners and farmers in California, to shipbuilders and lumber importers in Glasgow, to imperial businessmen and Indian investors in South and Southeast Asia, and to Burmese elephant breeders and trainers in the teak forests of Burma. Thus, looking at the materials needed to construct a ship can connect people in ways not usually or easily imagined when beginning a historical study with a nationalist framing.

And a ship, of course, is nothing without the people connected to it. One of the benefits of framing a world historical study around a smaller topic, such as the life of one ship, is the ability to focus more on the people that make the history. Whether made for war, trade, migration, or exploration, ships often survived through multiple time periods, owners, names, and purposes, and so represented the lives of many people from different classes, races, nationalities, and creeds. The people living aboard a merchant ship, for example, often represented the transnational trade that was the profession of the ship’s current stage in life. Given the dangers and rigors of life at sea, it was not uncommon for ship captains to have to hire new crew members from port to port. This, combined with the already transnational nature of port cities, provided an eclectic mix of people aboard ships. As such, a ship is a microcosm for the broader global and regional social, racial, and economic constructs of its period.

For example, in continuing land-based gender norms, Margaret Creighton argues that cooks aboard ships were often tortured and picked on by the regular sailors because they did more “womanly” work than the rest of the crew (Creighton, Rites & Passages: The Experience of American Whaling, 1830-1870). Also, in continuing nationalist racial hierarchies, Brian Rouleau discusses the impact American sailors had as an early diplomatic core for the United States, enhancing American nationalism at home and representing American culture abroad. This included representing and exporting American racist ideologies (Rouleau, With Sails Whitening every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire). However, despite such examples, the separation of life at sea could also provide more opportunities than would otherwise be available to some in a land-based society, depending on a ship’s period. Olaudah Equiano, whose memoirs are a staple in some world history courses, is an example of a black man who was kidnapped from Africa and forced into slavery, worked on ships as a slave, earned his freedom through this work, and then continued to work on ships as a free man before becoming a key member of the international abolitionist movement. As Jeffrey Bolster explains in his book, Black Jacks, ships of the turn of the nineteenth century provided spaces for African Americans to achieve much more than was possible for them on land. These sailors were a pivotal part of Atlantic maritime culture of the period and helped forge black identity in America.

Also, despite popular understandings, women have had an important role to play in the lives of ships. Some more famous examples of women who even rose to roles of power and prominence aboard ships are female pirates such as Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and the pirate queen of the South China Sea, Ching Shih. Historians like David Cordingly and Laura Duncombe have written on such women in great detail. Though this was rare, there have been other examples of women aboard sailing ships that were more common. For example, many nineteenth-century whale boat and bulk cargo ship captains’ wives and families joined them on their global voyages. More often than not, these captain’s wives were also the daughters of sea captains or merchant ship owners. This meant that the sea was their life and their world just as much as it was their husband’s. Further, as Joan Druett has exemplified extensively in her work, the diaries these “sister sailors” wrote have become essential primary sources for preserving the history of life at sea.

And having wives aboard meant that babies were also born at sea, often with assistance from local midwives that replaced the female family members who would usually assist were the child to be born on land. For example, in 1889, when on a voyage from Calcutta to San Francisco, a baby girl was born aboard Balclutha with the assistance of an Indian midwife. She was born at latitude 37° S, longitude 84° E. Her mother named her Inda Francis. “Inda” was in recognition of the ocean in which she was born and “Francis” was in recognition of the ship’s destination: a transnational name representing the transnational space in which she entered the world.

Thus, there are many good examples of how ships provide one of the best framings for exemplifying transnationalism in world history courses and studies. Letting a micro example like a ship guide a historical study or course allows for the source to define the history, rather than the history being presumptively defined by restricting categorizations like nationality. Going back to ancient history, but especially in more recent times, ships have been constructed to move between other physically, geographically, socially, and economically constructed spaces, such as nations, cities, regions, empires, and businesses. Therefore, a ship represents a space that is innately transnational.

Even beyond the innate or more obvious physical connections between regions, ships connected people. One ship can represent the lives of thousands from many seemingly disparate regions and across numerous traditional historical periods. While there are many examples where life at sea could not escape land-based social constructs and hierarchies, there are also many examples of life at sea representing a space of opportunity that was separate from national borders and restrictions. Most of these historical subjects lived non-national or nationally indifferent lives. The local expands to the global, transnational, and back to the local, traveling on networks of investment, work, and labor, all without necessarily being mediated by the national. Thus, the national, in many instances, need not necessarily be a factor in analyses of the globalization of the world.

But, perhaps most importantly, ships are fun. They, and those that work on them, convoke a sense of adventure and provide a focal point for readers and students to relate to, making the abstract ideas of world history easier to understand and inspiring learners to want to know more. If there was any question before, the explosion of sea shanties on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the clear, timeless popular appeal of ships and life on the open sea. Perhaps for longer than there has been history, ships have symbolized voyages into the unknown. Ships represent freedom. Away from land, from home, and away from the constrictions of socially constructed barriers like nations.

Primary Sources

HMM Algeciras

Photograph of a large ship loaded with shipping containers
Annotation
As of the beginning of 2021, the Algeciras class is the largest container vessel in the world, able to carry nearly 24,000 TEU (twenty-foot long containers). It is constructed by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and owned by Hyundai Merchant Marine. As explained in the beginning of this essay, these massive ships are an essential, if not the most essential, part of our globalized world. And the United States and Europe are by no means at the center of it. All of the top ten busiest container shipping ports in the world are in Asia. Seven of those ten are in China. In comparison to processing as many as 37.13 million and 30.9 million TEUs a year, as Shanghai and Singapore did in 2016, the two busiest ports in the United States, Los Angeles and Long Beach, together processed just over 15.5 million in the same year. Rotterdam, the busiest port in Europe, processed just over 11.6 million. This source is a part of the Using Ships as Guides for Transnational Adventures through World History teaching module.

Balclutha

Photograph of a ship with three masts tied to a dock.
Annotation
Balclutha was built in 1886 on the River Clyde near Glasgow, Scotland, for Robert McMillan, a Glaswegian shipbuilder who occasionally owned ships as a side-business. Balclutha was first built to capitalize on the then booming wheat trade around Cape Horn with California, but in 1899, Balclutha was sold to a group of three San Francisco companies to be used in the lumber trade with Australia. In 1904, Balclutha was sold again, this time to the Alaska Packers Association, another San Francisco Bay based company, was renamed Star of Alaska, and was a part of their salmon canning fleet until its last voyage to Alaska in 1930. After being bought by Frank and Rose Kissinger in 1932, Balclutha was renamed Pacific Queen, repurposed as an exhibit ship, and after a brief movie career as a background ship in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, was towed up and down the California coast until the foundation of the San Francisco Maritime Museum in the early-1950s. Re-renamed Balclutha, it is now over 135 years old and - thanks to the work of numerous rangers, guides, preservationists, deckhands, riggers, instructors, non-profit employees, and volunteers – it teaches the important maritime history of San Francisco and the world to hundreds of thousands of visitors and students a year. This source is a part of the Using Ships as Guides for Transnational Adventures through World History teaching module.

A Naval Encounter between Dutch and Spanish Warships

Painting of a Spanish Galleon at sea firing its canons
Annotation
Spanish galleons were large ships specifically built to carry a huge amount of cargo across the vast distances of the Spanish maritime empire. The Manila Galleon Trade is a common topic in world history courses and represents the first truly global trade in world history. The manila galleons, specifically, could reach over 160ft in length. Interestingly, due to a number of environmental, economic, and practical reasons, the majority of the manila galleons were constructed and maintained in the Philippines using local labor, knowledge, and materials. See Andrew Peterson, Making the First Global Trade Route: the Southeast Asian Foundations of the Acapulco-Manila Trade, 1519-1650. PhD diss. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2014) This source is a part of the Using Ships as Guides for Transnational Adventures through World History teaching module.

Chinese Junk, early 18th century

Painting of a Chinese junk at sea with the emperor and several functionaries on deck
Annotation
Junks encompass a range of different ships that were essential for maritime trade in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean for centuries. Original junks built in China were likely inspired by the design of ships visiting Chinese ports from Austronesia and Southeast Asian archipelagos. The most famous examples of these ships, which is a topic often discussed in World History courses, are the ones from the treasure voyages of Zheng He (1371 – 1433) during the Ming Dynasty. Based on contemporary sources, the largest estimate of Zheng He’s ships were well over 400ft (over 120 meters) long. According to Chinese scholars and engineers today, these sizes are likely inaccurate since 300ft (91.44 meters) is about the maximum size an entirely wooden ship can be before it is no longer structurally safe, especially for the rigors of ocean voyaging. However, even the more modest and reasonable estimates of today’s scholars mean these ships were still massive for the time and much larger than ships being constructed in Europe and the British Isles for at least the next few hundred years. This source is a part of the Using Ships as Guides for Transnational Adventures through World History teaching module.

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Credits

Brandon Tachco has a PhD in World History from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He has worked in academic publishing as the Managing Editor for the Journal of World History, taught classes at California State University Maritime Academy, and spent nearly five years working at the San Francisco Maritime Museum where he led experiential education programs aboard the historic ships, managed communications, organized fundraising and cultural events, wrote grants, researched California education content standard trends, developed education and marketing programs, and was the Managing Editor for their membership maritime history publication, the Sea Letter. His current book project looks at shipping and shipbuilding at the turn of the 20th century. Through the lens of ships and shipbuilding materials, he analyzes the many transnational connections these topics represent, including a seemingly isolate shipbuilding culture and society in Glasgow to complex geo-political developments and business imperial expansion in South and Southeast Asia.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Using Ships as Guides for Transnational Adventures through World History ," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-using-ships-guides-transnational-adventures-through-world-history [accessed December 3, 2021]