Short Teaching Module: Using Ships as Guides for Transnational Adventures through World History
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.
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.
A Naval Encounter between Dutch and Spanish Warships
Chinese Junk, early 18th century
Defining World History
Jerry Bentley, “The Task of World History,” in The Oxford Handbook of World History, Jerry Bentley, ed.
(Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2011), 1-16.
Laura Benton, “How to Write the History of the World,”http://www.bu.edu/historic/hs/march04.htm#2,
Ross Dunn, “The Two World Histories,” Social Education (September 2008).
Ross Dunn, The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000)
Dominic Sachsenmaier, Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and Approaches in a Connected
World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Patrick Manning, Navigating World History (New York: Palgrave, 2003).
Marrying Maritime History and Word History
Barbara Watson Andaya, "Oceans Unbounded: Transversing Asia across 'Area Studies,'" The Journal of
Asia Studies 65 (2006), 669-690.
Jerry Bentley, Renate Bridenthal, and Kären Wigen, eds., Seascapes: Maritime Histories, Littoral
Cultures, and Transoceanic Exchange (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007).
Philip De Souza, Seafaring and Civilization: Maritime Perspectives on World History (London: Profile,
Daniel Finamore ed., Maritime History as World History (Gainesville: University of Florida, 2004)
Bernhard Klein and Gesa Mackenthun, eds., Sea Changes: Historicizing the Ocean (New York: Routledge,
Manning, Patrick, "Global History and Maritime History," International Journal of Maritime History 25
Amélia Polónia, “Maritime History: A Gateway to Global History?” Research in Maritime History No. 43.
Maritime History as Global History. Maria Fusaro and Amélia Polónia, eds. (St. John’s, Newfoundland, 2010), 267-282.
Marcus Rediker, “Against Terracentrism: The Sea and History,” Unpublished paper: video presentation
of the paper is accessible online at http://www.marcusrediker.com/Lectures/lectures.htm, (accessed 9/25/2017).
Helen Rozwadowski, "Ocean's Depths," Environmental History 15 (2010), 520-525.
Kären Wigen, "Forum: Oceans of History," American Historical Review 111 (2006), 717-80.
Transnationalism and National Indifference
Kenneth Pomeranz, “Histories for a Less National Age,” American Historical Association Presidential
Address, 2014. Video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVei7p2x3I0 (accessed 10/11/17).
Emily S. Rosenberg, Transnational Currents in a Shrinking World (Belknap Press of Harvard University
Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review,
Vol. 69, No. 1 (Spring, 2010), 93-119.
Vaclav Smil, Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 209-210.
Examples of a Ship or Vessel Guiding a Historical Study
Kevin M. Baily, The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries
(The University of Chicago Press, 2015).
Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (Penguin Books, 2007).
Brandon Tachco, One Ship, Thousands of Lives: A Transnational History of Shipbuilding, Shipping and the
Maritime World as Seen through the Life of an Average Merchant Sailing Ship, 1886-1930. PhD diss. (University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, May 2018).
Paul D’Arcy, The People of the Sea: Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania (Honolulu: University
of Hawai'i Press, 2006).
Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the US-Canadian Borderlands (University of California
Epeli Hau'ofa, "Our Sea of Islands," The Contemporary Pacific 6 (1994), 147-161.
K.R. Howe, ed. Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors: The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific
(Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007).
David Igler, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (Oxford University
Matt Matsuda, Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2012).
Indian Ocean Trade
Rene Barendse, The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century (Armonk: Sharpe,
Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
K.N. Chaudhuri, Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilization of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam
to 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University of Press, 1990).
Michael Pearson, Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern
Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
Southeast Asia Shipbuilding
Cynthia Chou, Indonesian Sea Nomads: Money, Magic and Fear of the Orang Suku Laut (London, 2003).
Li Tana, “Ships and Shipbuilding in the Mekong Delta, 1750-1850,” Water Frontier: Commerce and the
Chinese in the Lower Mekong Delta, 1750-1880, edited by Li Tana and Nola Cooke (National University of Singapore Press, 2005).
Adrian Horridge, Sailing Craft of Indonesia (Oxford University Press, 1986).
Michael Southon, The Navel of the Perahu: Meaning and Values in the Maritime Trading Economy of a
Butonese Village (Canberra: Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, 1995).
California Wheat Trade
Timothy G. Lynch, Beyond the Golden Gate: A Maritime History of California (Fort Schyler Press, 2015).
British Isles Shipbuilding
Patricia K. Crimmin, “‘A Great Object with Us to Procure this Timber…’: The Royal Navy’s Search of Ship
Timber in the Eastern Mediterranean and Southern Russia, 1803-1815,” International Journal of
Maritime History, Vol. 83, No. 4 (1992), 83-115.
Jan Glete, Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 1500-1860,
Vol. I. & II (Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1993).
Ian Johnston and Ian Buxton, The Battleship Builders: Constructing and Arming British Capital Ships
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013).
John Lynch, Belfast Built Ships, (The History Press, 2012).
Robert Mullins and John Beeler, eds. The Transformation of British and American Naval Policy in the
Pre-Dreadnought Era: Ideas, Culture and Strategy (Springer International Publishing, 2016).
Sydney Pollard and Paul Robertson, The British Shipbuilding Industry, 1870-1914 (Harvard University
Anthony Slaven, British Ship Building, 1500-2010 (Crucible, 2013).
William H. Thiesen, “Origins of Iron Shipbuilding,” International Journal of Maritime History, Vol. 89,
No.12 (2000), 89-109.
Multi-Ethnic and Transnational Crews
W. Jeffery Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1997).
Margaret S. Creighton, Rites & Passages: The Experience of American Whaling, 1830-1870 (Cambridge
University Press, 1995).
Brian Rouleau, With Sails Whitening every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime
Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).
Fabio López Lázaro, “Labour Disputes, Ethnic Quarrels, and Early Modern Piracy: A Mixed Hispano-
Anglo-Dutch Squadron and the Causes of Captain Every’s 1694 Mutiny.” International Journal of Maritime History 22.2 (2010), 73-111.
Mattias Van Rossum, Lex Heerman Van Voss, Jesse Van Lottum, and Jan Lucassen, “National and
International Labour Markets for Sailors in European, Atlantic, and Asian Waters, 1600-1850,” Research in Maritime History No. 43. Maritime History as Global History. Maria Fusaro and Amélia Polónia, eds. (St. John’s, Newfoundland, 2010), 47-72.
Jennifer Blair, ed., Frontiers of Commodity Chain Research (Stanford University Press, 2009).
Furio Ciciliot, “Nails in Shipbuilding (13th-20th Centuries),” in Boats Ships and Shipyards: Proceedings of
the Ninth International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology, Venice 200, edited by Carlo
Beltrame, 119-123. (Oxbow Books, 2003).
Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein and Terence K. Hopkins, “Commodity Chains in the World-Economy Prior
to 1800,” In Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein (The New Press, 2000).
Steven C. Topik and Allen Wells, Global Markets Transformed, 1870-1945 (The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2012).
Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).
Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History
(Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (New York: Walker and Company, 2002).
James C. McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000 (Harvard
University Press, 2005).
Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses: From beer to Coca-Cola, the six drinks that have
helped shape human history (Walker & Company, 2005).
Women Aboard Ships
Richard Berleth, Illustrated by Ben Otero, Mary Patten’s Voyage (Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Company, 1994).
Margaret S. Creighton, Rites & Passages: The Experience of American Whaling, 1830-1870 (Cambridge
University Press, 1995), especially the chapter: “Sailors, Sweethearts, and Wives: Gender and Sex in the Deepwater Workplace,” pp. 162-194.
David Cordingly, Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives
(Random House, 2002).
Vita Dodson, “The Lady Ships,” The Log of Mystic Seaport, vol. 36, no.2 (Summer 1984), 59-64.
Joan Druett, She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
______ Captain’s Daughter, Coastman’s Wife: Carrie Hubbard Davis of Orient (New York: Philmark
Lithographies, Inc., 1995).
______“She Was a Sister Sailor”: Mary Brewster’s Whaling Journals, 1845-1851, edited by Joan Druett (Courier,
Westford MA, 1992).
______She Went A-Whaling: the Journal of Martha Smith Brewer Brown from Orient, Long Island, New
York, around the World on the Whaling Ship Lucy Ann, 1847-1849, edited by Anne MacKay, forward by Joan Druett (New York: Ten Percent Publishing, 1993).
______ Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820-1920 (Auckland, New Zealand: Collins Publishers, 1991)
______ Hen Frigates; Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).
Laura Duncombe, Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers who Ruled the Seven Seas
(Chicago Review Press, 2017).
Tracey Gern, Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud (New York: Margaret Ferguson Books, 2014).
Stephen A. Haller, Families at Sea: An Examination of the Rich Lore of ‘Lady Ships” and “Hen Frigates”
Circa 1850-1900 (National Maritime Museum Association, 1985).
Brandon Tachco, “The Sea was their World: Women onboard Nineteenth-Century Merchant Vessels,” Sea Letter No. 77 (Fall 2018).
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.