The Coastal History Blog 16: “The Pious Coast”

When my father was seventeen years old, he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Merchant Marine.  He got a lowly job in the engine room (his official job title was “wiper”) and spent several years as the misfit sailor who haunted used book shops in every port.  He was one of those working-class kids of the 1940s whose life was decisively changed by the existence of cheap Modern Library editions and Pelican paperbacks.  His shipmates didn’t understand all his talk about Bertrand Russell, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but when he proclaimed that “there is no God,” that got their attention.  They reminded him of it during a terrible storm on the Indian Ocean, when a serious discussion took place about whether the presence of an atheist aboard had imperiled the vessel.  Fortunately for my father—and his eventual offspring—the storm abated before it became necessary to throw him into the ocean to appease the angry waves.

Perhaps knowing this story is one reason why I have somewhat more curiosity about the piety of sailors than Marcus Rediker, who characterized seventeenth-century seamen as notoriously unchurched and irreverent. [1] I have written about religion and sailors in a small way, suggesting that the Bethel revival movement of the early nineteenth century unintentionally spurred a wave of working-class autobiographies, as sailors discovered an audience for their conversion narratives in the Sailor’s Magazine, and began responding to each other’s works. [2] I probably should have done more with this, but one of the perks of blogging is that I can atone for past sins of omission.

The anthropologist Joseph Webster just published an intriguing study of religion in Gamrie, a fishing village located in northeast Scotland, “15 miles west of the fishing port of Fraserburgh.”[3] He conducted his fieldwork there in 2008-2010, attending every church service in the village every week, as well as working on a couple trawling voyages in the North Sea.  The villagers were a bit confused by his purpose, but concluded that this young man was destined for the ministry.  Webster’s accounts of his conversations with these elderly and painfully sincere believers reads, at times, like a well-written novel, or a witty “fish out of water” memoir in which the narrator happens to know a lot about Foucault, semiotics, and speech act theory.  His discussion of how an anthropologist should handle conversion narratives is especially nuanced and interesting. [4]

Many of the preoccupations of Webster’s Scottish informants will sound more like those of American fundamentalist ministers: scanning the skies for the End of Days, fears of gay marriage and the teaching of evolution in the schools, an uncannily fervent embrace of Christian Zionism, worries about the sinister agenda behind the Harry Potter books.  Indeed, American evangelical TV and videotapes are popular in Gamrie, although it is necessary to remain vigilant about false prophets; one set of VCR tapes had to be burned when it became clear that they had been produced by the Seventh-Day Adventists. [5] My personal favorite was the conspiracy theory about the TV show Star Trek. The transporter technology, we are told, is a wicked parody, a “demonic counterfeit” of the way that believers will actually disappear during the Rapture. [6] Webster discusses all of this seriously, and without condescension.  He expects, and often finds, opportunities for insight about how the villagers think Providence, immanence, and salvation actually work.

Readers of this blog will especially appreciate his chapter entitled, simply, “Fishing.”  Any historian who has written about sailors has wondered, at some point, what they talked about when they were off-duty, and what sorts of thoughts and feelings have not made it into the archival record or onto the printed page.  Not surprisingly, for a community where religion is so central, Webster’s shipmates debated matters of faith.  It is a tribute to the depth of religiosity in northeast Scotland that even one of the unbelievers on the trawler took a Bible with him and was reading it during the voyage. [7] The conversations were quite sophisticated theologically.  One that Webster records concerned whether the parting of the Red Sea was a “type,” or prefiguration, of baptism. [8]

Noting the contrast between the rugged, profane masculinity in the BBC series Trawlermen and the sensitive, even weepy masculinity of the pious men of Gamrie, he offers some interesting suggestions about how it is possible for men to construe their born-again experience as itself a return to true manhood rather than a feminizing step away from it.  Soft porn pinups, boasts about bar fights, and tales of sexual conquests coexist, on the trawlers, with the earnest conversations about the Bible. [9] In the course of one remarkable evening, when “the last haul of the trip was long and slow,” the crew quizzed the young anthropologist mercilessly about his sex life, spun outrageous yarns about the strangest sexual practices that their imagination could conjure, and concluded by exclaiming: “Mark, sing us a hymn!” [10]

It is, perhaps, too tempting to reduce sailors to an “either/or,” especially when evidence is scarce.  Webster presents his sailors as emphatically “both/and.”  While the practices of trawlermen in the 2000s are hardly an indication of what may have prevailed in past centuries, it does serve as a reminder that sailors just might be as muddled and conflicted as the rest of us.

Notes

[1] Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 170, 175-176.

[2] Isaac Land, War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 115-119.

[3] Joseph Webster, The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 2.

[4] Webster, 101-123.

[5] Webster, 167.

[6] Webster, 182.

[7] Webster, 131.

[8] Webster, 144.

[9] Webster, 112.

[10] Webster, 133.

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