The Naval History Blog: No. 7

Why Maritime History Matters

Maritime history can be broadly defined as the study of humanity and its relationship to the seas and oceans of the world in the past.  It is a huge topic with tendrils creeping into many nooks and crannies of other, seemingly far removed, branches of the historian’s craft.  Its gambit includes shipping, merchants, ports, entrepôts, trading routes, mercantilism, navies, warships, dockyards, industrial support to shipbuilding, naval architecture, depots, victualling yards, ordinance, supplies and supply chains, finance, excise and customs, blockades, privateering, pirating, colonies, disease, medicine, crews, officers, training, social origin studies, life in ports, national policy making, strategies, and many other topics limited largely by imagination or source material.  Maritime history includes naval history as it is humankind’s activities on the seas that give rise to the need to defend one’s place in that unforgiving yet highly rewarding environment, or to interdict one’s seaborne enemies and seize the lucrative benefits for oneself.  Maritime history is truly a massive field of enquiry.

John Erhman, in a clever and apt metaphor, observed that “If national history may be compared to a cake, then naval history is not a layer but a slice of that cake.”[1]  Maritime history is a rather thicker slice.  There are several reasons why Erhman’s metaphor is apt.  Firstly, maritime history clearly has something major to say in all kinds of historical undertakings.  This includes the traditional spheres of diplomatic and political histories, including, of course, that of wars with or without an obvious naval element.  Secondly, economics, or the business of making a living, is a critical feature of much history with significant explicatory power as to the occasion for dispute and conflict at the political, military and naval levels.  The maritime aspect of economics is a major factor in the growth in power of various nations, extending their reach and ultimately linking the various parts of the globe into a system that inevitably led to clashes between rivals.[2]  Thirdly, the role of navies in growth of the modern state has been shown to be critical.  This was necessitated by the sheer scale and scope in investment in a navy that demanded the raising of taxes and debt instruments to pay for it.  Great Britain was the great exemplar of this link, but others such as the Netherlands had a similar history.[3]   These aspects alone provide a compelling argument for maritime studies as at least a compliment into a large range of other fields of historical analysis.

Globalisation and the metaphorical shrinking of the world has characterised much of history over the past five hundred years.  The maritime dimension of this is central.  While it is now a truism that the era of European exploration discovered relatively little that was truly unknown to all of humanity, it is virtually without debate that that period of venturing forth vastly expanded at least Europe’s knowledge of that wider world.  Such knowledge was first based on the sea going capabilities of the galleons of Spain and Portugal, the lead nations in this foray across the oceans in the late Fifteen and early Sixteenth Centuries.  The result of this endeavour was to create connections were none existed before, or enormously expanded highly tentative, and largely overland, links.  These connections ranged from trading endeavours with, for example, the ancient civilisations of China, Japan and India, to outright conquest and colonisation as with the New World of the Americas.[4]  Spain and Portugal were soon followed by other European powers such as the Netherlands and Great Britain.  As far as today is concerned, no other factor has been more important than this in creating the world in which we live.

It is anachronistic to assign the modern idea of globalisation back to the era of Spain and Portugal’s early domination of oceanic voyaging.  The world was experienced as a very much narrower and overwhelmingly local place then, with the imagination constrained by physical limitations of technology and the realities of communication.  Nevertheless, the fact that there was a wide world out there, and that riches were to be gained with trade and colonisation, forever changed things.  While most people still lived lives with very limited horizons in many senses of the word (economic, religious, awareness, occupation, etc.), it was increasingly grasped by merchants, adventurers, sailors and monarchs that everything had changed.  Various European nations were not slow to seize the opportunities that were proffered and so the modern world unfurled over the next half millennium.  The maritime dimension to this was all pervasive and critical.  It could not have happened without ships, seafarers, merchants, soldiers and sailors.  It also could not have happened without the goods and products of the globe being of interest to markets unimaginably far away from what had been the case in the few decades before the great voyages of the late Fifteenth Century.  The luxuries of the Far East, along with the silver of Peru, and the cod of Newfoundland drove this rapidly expanding trade and markets and greatly enriched the bankers, merchants, monarchs and aristocrats that underwrote it all and made it happen.  To truly understand the history of anywhere, this change in global economics, as well as with the resulting national rivalries, merchant conflicts, and struggles of colonists and settlers newly overseas, has to be assessed with the maritime dimension in mind.  While not the singular explanation for everything, that primal causal factor is as elusive as the Higgs Boson in another field, maritime history has overwhelming significance.  Its study is rewarding on its own merits, but particularly so given its centrality in explaining and describing how we have journeyed to world in which we call home today.



[1] Quoted in Richard Harding, Modern Naval History: Debates and Prospects (London:  Bloomsbury, 2016), 1.

[2] Karen Wigan, “AHR Forum: Oceans of History – Introduction,” American Historical Review, June 2006, 719-721.

[3] Jan Glete, Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650:  Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe (London:  Routledge, 2002), 165-185; Harding, Modern Naval History, 77.

[4] An entertaining description of the early years of this process is provided by Jeremy Paxman, Empire:  What Ruling the World did to the British, (London:  Viking, 2011), 15-37.

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2 Responses to The Naval History Blog: No. 7

  1. Akinwande September 4, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    A piece of very insightful commentary. Would need some input from you on Naval History wish is a subset of Maritime History. Thanks a lot.

  2. Akinwande September 4, 2017 at 11:01 am #

    A piece of very insightful commentary. Would need some input from you on Naval History which is a subset of Maritime History. Thanks a lot.

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