The Coastal History Blog 22: “The Trained Researcher’s Eye… and What It Misses”

Many historians, young and old, nurse the lingering hope that their next round of research will uncover that career-making revelation, their personal equivalent of Carlo Ginzburg’s benandanti or Robert Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre.

But if it turned up right in front of you, would you notice it?  Don’t be so sure.

Consider the sad case of William Westall.  This young artist accompanied the Flinders expedition that circumnavigated Australia. In October 1802, he found himself in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef.  The intricate play of shape, color, and texture did not hold Westall’s gaze.  Trained in the picturesque school, Westall deployed coral in his landscape drawings only as a kind of low-lying, insignificant shrub protruding from the water.  His youth and inexperience did not save him; Westall had already learned what he was supposed to look for. At the end of the expedition, he wrote to the Admiralty complaining that Australia was a dull continent that had offered nothing worthy of his pencils and brushes. [1]

There was, as it happens, someone on the Flinders expedition who appreciated coral.  That was the commander himself.  Untroubled by formal academic training, the naval officer happily wrote pages in his journal about the delightful, riotous display of natural wonders unfolding before him. [2] Flinders felt no shame in finding something beautiful that did not bear a seal of approval from the tastemakers and connoisseurs. In short, he was able to notice the coral because he had an uneducated eye.

I was reminded of this recently, reading the final chapter of Michael Pearson’s The Indian Ocean. [3] Pearson laments that today, technology has cut us off from the water.  With a nod to Joseph Conrad (steamships are “ignorant” of the sea), Pearson describes how container shipping has left our waterfronts automated and depopulated.  A few wealthy or eccentric individuals commission historic ship replicas as a form of adventure sport, but the thousand-year heritage of the dhows survives in name only. The pilgrims still travel to Mecca, but they take a jet.  If they look at the ocean at all, it is through the dim light of hermetically sealed airplane windows.

Is littoral society an endangered species? Property values alone would suggest a different story.  So would the innovation and proliferation of aquatic sports, the glamor of swimsuit culture, and the high percentage of swimmers in the general population.

One of the things I find intellectually very refreshing about the BBC series Coast is that it does not get hung up on questions of what coasts are supposed to be about but simply asks “what’s interesting here?”  The episode on Normandy, for example, cheerfully combined Impressionist painters, the D-Day landings, and kite surfers.

Academics are starting to catch up, though.

Glen O’Hara mentions a citizens’ protest group that emerged in Cornwall in 1990, “Surfers Against Sewage” which attained a membership of 12,500 within four years, despite the rather narrow purview suggested by its name. [4] (By the way, try telling a surfer that they lack a tactile, authentic, and immediate relationship to water.)

Kevin Starr recounts a tense confrontation between the Sierra Club—an environmental lobbying group—and monster truck enthusiasts over a stretch of California coastline.  The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, as its name suggests, had been established for the dune buggy and ATV users.  Environmentalists grew concerned over the impact of regular visits from tens of thousands of heavy vehicles (“a scene from the movie Mad Max”) on seabird nesting sites.  Both parties to this lawsuit-in-the-making were intensely invested in their particular vision of the coast. [5]

As I have suggested before in this blog, coastal history should be as much at home on Miami Beach or in Dubai as in the Nantucket of Herman Melville or the Singapore of Somerset Maugham.  If we go looking for ports with busy waterfronts that employ a lot of people, a century lacking these will appear simply empty.  Yet the big coastal story of the last 100 years is about leisure.  That is much what we should expect to find in a post-industrial society.  It does suggest, though, that future urban historians will be writing about resort towns rather than port towns, or that their definition of “port town” will become much more capacious.



[1] Drawings by William Westall (London: Royal Commonwealth Society, 1962) contains introductory essays, a handy reference map, and picture-by-picture commentary.  The classic discussion of these issues is Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific. His second, Yale edition (1985) is useful because it contains far more illustrations than the original 1960 volume.

[2] Matthew Flinders, Voyage to Terra Australis (1814; facsimile edition Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1966), II, 87-88.

[3] Michael Pearson, The Indian Ocean (London: Routledge, 2003).

[4] Glen O’Hara, Britain and the Sea since 1600 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 226.

[5] Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003 (New York: Knopf, 2004), 536.

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