The Coastal History Blog 23: “Sailors on Bicycles”

1The first time I considered sailors in port as an academic subject was back in 1993, when—as a graduate student in search of a dissertation topic—I read the first chapter of Marcus Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Reactions to Devil varied, to be sure, but few have offered a coherent alternative vision of the places and themes that Rediker explored so memorably in those pages.  Robert Lee’s stimulating recent piece in the International Journal of Maritime History, “The Seafarer’s Urban World: A Critical Review” weaves together different strands of scholarship to form what might be called a post-Rediker synthesis. [1]  I hesitate to use such a term given that Marcus Rediker is still active and publishing, but Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is pushing thirty years old—a venerable age for an academic monograph—and it’s legitimate to ask “what comes next?”

This Fall is the one-year anniversary of the Coastal History blog. I thought a nice way to mark the occasion would be to discuss Lee’s piece, and what it suggests about the future.

He considers a wide range of scholarship over many centuries, primarily about the UK and Scandinavia (“The Seafarer’s Urban World” was originally a keynote at a North Sea history conference). His main takeaway points are as follows:

  • Voyage lengths weren’t invariably long, and sailors in many trades could potentially have spent quite a bit of time ashore. This varied depending on the policy of their employer (being at anchor does not necessarily equal shore leave), but we can move away from the notion that shipboard isolation defined what sailors were like.
  • Sailors circulated through a range of jobs across their lives and even within the space of a single calendar year; instead of seeking evidence of “distinct maritime cultures,” we might do better to trace the “complex and multiple movements between sea and shore.” [2] Sailor-farmers were common in several different parts of Europe.
  • “Seafarers often remained embedded within family and kin networks and were not invariably a source of trouble in ports.” [3] Sailors involved in fishing and short-haul coastal voyages could see their wives and children regularly, and remained profoundly involved in the life of smaller port towns.
  • Even in the case of the bigger and more anonymous ports, canny sailors didn’t see the waterfront communities as simply a hostile environment, but cultivated warm ties with people they knew, or with those who had a reputation as trustworthy. Conversely, the “maritime-related community” knew perfectly well that it existed in “mutual dependence” with sailors. [4]
  • We need to balance our racy narratives about brothels and pubs with what we know about other, quite different institutions like chapels and sailor’s homes. Some of these were undoubtedly clumsy interventions by do-gooders from outside, but others did exist to meet a real demand. The pious sailor who saved money and sent home remittances may need to be rescued from the condescension, or indifference, of posterity.
  • In the age of steam, the age profile of seafarers shifted upward; married men, and men over the age of 45, became much more common.

I’ll admit to some frustration with the relentless quantitative emphasis of this piece. It’s so easy to create a false sense of precision about a numerical “finding.”  For example, if sailortown districts don’t show up as crime-ridden in the police records, is that a sign that crime rates there were broadly in line with other neighborhoods, or that the police avoided those streets, or that residents preferred to settle their disputes without reporting crime to the authorities, or that transients are more likely to assume they won’t get help even if they ask for it?

Lee also offers a large caveat of his own where lascar seamen are concerned. He’s aware of Laura Tabili’s work (though apparently not of her important book We Ask for British Justice, which offers an elegant counterpoint to some of his major themes).  Lee acknowledges that many of his generalizations don’t apply to the more globalized elements of the maritime workforce.

Still, readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I’m pleased with the broad outlines of “The Seafarers’ Urban World.” Lee was kind enough to cite me a couple times, and I’m happy to have contributed my bit to what may be a new and viable approach to life in port towns.

Where we part company is on the subject of what this data implies, and where the field should go next. Lee calls for “family reconstitution, event-history analysis and network analysis.” (64)  I look forward to seeing that work a few years down the road, but I’m not convinced that the inevitable sequel to demographic history is more demographic history.

What we’ve established since the publication of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is that sailors were located in a different place—physically and culturally—than most historians had thought.  That doesn’t suggest to me the usual call for “further research.”  What’s needed is a paradigm shift, and possibly altogether different research questions. [5]

Lee mentions, in passing, that as the twentieth century dawned, sailors were in the habit of renting bicycles to venture far into the city. One Danish shipping line apparently went so far as to carry bicycles aboard for the sailors’ use. [6] I find this image very arresting because in a way, it sums up what I’ve tried to articulate about sailors in my own work.  The sailors may start on the waterfront, with a bit of that “Jack in Port” stagger, but they defy expectations. They leap on bicycles and head off in all directions, showing an uncanny fluency in the urban setting.  The problem then becomes to follow them.  This requires some nimble thinking, and fresh methods.  It will also bring historians together who haven’t been in the habit of conversing at all.

Does maritime history know how to ride a bike?



[1] Robert Lee, “The Seafarer’s Urban World: A Critical Review,” International Journal of Maritime History 25, no. 23 (2013), 23-64.

[2] Lee, “Seafarer’s Urban World,” 64, 44.

[3] Lee, “Seafarer’s Urban World,” 27.

[4] Lee, “Seafarer’s Urban World,” 39.

[5] For some indication of where different research questions might lead, see Isaac Land, “The Humours of Sailortown: Atlantic History Meets Subculture Theory,” in City Limits: Perspectives on the Historical European City, Glenn Clark, Judith Owens, and Greg Smith, eds. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 325-347 and Isaac Land, War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[6] Lee, “Seafarer’s Urban World,” 34.

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