On a collier plying the route between Sunderland and Quebec in the 1820s, the apprentice seaman Edward Beck kept a diary in which he recorded, among other things, the remarkable events of the voyage; his conversations with migrant passengers and with crew; his developing grasp of the art of navigation; and his private sensations as he crossed the vast Atlantic for the first time. Beck also recorded interactions with seabirds and with creatures of the deep, beginning one entry in mid-ocean thus:

Abundance of whales have been about the ship this afternoon, one in particular came very close to us & gave me a full view of him, & a most huge & clumsy looking fellow he was, they play in the water much like porpoises & are […]

As the image above indicates (Fig. 1.1), the next two lines of Beck’s account are difficult to make out, although the final three words of the sentence cited above clearly read ‘their native element’. In the following sentence, which concludes the daily entry, Beck explains: ‘I had written this when the [?vessel] shipped a bit of a sea & the spray flying over my book obliges me to leave writing till it is again dry’.Footnote 1 Having just branded the whale ‘clumsy’, Beck is immediately reminded that, unlike the whales, he is very much out of his native element.

Fig. 1.1
figure 1

Diary of Edward Beck. Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, London, JOD/266/1/1. (Used with Permission)

The essays collected within this volume are concerned with how, usually in a more figurative sense, the sea can leave a stain on acts of reading, writing, and performing. Our contributors ask how literary practices are shaped by the experience of being at sea—and also how they forge that experience. They are interested, that is, both in how such practices adapt to the maritime world, and in how individual and collective shipboard experiences are structured through—and framed by—acts of reading, writing, and performing. In this respect, the following essays build on and extend studies of the ‘where’ of the production, circulation, and consumption of texts and knowledge. Such studies have persuasively argued that books—and by extension other material forms of texts and their performance—‘cannot be understood outside their geographies’, and that reading, writing, and performing are spatially situated and embodied practices.Footnote 2 As Roger Chartier has noted, ‘[r]eading is not uniquely an abstract operation of the intellect: it brings the body into play, it is inscribed in a space and a relationship with oneself or with others’.Footnote 3 The same holds true for writing and performing; and at sea, as our contributors demonstrate, such activities take place when the body is under peculiar forms of pressure, situated as it is within an environment—the shipboard community and the ocean beyond it—in which unique forms of social relation prevail.

There are, of course, many different kinds of shipboard community; indeed, one of the aims of this collection is to explore how specific shipboard environments encourage, hinder, or otherwise regulate literary activities. Our contributors indicate, for example, how ships travelling under steam or sail, or carrying migrants, coal, or whale oil, might shape acts of reading, writing, and performing in different ways; and further, they illustrate how different kinds of seafarer participate in such acts for differing reasons and to varying effects. Some essays focus on specific voyages or ships, while others range across vessels to compare instances of reading, writing, and performing aboard them. Though our contributors focus predominantly on ships with Anglophone seafarers, they follow them through the world’s oceans, while vessels under scrutiny range from a man-of-war participating in the English Civil War (1642–51) to contemporary container ships, with those of the nineteenth century—perhaps the greatest age of Anglo-American maritime mobility—best represented.

A transhistorical approach is appropriate to a volume focused on a site that invites us to think in unusual ways about time itself. As the editors of the recent volume Oceanic Histories (2018) note, the ‘fluid histories of oceans and seas’ can be ‘productively disruptive’ to conventional historiography, charting as they do an area whose links to sovereignty—and its associated temporalities—are complex and often fraught.Footnote 4 While the design, number, and location of ships on the oceans vary across history, while human ideas about and attitudes towards the oceans are significantly determined by specific historical circumstances, and while the chemical and biotic composition of the oceans are themselves historical (and for the past few centuries increasingly influenced by human activity), ‘oceanic thinking’ nonetheless involves acknowledging warps and ruptures in time as it is commonly experienced. Crossing latitudes throws the structure of seasons into uncertainty, while the lack of a built environment uproots seafarers from a specific historical culture. Consistently, humans crossing oceans to access different cultures record a sense of leaping backwards or forwards in time, and they have also called the oceans themselves ‘timeless’; and however suspicious we may be of such a notion, given our environmental knowledge and scholarly training, we should also remain alert to the forms of ocean history that do, indeed, upend linear time—that is, to the continuities that exist in the experiences of those who take to sea across the centuries. While taking us into many different kinds of shipboard environment and dealing with seafarers of various stamps (including several women, whose voices are often absent in maritime studies),Footnote 5 the case studies offered here suggest that the nature of seafaring complicates any clean breaks between historical epistemes.

At the same time, our collection pays heed to the substantial differences between shipboard experiences—differences marked by historical period, and also by many other factors. It is chastening to think that, while some seafarers analysed within these essays crossed oceans while performing Shakespeare or while playing chamber music, on one specific form of British and American vessel, the slave ship, ‘performing’ meant being forced to dance on deck to musical accompaniment.Footnote 6 As Stephen Berry explains in his contribution to this volume, enslaved peoples crossing the Atlantic sometimes found great solace in reading; but their opportunities to engage in the kinds of literary activities that, for many seafarers, made long-distance voyages tolerable, were of course severely limited. This is an extreme example. But there are also finer distinctions to be made between the forms of privilege afforded various kinds of seafarer. The same voyage can look markedly different to a steerage-class and a cabin-class passenger, or depending on whether one is a captain or an ordinary seaman; a man or a woman; English or Irish. There are other factors—to some extent, but not entirely historically contingent—that also shape the experience of being at sea. Communication with the outside world, increasingly providing a link between land and even the most remote locations at sea, has significantly altered what the English poet Lord Byron dubbed ‘nautical existence’.Footnote 7 Oceanographers speak wistfully of how contemporary research vessels, now much less cut off, lack the close bonds between shipmates that were typical thirty years ago (access to email is, they report, a mixed blessing at best). The gradual—and far from linear—transition between sail and steam also significantly affected what it meant to be at sea, not least because those on ships powered by steam had a better idea of how long their voyage was likely to last and were, relatively speaking, less exposed to the risks of seafaring.

In offering close examinations of shipboard literary cultures and their similarities and differences, then, this volume offers a specific lens through which to consider the historicity of the oceans and the nature of human relations with them: for while our contributors are concerned with how shipboard environments determine human inter-relationships in specific ways, they are also, in some cases, interested in human engagements with the watery world itself—and in how those engagements, often mediated through literary practices, affect and develop seafaring identities. Finally, the following essays indicate some of the ways in which maritime studies can profitably draw on and engage various fields of academic study, including life writing, the histories of reading and of the book, literary criticism, migration and mobility studies, colonial studies, cultural geography, performance studies, environmental history, and oceanic studies (sometimes called the ‘Blue Humanities’). Over the remainder of this introduction, we offer a general discussion of some of these historical and academic contexts and outline the approaches taken and the topics engaged by the essays that follow.


Shipboard Literary Cultures participates in a pronounced turn towards the sea across the arts and social sciences over the past two decades.Footnote 8 Such work has often claimed that we live in a culture of ‘sea-blindness’, or what the literary critic Margaret Cohen, in her groundbreaking book The Novel and the Sea (2010), dubbed ‘hydrophasia’—a neglect of the sea.Footnote 9 Although we are more reliant on the sea than ever before in our day-to-day lives, these critics point out, with a huge proportion of global trade carried across the oceans, global communication networks running along the seafloor, and a significant percentage of our energy supply coming from the seabed, we do not feel the oceans in our cultures as we once did.Footnote 10 The mechanization of shipping has meant that maritime culture no longer penetrates cities such as London and New York; instead, vast container ships, with their threadbare crews, pull into port complexes remote from urban life. Even in cities that retain large ports, such as Rotterdam and Los Angeles, far fewer people are directly employed by maritime commerce. Greater efficiencies in the logistics of seaborne trade also mean that sailors no longer stop on shore for weeks on end, bringing with them a taste of the sea; indeed, many of them never leave the ship during stopovers that can be as short as twenty-four hours. The advent (and increased affordability) of air travel, meanwhile, has resulted in far fewer people taking to sea for extended periods of time as a means of crossing the oceans.Footnote 11

Often taking its cue from Fernand Braudel’s seminal study of the Mediterranean world, the academy’s ‘oceanic turn’ has resulted in the emergence of several fields focusing on specific ocean basins, including, most prolifically, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.Footnote 12 Such work places a valuable emphasis on connections between cultures—on the mobility of people, ideas, and goods—in a way that has complicated nation-based understandings of political and literary cultures.Footnote 13 But as several critics have pointed out, even within such fields there has sometimes been a tendency to lose sight of the sea itself: to focus, as Philip Steinberg complains, on what happens at the ‘rim’ of ocean basins rather than asking what happens within the rim’s circumference.Footnote 14 If there has been a growing acknowledgement of how sea voyages have wired (and still wire) the world in which we live, then it is only more recently that substantial attention has been granted to the networks themselves.Footnote 15

In focusing on what takes place at sea, then, our collection develops scholarship that aims to reveal how shipboard histories have contributed to the landed cultures in which we live. In part, this means considering the experiences of individuals involved in wider historical processes or events: to focus, that is, not on ‘heroic’ voyagers—Columbus , Magellan, Vasco Da Gama—whose storied journeys marked out new routes and dramatically reshaped global networks, but rather on the figures who followed in their wake or who explored uncharted waters in a less spectacular manner. Jimmy Packham’s essay, for example, examines diaries composed on American whaleships, offering a window on the strange day-to-day existence of two individuals—one a professional of over thirty years’ experience, the other a young girl on her father’s ship—involved in an industry that was crucial in driving both the economy and the geographical and scientific knowledge-making of the United States of America in the nineteenth century. Susann Liebich’s essay, meanwhile, enriches our understanding of World War I combatants by analysing newspapers produced on troop transports ferrying soldiers from New Zealand to England and Egypt, while Helen Chambers’s essay takes us aboard several voyages of a single ship which, by carrying Europeans in the opposite direction—and to Australia—participated in a pattern of migration that shaped the Pacific world as we now know it.

Where Chambers’s essay deals with the experiences of relatively high-status emigrants, Tamsin Badcoe’s introduces us to a more diverse group of seafarers travelling along the same route aboard the SS Great Britain ; her essay examines the diary of a nun leaving Ireland to offer a Catholic education to children in the colony of Victoria at a time when state support had been removed from denominational schools. In this sense, Badcoe’s essay not only provides insight into the lived experience aboard one of the most celebrated ships of its age, but also explores a personal testimony that is integrated into a wider history of education in Australia. David Punter’s Afterword (Chap. 11), meanwhile, offers reflections on the experiences of the sailors who crew the contemporary container ships whose voyages underpin global capitalism. To shift the metaphor a little: by exploring the experiences of those aboard ships, we gain a richer understanding of the cogs in the machine that produces global history.Footnote 16

Writing at Sea

While sometimes considering how individual lives feed into and are coloured by national and global histories, however, for the most part our contributors are concerned with the experience of being at sea—and, more specifically, with the literary activities that shape maritime experience, and which are themselves ocean-stained.

For the historian of shipboard literary cultures, perhaps the most important textual genre is the diary (or ‘journal’—we use the terms interchangeably), not least because diaries are often the medium through which we learn about other forms of literary activity.Footnote 17 The greatest age of Anglophone seafaring—the long nineteenth century—came at a time when the manufacture of cheaper paper made keeping a private diary feasible for a much greater proportion of those who took to the oceans.Footnote 18 It also coincided with a significant rise in the popularity of diary-writing across Europe. According to Peter Burke, this rise can be linked to broader historical phenomena: a shift in individuals’ attitudes towards their pasts (and towards the past in general), and developments in notions of the self that placed ‘a greater stress on sincerity, authenticity, uniqueness, intimacy, self-discovery and so on’.Footnote 19 These processes of ‘historicizing the self’ from the late eighteenth century onwards led to new expectations in terms of the functions of diaries, which increasingly became a means for accounting for time and for facilitating and observing individual ‘development’ within a ‘constructible’ future.Footnote 20

In combination, these cultural and historical developments have afforded maritime historians a far fuller record of life at sea on Anglophone vessels of the long nineteenth century than exists for earlier periods. While manifests and logbooks provide information on whom or what a ship carried, where it went, and what major incidents befell it, journals and diaries offer more vivid, detailed, and emotionally rich accounts of these matters. They do not, however, tend to offer as much in the way of intimate self-reflection as we might expect, given Burke’s remarks on the diary’s role in the development of ‘self-discovery’.Footnote 21 There are specific reasons for this. First, many nineteenth-century migrants recorded their journeys with the intention of sending either their diary or a fair copy of it back across the sea to concerned friends or family; for obvious reasons, such documents tend to avoid the more private reflections and confessions that characterize other forms of private autobiography. Thus disseminated, these diaries would have created patterns for subsequent seafarers to follow. And second, while extending and elaborating on material committed to logbooks, shipboard diaries are nonetheless intrinsically linked to that textual form.Footnote 22 Rather than recording private confessions (in the manner that other theorists of the rise of the diary have linked to Protestant practices), shipboard diaries tend, like the logbook, to record ‘remarkable’ incidents.

Diary-writing also provided seafarers with occupation during what was often a monotonous period. There is a paradox here: shipboard diaries are kept because the author feels that going to sea is sufficiently ‘eventful’ to warrant recording; at the same time, the relative lack of events to record frequently finds the diarist apologizing for having nothing of interest to say. This lack of variety can lead in two directions: either to a lack of entries (or very brief ones acknowledging that nothing remarkable occurred on the day in question) or to a turn ‘inward’, as the lack of events—which in practice often means calm seas, and thus relatively easy conditions for writing—prompts a diarist to offer character sketches of their fellow seafarers, or, in some cases, broader political or philosophical remarks that are generated through observations on the quotidian events of shipboard life. On some occasions, then, it is relative inactivity that prompts—or that allows for—the act of writing at sea.Footnote 23

For the most part, however, shipboard diaries record motion: and if all diaries mark progress through time, then shipboard diaries are notable also for their charting of space. Indeed, many diarists—again in imitation of the ship’s log—included coordinates of latitude and longitude and the length of the ship’s ‘run’ in their daily entries. And, as several of our contributors argue, diaries did not only chronicle voyages; they also shaped the ways in which their authors experienced those voyages. The physical diary, with its limited and bounded pages, offered the promise that the voyage would stay within certain parameters, with individual entries traversing its pages in a manner that traced the vessel’s progression through the water.Footnote 24 In his study of migrants’ journeys to Australia, Andrew Hassam argues that shipboard diaries ‘actively contributed towards the way in which the voyage out was lived’.Footnote 25 For Hassam, ‘it was the act of recording that was important, and if the diaries have been passed down in a way that makes them seem inevitable and finished artefacts, we nonetheless have to attempt to guess not so much why they were written, but what the effect of their being written was on the writer’.Footnote 26 Chapters 5, 6, and 7 in the present volume examine how the diaries of inexperienced seafarers helped their authors orient themselves within the maritime world, in part through the very act of imitating the language and form of the ship’s log.

Professional mariners, too, kept diaries as a means of orienting themselves—and, in their case, of developing their professional knowledge and identity. But they may also have had more directly economic reasons for recording their experiences. As Margaret Cohen and others have demonstrated, non-fiction accounts of life at sea had a significant presence in the French and Anglo-American publishing worlds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, existing in a complex dynamic with sea fiction by authors including Daniel Defoe, Victor Hugo, and James Fenimore Cooper.Footnote 27 Sailors’ diaries may therefore contain traces of literary ambition and financial opportunism.Footnote 28 These differing reasons for keeping a diary, then, offer an initial example of how shipboard literary cultures are determined by the specific identity and role of the seafarer.

It is also worth thinking about our reception of such documents. Reflecting on and citing the work of Philippe Lejeune, perhaps the foremost scholar of autobiography, Jeremy D. Popkin has argued that ‘the attraction of reading a diary is based on “the feeling of touching time ,” a sensation that can only be generated if we sense that the diary author was recording his or her real experiences and thoughts’.Footnote 29 While we may have reservations as to the prospect of recovering a diarist’s ‘real thoughts’, especially in the context of shipboard diaries which generally lack private ruminations, such documents undoubtedly possess a quality that cannot be replicated in fictionalized narratives—or even in non-fictional accounts ‘written up’ at a later date, such as Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840), the celebrated and influential account of an educated young American who took to sea as a common sailor in the nineteenth century. Towards the conclusion of Chap. 5, Eli Cumings and Laurence Publicover reflect on the ways in which the material diary composed at sea allows us to ‘touch place’ (slightly to alter Lejeune’s expression): to sense, in otherwise unrecoverable ways, what it meant for authors to be at sea and to record and process that experience. An initial example of this peculiar quality of the manuscript shipboard diary can, in fact, be provided by the passage with which this introduction began. Edward Beck’s maritime writings have been collected in a modern edition that renders the passage thus:

They play in the water much like porpoises, and are in their native element. I had written this when the vessel shipped a bit of sea and the spray, flying over my book, obliges me [to] leave writing till it is again dry.Footnote 30

This text certainly captures something of the experience of writing at sea. But if we compare it with the image above (Fig. 1.1), and note its eliding not only of the diary’s occluded text, but also the ocean-created blemish itself, then we must feel that it lacks the stain of the sea in the fullest sense .

Performing at Sea

If handling diaries composed at sea—and examining the feathers, menus, and other paraphernalia often tucked inside their pages—provides us with extraordinary access to the lived experience of a voyage, then another form of shipboard literary culture, dramatic performance, cannot be so readily accessed. But while the performances (and usually the play-texts beneath them) are unrecoverable, tantalizing traces in the archives—perhaps the most famous of which concerns a possible performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet on board an East India Company vessel off the coast of West Africa during its 1607–10 voyage—hint at the extent and significance of shipboard theatricals.Footnote 31

There is, in fact, something inherently theatrical in shipboard life: like theatres, ships are full of recesses, entrances, and exits, and they also feature stage-like spaces—the quarterdeck, the poop deck—on which individuals perform specific roles; as several commentators have noted, there are intriguing connections to be made between the wooden theatres of early modern London, which presented the globe to audiences thirsty for knowledge of it, and the wooden ships through which England explored and began to exploit that world.Footnote 32 More directly relevant to our purposes, however, and specifically to Mary Isbell’s essay in this volume, is how the everyday ‘theatricality’ of shipboard life was distilled into more formal performances—sometimes of famous plays (or adaptations of them), but often of plays composed on board, some of which reflected the life of the ship back to itself. Such performances were often designed to raise morale and strengthen communal bonds on long and difficult voyages. Indeed, they were especially valuable when ships became static—during ice-bound periods in voyages of polar exploration, for example, or when at anchor during a military campaign.Footnote 33

Performances at sea, like other cultural practices, also indicate active attempts to bring elements of a ‘landed’ past to the ship, or at least highlight how such elements shaped, even unintentionally, shipboard activities. Programmes produced for specific events jokingly liken the ship to Covent Garden, and performances organized by a ship’s officer class often come across as a development of activities first undertaken at elite private schools. The most common form of ‘performance’ that reminded seafarers of their shore lives, however, was perhaps the religious ceremony, an activity which also helped to mark time during a voyage. Like scripted theatricals and musicals, such ceremonies had the potential to divide as well as unite a ship’s company; as Badcoe’s essay in this volume indicates, a multi-faith shipboard community such as that of the SS Great Britain on its Australian voyages was often fraught with tensions generated by religious difference, and such tensions could be exacerbated by the performance of religious rites .

Reading and the Sea

For reasons we shall discuss more fully below, going to sea can be an immensely disorienting experience; and in this context, activities that remind individuals of their shore identities, whether these be religious rituals, performances of well-known plays, the re-reading of books first encountered on land, or even the act of writing ‘I’ in a diary, become immensely powerful. Previous experiences of reading also create a bridge between sea and land. Shipboard diaries appear unusually prone to quotation, as though diarists feel a need to structure their novel experiences through prior reading. Chapter 6 of this volume opens with a discussion of a nineteenth-century American whaler who, it appears, interpreted his voyage through the lens of classical literature encountered during his schooldays. In other instances, diarists test their present experiences against literary representations of the sea. Edward Beck, for example, reveals dissatisfaction with a well-known poem in which a vessel moves over a sea so calm that it resembles a ‘silver lake’.

There is a great mistake in this description of a calm, which we must excuse in a poet that is no sailor; I mean in that line which says, ‘And o’er the calm the vessel glides’, because it is well known she moves none without wind except in a tide, and then I conceive she only moves with it, and not over it.Footnote 34

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798, 1817) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a common sea-mark for nineteenth-century Anglophone seafarers.Footnote 35 But diarists refer to a range of poetry, and also to narrative fiction and Bible passages, often in an attempt more eloquently to express their emotional experiences or describe their environments.Footnote 36 The Afterword (Chap. 11) to this volume reflects on this textual sedimentation, considering how literary narratives and their consumption not only transmitted, but also shaped the cumulation (in the now) of a collected and constructed cultural memory of experiencing the sea. In fact, this body of sea literature is occasionally what sends individuals to sea in the first place—or at least, there are several fictional representations of this phenomenon.Footnote 37 The title character of Lord Jim (1899)—a novel by the sailor-turned-author Joseph Conrad, who features in this collection primarily as first mate on the Torrens —develops a ‘vocation for the sea’ after reading ‘light holiday literature’.Footnote 38 In Malcolm Lowry’s thinly veiled autobiography Ultramarine (1933), the protagonist, filled with dreams of the sea, is tellingly named ‘Dana’, recalling the author of the alluring Two Years Before the Mast.Footnote 39

The relations between reading and the sea are, then, complex and multi-faceted. For the most part, however, the following essays are concerned less with what seafarers have read back on land than with what they choose—or are able—to read at sea. As Conrad’s and Lowry’s fictional characters quickly discover, being at sea is not quite the romantic, exhilarating experience it is sometimes cracked up to be; it can be extremely monotonous, and it provides the seafarer with an enormous amount of time to fill. Despite its ‘entertainments’, even the modern cruise ship can become extraordinarily tedious in its repetitive nature—a fact brilliantly rendered in David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’, discussed in the Afterword (Chap. 11)—and for centuries shipboard life has generated a craving for reading matter.Footnote 40 Jonathan Swift, who himself crossed the Irish Sea many times, has his fictional ship’s surgeon Lemuel Gulliver relate of his early years at sea: ‘My Hours of Leisure I spent in reading the best Authors, ancient and modern; being always provided with a good Number of Books’.Footnote 41 In addition to improving themselves with great works of literature, passengers on long voyages of migration spent their transit reading self-help literature and emigration guides.Footnote 42 Letters and newspapers were just as welcome, and there was often excitement when, in mid-ocean, one ship met another in order to ‘speak’ it (as the maritime idiom had it), allowing for the exchange of such materials: in this sense, texts can circulate not only within ships, but also between ships in mid-ocean. And as Bill Bell notes, for migrants en route to Australia in the nineteenth century ‘one of the most popular shipboard entertainments [was] reading aloud’, an activity that shades into the modes of performance outlined above.Footnote 43

Professional seafarers have much less time to themselves, and historically they have needed to spend at least some of it on tasks such as mending clothing; but until the age of the video and DVD, sailors on days of rest—usually Sundays in the Anglophone world—were often found with book in hand. This aroused the interest of those who saw themselves as moral guardians; as Hester Blum has demonstrated, ‘sailors’ reading practices became an explicit target of reform movements in the 1820s and 1830s, which were particularly concerned with raising literacy rates and promoting Bible reading among seamen’.Footnote 44 But there was, Blum notes, a gap between what sailors were supposed to read and what they wanted to read: they ‘benefited from these religious and secular reform movements to a great extent but affirmed their literary preference for the Pirates Own Book, say, over pious tracts’.Footnote 45 As Stephen Berry explains in Chap. 3, the sea has often been regarded as a site of moral degeneracy; but his contribution to this volume—like those by Helen Chambers, Tamson Pietsch, Christian Algar, and Tamsin Badcoe—also demonstrates how, in specific circumstances, the ship could become a site of education. And as all these essays demonstrate, books and their uses shaped shipboard environments in particular ways.

Shipboard Hierarchies and Literary Culture

Ships are environments marked by an unusually rigid and sophisticated hierarchy. In his study of professional seafarers of the Anglo-American world of the first half of the eighteenth century, Marcus Rediker writes that shipboard labour

meant virtual incarceration, as the seaman was forcibly assimilated into a severe shipboard regimen of despotic authority, discipline, and control. Shipboard life constituted a binding chain of linked limits: limited space, limited freedom, limited sensory stimulation, and limited choice of leisure activities, social interaction, food, and play.Footnote 46

The relative lack of space on a ship encourages strict definition of specific places; a relatively undifferentiated ocean beyond the bounds of the ship produces a highly differentiated space within it, not least because the negotiation of the dangerous ocean requires clearly defined duties and chains of command. This well-ordered structure is, as Rediker suggests, connected to other forms of regimentation experienced by the common sailor—a phenomenon also discussed by Greg Dening in his study of the Bounty mutiny of 1789:

The boundaries [on the Bounty ] were not just between quarterdeck and lower deck […] They were between messes, watches, divisions, between foremast, main-mast, and mizzenmast men, between waisters and topmen, between aftergard and fo’c’sle, to say nothing of all the distinct functionaries between captain and boy and all their mates. Daily life was full of plays and gestures that marked status and privilege, that established group and subgroup existence, that drew and redrew boundaries according to the needs of maintaining the ship.Footnote 47

If being ‘at sea’ unsettles personal identity, as we shall argue below, then shipboard life does much to put the self into bounds, with distinct spaces clearly demarcating who you are, or at least what is required of you. There is, as we have noted, and as Dening also observes, something distinctly theatrical about the ship: aboard, one performs a particular role on specific stages. In a professional context, if one performs well in one sphere one might then graduate into another, with a new set of spatial and social privileges; but one would still exist within a system that is, as Dening explains, extremely detailed in the roles it demarcates and in how space is structured in relation to those roles. Boundaries may be drawn and redrawn, but they are always important.

Of course, not all ships were as regimented as those of the British and American navies of the eighteenth century. But almost all vessels that spend a significant period at sea are characterized by a careful structuring of space, time, and role: by divisions between crew and non-crew, and by further distinctions within those groups. On vessels as diverse as nineteenth-century navy vessels and contemporary cruise ships, cultural rituals signal social standing. Sitting at the table of the captain—typically the all-powerful monarch of the ship’s little world—is a sign of privilege; on the SS Great Britain , lines drawn on deck marked out space accessible only to the most privileged passengers. One of the things that makes Sister Mulquin, the subject of Badcoe’s essay in this volume, such an interesting figure is that her religious calling allowed her access to numerous parts of a vessel that, for the most part, carefully segregated its inhabitants. Her experience reminds us, once again, that the geographies of ships are constantly in flux, defined and redefined in relation to social practices and expectations.Footnote 48

One of the principal aims of this collection is to demonstrate how reading, writing, and performing both created and disturbed shipboard hierarchies. An initial example can be found in perhaps the most notorious and widespread performance-cum-ritual on Anglo-American ships of the modern period, the ‘crossing the line’ ceremony. This event, discussed in detail in Chap. 4, saw sailors who had not previously crossed the equator initiated into the Kingdom of Neptune—with varying degrees of violence and good humour—by those shipmates who had. Those initiated would often include junior officers outranking those who masterminded the performance. By temporarily inverting (or at least partially inverting) the crew’s hierarchy, by its conclusion the ritual strengthened the bond between shipmates: something aided, in many cases, by the tattooing of the ‘hazed’ sailors. On some vessels, the event also allowed for an unusual degree of interaction between crew and passengers; the latter, in the age of sail and in an Atlantic context, were only too glad of a distraction as the ship passed through the sweaty and tedious ‘Doldrums’. Indeed, if the length of entries in shipboard diaries is anything to go by, crossing the line was for passengers usually one of the highlights of the voyage: even those who disapproved often wrote about it at length. Providing a spectacle that brought them into contact with ‘maritime’ life, it allowed them to feel that they, too, were entering Neptune’s kingdom.

A less spectacular example of how cultural activities could forge a sense of community can be found in a literary phenomenon not yet mentioned: the production of a shipboard newspaper. This form of text, discussed at length in Susann Liebich’s contribution to this volume, but also featuring in Isbell’s and Pietsch’s essays, often contained reviews of onboard performances of various kinds and informed seafarers in advance of onboard events. For these reasons, and because it provided a chronicle of the voyage, the shipboard newspaper had the potential to create a sense of shared experience. This was the case not only on passenger vessels, but also on military ships, as Liebich’s essay indicates. As Johanna Beamish has demonstrated, however, shipboard newspapers also provide evidence of, and could in some cases contribute towards, conflicts between opposing communities on board: their columns offered the space to argue and to create boundaries and distance between groups of passengers.Footnote 49 Occasionally on migrant vessels, and also on the naval vessels and soldier troopships explored by Liebich and Isbell, passengers travelling in different classes, and crew and soldiers belonging to different groups, produced competing shipboard papers. In such instances, print could become a means of expressing alternative concerns and viewpoints, and of claiming authority over the formulation of seaborne experiences.

Like newspapers, dramatic and musical performances had the potential either to strengthen or to weaken shipboard hierarchies. Performances designed exclusively for elite passengers might further exacerbate gaps between privileged and less-privileged shipmates; but as Chambers’s contribution to this volume notes, performances of various kinds on the Torrens instead gathered into one place members of a shipboard community that would ordinarily be more strictly segregated. On the other hand, and as Isbell’s essay indicates, the mingling of different elements of a ship’s company effected by a performance could also cause conflict, driving apart rather than fusing factions. Reading could have similar effects. While new books and reading materials could be picked up in ports or, occasionally, when meeting other ships in mid-ocean, the range and quantity of printed matter circulating on vessels on long voyages was generally limited to what seafarers brought with them—and, on some occasions, the collections of onboard libraries. This limited stock encouraged not only the sharing of such materials but also the discussion of them.Footnote 50 Reading might, then, reconfirm ‘horizontal’ relations between those on board, with ‘reading groups’ taking place in particular areas of the ship reserved for specific kinds of seafarer; but it could also establish ‘vertical’ relations if, for example, a cabin passenger lent a volume to a member of the crew (something recorded in Chambers’s essay). Chapter 2 of this volume argues that the possession and circulation of books by a naval chaplain during the English Civil War might have destabilized shipboard hierarchy, creating a form of authority to rival that of the captain. Considering such instances enables us to appreciate, once again, that shipboard life is far from static in its structures; instead, it can be reshaped by various social practices, including literary activities.Footnote 51 In addition, practices established aboard specific kinds of vessels can change over time. As Blum notes, for example, libraries on American naval ships began as communal spaces in which men of different rank would have the chance to interact with one another, but they were later co-opted into a more strictly hierarchized system in which enlisted men had borrowing privileges different from those of officers.Footnote 52

Being at Sea

Formations and reformations of social hierarchy took place within an environment which placed personal identity under unusual pressure . This was the case not only due to the discomfort of travel and the risk of disease and drowning (significant though those often were); more than this, and as the English idiom ‘all at sea’ suggests, leaving the land means jettisoning some of the ways in which humans construct themselves as selves. In his classic study Space and Place, Yi-Fu Tuan argued that ‘the built environment clarifies social roles and relations’, as people ‘know better who they are and how they ought to behave when the arena is humanly designed, rather than nature’s raw stage’.Footnote 53 His fellow geographer Edward Relph took the point further, arguing that there is a basic human need for geographical attachment, and that from it develops our ethical outlook: ‘To have roots in a place’, Relph claimed, ‘is to have a secure position from which to look out on the world, a firm grasp of one’s own position in the order of things, and a spiritual and psychological attachment to somewhere in particular’.Footnote 54

When offering such arguments, neither Tuan nor Relph were thinking specifically of the sea. But their remarks on the importance of ‘roots’ and on the role of the built environment in human self-constitution can help us understand why spending extended periods of time out of sight of land could be a distressing and unsettling experience, especially for first-time seafarers. The mobile sea, a constantly shifting environment through which ships themselves move, is not a place in which one can put down ‘roots’ or gain a ‘stable’ perspective on the world; indeed, in Western culture it has often been considered a site of chaos against which the order of land can be measured.Footnote 55 In this respect, to look out onto a mobile sea while also moving across it might be to lose a sense of one’s place in (and even one’s grasp of) the ‘order of things’, while the vast expanse of an open ocean—‘nature’s raw stage’—could trouble a seafarer’s sense of themselves.Footnote 56 In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s narrator Ishmael speaks of the ‘awful lonesomeness’ of swimming in the open ocean, even when near a ship: ‘The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?’Footnote 57 The ocean is here ‘heartless’ not only in its lack of compassion for human life, but also in being apparently without a centre—a point from which orientation can begin.

If the development and maintenance of identity depends, as Tuan argues, on interactions with a built environment, then being at sea, a site that generally lacks such markers, can result in a turning inward that destabilizes the self. In the chapter of Moby-Dick from which the above quotation is taken, Pip, the Pequod’s ship-keeper, descends into madness after being left for a period on the open ocean; and as Angela McCarthy has revealed, migrants on long sea voyages frequently suffered similar disturbances, even while remaining within the bounds of their ships.Footnote 58 The acute sense of isolation and distance from loved ones, so common for seafarers, is one of the main causes of mental distress at sea. A paper at the 2019 Seafarers International Research Centre Symposium argued that the best way of improving the mental health of sailors on contemporary cargo vessels—poorly paid, and often absent from their families for six months or longer—would be to provide them with unlimited access to the internet, thus allowing for video calls home.Footnote 59

As we write this, long periods of social isolation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic seem destined to result in mental health crises whose magnitude we are only just beginning to gauge, and there are certainly parallels to be drawn between our experiences and those of seafarers confined to small spaces and ripped from the comforts provided by friends and family. But we should not push these parallels too far: unlike us, seafarers were generally compelled into new forms of (often fraught) social interaction, as we have discussed, and rather than being confined to their homes, they were unhomed. Further, while the disruption of professional and social routines created by the pandemic has certainly disturbed our sense of time and created a similar notion that life is ‘on hold’, seafarers often experienced temporal disturbance in a more radical way. As we have noted, those crossing latitudes had their sense of seasonal progression disrupted, while the monotony of the sea-day confused notions of temporal progression. In his thoughtful exploration of sea voyage narratives, Robert Foulke observes that

[t]he seafarer’s sense of time […] is both linear and cyclical: Time is linear in the sense that voyages have beginnings and endings, departures and landfalls, starting and stopping points in the unfolding of chronological time; yet time is also cyclical, just as the rhythm of waves is cyclical, because the patterns of a ship’s daily routine, watch on and watch off, highlights endless recurrence.Footnote 60

The characteristics of experiencing space and time at sea—as simultaneously bounded and infinite, repetitive and constantly changing—are intertwined; as Foulke puts it, ‘space and time have always merged more obviously at sea than they do in much of human experience’ .Footnote 61

Ships as ‘Places’

While the ‘endless recurrence’ of a ship’s routine could, in some instances, elicit nausea, it could also provide comfort. ‘It is a great doctor for sore hearts and sore heads’, writes Joseph Conrad; ‘There is health in it, and peace, and satisfaction of the accomplished round […] He who loves the sea also loves the ship’s routine’.Footnote 62 Conrad is describing the ‘routine’ of sailors: the patterns of labour that characterize professional seafaring. But his remarks could also be applied to passengers, who developed habits and rituals during long voyages, establishing order that helped compensate for an oceanic environment of flux and disorder. It is, in fact, by considering the ocean as a specific environment that we can better appreciate the significance, to seafarers, of the ship: often the only ‘built environment’ (to recall Tuan’s expression) they would see for weeks on end. Looking over the sides of their vessel, or through their porthole, or from up in the rigging, seafarers saw something of which they could, at least initially, make little sense;Footnote 63 turning inward to look on the ship itself, they saw a space which, while also initially alien, at least provided some degree of structure. Indeed, as another geographer, Tim Cresswell, has argued, even though ships are typically mobile, they have the capacity to become ‘places’. By this he means that seafarers can develop relationships with their built environment in something like the way gestured towards by Tuan and Relph: places, Cresswell writes, can be defined as ‘particular constellations of material things that occupy a particular segment of space and have sets of meanings attached to them’.Footnote 64 The ship, or a specific place within a ship—one’s cabin or a mess room or the quarterdeck—can gain such definition. The two examples Cresswell gives when speaking of ships as places are, first, a vessel which ‘may be shared for months on end by a crew of fishermen’, and second, a passenger liner crossing the Atlantic in 1911 and providing not only a means of transport, but also a place within which American suffragists developed their political philosophy.Footnote 65

Cresswell ’s examples—one dealing with professional seafarers and the other with passengers—should cause us once again to reflect on how a seafarer’s specific status might inflect his or her relationship with a ship. Different types and sizes of vessels, and different lengths and conditions of voyaging, are further variables that significantly shape such relationships. While a vessel is only ever a temporary site for the passenger (often, indeed, a limbo-like place between an old home and a new one), changing technologies of seafaring and different rhythms of travel can also dictate the extent to which the passenger feels ‘at home’ while at sea. Andrew Hassam notes that in ‘the later years of the nineteenth century the experience of making the voyage [to Australia] by steamer became quite different from the experience of those who went by sail’. One diary he cites to evidence this claim anticipates Conrad in its sense of the value of routine: ‘Three months at sea […] welded us into a community. The passengers did not spend their time counting the days to the next port, as passengers on a steamer do. They settled down to a daily round’.Footnote 66

A number of practices aided in this ‘place-making’. They include, for example, attempts to recreate domestic spaces on board through particular furnishings and through the display of familiar objects like pictures and books, as James R. Ryan has shown in his analysis of the Sunbeam , a sailing yacht used by Lady Brassey on her numerous world voyages in the late nineteenth century.Footnote 67 Rather more modestly, steerage passengers on voyages of migration might decorate the walls adjoining their bunks, or name the narrow passageways between those bunks after streets from their home city. Over the coming pages, the essays by Chambers, Badcoe, and Pietsch will discuss similar forms of material place-making. But as this volume as a whole seeks to demonstrate, perhaps the most important means through which a ship gains spatial meaning for its inhabitants is through cultural activities: the kinds to which Hassam’s diarist and his peers ‘settled down’. These include communal activities such as ceremonies or performances, as well as more private activities such as reading and writing. If, for many seafarers, the ocean exists beyond culture, then the ship itself can, by contrast, become a cultural greenhouse. Limited space and the impossibility of escape intensify the significance of any cultural activity when compared with its equivalent on land: the book you are reading will shape your daily experience more when there are few other stimuli; and there is more at stake in social interactions arising through communal performances when it will be difficult to avoid other participants for days or weeks afterwards.

As we indicated above in our reference to the ship’s ‘little world’, populous ocean-going vessels are often conceived as microcosms of society, where social interactions are shaped by factors like class, gender, and religion, and where social boundaries are drawn based on behaviour, expectations, and preconceptions.Footnote 68 The notion of the ship as a microcosm of society is perhaps most apt when considering passenger vessels, whether migrant ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or the later passenger steamers; it is less useful when thinking about other kinds of vessels and about groups of travellers more uniform in their composition. (Even in the case of migrants, a relative homogeneity of background can make the ‘microcosm’ model of limited use.) Yet, leaving such justified criticism aside, considering ships as spaces that give shape to and host a society in miniature does alert us to several factors that have implications for how voyages are lived out: the significance of interpersonal relationships and the importance of a community; the formation and maintenance of individual and collective identities; and the enduring connection between land-based lives and practices and onboard experiences.

One extraordinary passage composed by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., provides an indication of the peculiar qualities of social life at sea. Dana is describing the aftermath of the loss overboard of a young English sailor:

at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark on the wide, wide sea, and for months and months see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night-watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel, and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form, and the sound of his voice, for habit had made them almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.Footnote 69

Dana is recording a specific form of shipboard experience: that of the professional seafarer working a ship of sail and living in the cramped conditions of the forecastle (‘before the mast’). But his remarks are transferrable to most shipboard environments, which are characterized by an intimacy that makes interpersonal relations especially significant and by rigid routines that make deviations especially meaningful. In such environments, the following essays demonstrate, literary activities—whether a turning ‘in’ towards private reading and writing, or a turning ‘out’ towards one’s fellow seafarers through shared reading and communal performances—take on unusual resonances, and substantially frame voyage experiences.

The Sea as Element

These experiences, we have been arguing, take place within two interlocking spatial contexts: the ship, as a physical as well as socially and culturally constructed space; and the material environment of the sea. It is surprisingly easy, when studying maritime culture, to lose sight of the latter. Anyaa Anim-Addo, William Hasty, and Kimberley Peters analyse different forms of mobility to be found on ships, noting that we need to think of the ship both ‘as a mover of things’ and as a ‘moving thing’.Footnote 70 In addition, we would wish to stress, a third type of mobility shapes oceanic experiences: that of the sea itself. The stain in Edward Beck’s diary is a physical reminder of an elemental presence whose intrusion into the ship is, in many cases, a continual occurrence. Analysing one nineteenth-century diarist’s reference to their ship as a ‘floating home’, Andrew Hassam asserts that the expression ‘nicely captures the instability of space on board ship, the combination of an enclosed space and the moving vessel’.Footnote 71 But the ship is not, we would want to insist, a fully ‘enclosed’ space; rather, its contents are in continual exchange with the element on which the ship ‘floats’. Sister Mulquin, the subject of Chap. 7, like many shipboard diarists records more than one soaking in rough seas. Equally, objects on the ship enter the sea: diaries report the loss overboard of a range of items including hats, books, beer bottles, livestock, needlework, navigational instruments, and cricket balls. They also record how fish and other sea creatures were drawn onto the ship and consumed or dissected; how water invaded holds and needed to be pumped out again; and how decks remained treacherously wet for weeks on end, inhibiting the kinds of activities that helped keep passengers healthy and cheerful during a long voyage, like walking, sports, or sitting on deck. Most poignantly, they record the assimilation into the sea of people: either those who fell (or jumped) overboard, or those who, perishing in mid-ocean, were—in that powerful expression—‘committed to the deep’.

Even those who stayed within the bounds of the ship were, in a range of ways, affected by the sea itself. As we have noted above, it is the specific dangers presented by the sea—those of shipwreck and drowning—that require the creation of such pronounced hierarchies on board ships; and the sense of disorientation suffered by those who take to sea, we have argued, is created not only by distance from any built environment (as would also be the case in, for example, the desert), but also by the instability generated by water’s molecular structure. Fuller attention to the sea as a material substance can extend the horizons of maritime studies. ‘The time has come’, wrote Helen Rozwadowski in 2012, ‘for scholars in the humanities to try to understand that the ocean is not only […] a stage for the events of human history, but rather a complex and changing natural environment that is inextricably connected to, and influenced by, people’.Footnote 72 The interdependence of humans and oceans takes several forms. Powered by the burning of fossil fuels, ships crossing the oceans indirectly change the chemical composition of the oceans they cross and, in turn, affect creatures for whom the oceans are home; and, like sail-driven vessels, they transport on hulls or as ballast organisms which, deposited in another part of the ocean, reshape local ecosystems. Equally, and as we have begun to suggest, interactions with the sea affect human bodies, personalities, and language.

These interactions might be helpfully theorized by recent work in the new materialism that stresses the ‘entanglements’ of humans and nonhumans, steering us away from the dangerous shoals of human exceptionalism by urging us to think in terms of ‘collectives’ and ‘assemblages’ that include animals, as well as other ‘things’ or ‘objects’ granted agency.Footnote 73 Maritime studies has always, in fact, been alert to the role of nonhuman entities (such as currents and winds) in forging human history, and it also pays careful attention to machines—that is, ships—that are understood to have personalities and desires of their own; and to some extent, Rozwadowski’s call for greater attention in maritime history to oceans as environments (rather than merely surfaces to be crossed) has been heard over the past decade.Footnote 74 But there remains scope, we would suggest, for maritime studies to bring into even greater focus the ocean’s material presence. If we are to think really seriously about what happens to humans at sea, then we must treat the ship not simply as one place moving between other, static, places, but rather as one in dynamic relationship with an ocean whose material structure and inhabitants have the capacity, in various ways, to shape the outcomes and the experiences of voyages.Footnote 75

Enhanced awareness of the sea as element can be achieved, in part, through attention to shipboard literary cultures. Phenomena like the stain in Beck’s diary are reminders of the sea as a specific environment; like grains of sand found in a book read on a beach several years previously, they are markers of place-specific cultural activity. Even if most of the sea-stains with which the following pages deal are metaphorical rather than literal, several of our contributors are concerned with how the shipboard literary cultures on which they focus were affected by seas of different kinds and by their associated climates and inhabitants. We might, in fact, at least in some instances consider literary practices as a means of trying to forget the frightening element that surrounded seafarers—that is, as a deliberate act of hydrophasia. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Calvin Winter advised against including any ‘books of the sea’ in ships’ libraries on passenger steamers, as ‘Travellers who are not good sailors read for the purpose of forgetting where they are’.Footnote 76 Of course, forgetting or ignoring one’s surroundings is impossible for some kinds of professional seafarer, most obviously those involved in the fisheries. But even Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a sailor who needed to know the ways of the sea and to measure its depths, was aware that to reflect too precisely on deep water itself was to risk becoming paralysed by fear and abhorrence:

There is something in the first gray streaks stretching along the eastern horizon and throwing an indistinct light upon the face of the deep, which combines with the boundlessness and unknown depth of the sea around, and gives one a feeling of loneliness, of dread, and of melancholy foreboding, which nothing else in nature can. This gradually passes away as the light grows brighter, and when the sun comes up, the ordinary monotonous sea day begins.Footnote 77

Dana ’s almost unconscious echo of Genesis 1:2 frames the relationship between the human and the sea, or the ship and the ocean, as one between order and disorder; the sea’s vertical axis, all the more frightening for being of unknown extent, heaves into view. And it is, to recall Conrad, a ship’s routine—made up of labour, but also of literary culture—that helps distract the seafarer from whatever awful truth is suggested by the sea .

The Voyage Ahead

The essays that follow explore reading, writing, and performing at sea in various combinations and are ordered chronologically. Chapter 2, by Christian Algar, argues that reading material taken aboard a man-of-war during the English Civil War by the Puritan chaplain John Syms led to a disruption in the ship’s hierarchy. Engaging with scholarship on the ‘where’ of reading, the reading practices of Puritanism, and the history of religious figures on board military ships, Algar offers our first example of how literary practices might disturb the delicate balance of a shipboard community. In Chap. 3, Stephen Berry similarly explores the intersections between maritime and religious cultures. In this essay, however, the focus is on how literary cultures might forge—rather than disturb—bonds between shipmates. British sailing ships of the eighteenth century, Berry argues, became distinct sites for religious reading and writing; and such activities provided opportunities for the exchange of books and for learning together, in the process bringing into close contact seafarers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Chapter 4, by Mary Isbell, returns us to a military vessel, the USS Macedonian , but examines a different form of literary culture: the production of theatricals and newspapers. Like Algar, Isbell pieces together evidence for onboard altercations through limited extant materials, in her case the journal of Lieutenant Charles Gauntt kept between 1818 and 1821. Bringing scholarship on shipboard theatricals into conversation with that on shipboard newspapers, she argues that to appreciate the meanings and effects of onboard performances we need to remain alert to how those watching them recognized performers as their fellow shipmates.

The following three chapters, all by literary scholars, offer close readings of shipboard diaries. Comparing the diary kept by Edward Beck during a transatlantic voyage in the 1820s with one kept by Margaret MacGillivray, a passenger travelling from England to Australia in the 1890s, Eli Cumings and Laurence Publicover argue in Chap. 5 that both seafarers kept diaries as a means of orienting themselves in novel environments; but while MacGillivray was aiming to accommodate herself to what was only a temporary home, they demonstrate, Beck kept his diary as a means of developing his professional identity. In Chap. 6, Jimmy Packham examines logbooks and diaries written aboard American whaleships in the 1860s and 1870s. Like Cumings and Publicover, he works with two mutually illuminating case studies: one diary written by a whaler of thirty-three years’ experience, and another written by a six-year-old girl on her father’s whaleship. Engaging with recent scholarship in oceanic studies to explore the work and significance of maritime life writing, Packham is especially interested in how these documents reveal their authors’ interactions with nonhumans—whales, of course, but also other creatures—and how they illuminate the vast oceanic networks through which whaleships moved. In Chap. 7, Tamsin Badcoe examines the diary of Sister Mary Paul Mulquin, kept during her 1873 voyage from Liverpool to Australia on board Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain . Like Packham, Badcoe is concerned with the intersection of individual experiences with more global histories, in her case of colonization and religious conflict; and like Algar and Berry, she explores the place of religious practice in structuring (and sometimes unsettling) shipboard communities.

Chapter 8, by Helen Chambers, focuses on the literary culture of a ship previously encountered in the essay by Cumings and Publicover: the Torrens , a clipper that ran between England and Australia in the late nineteenth century. Chambers draws on the few extant passenger diaries and letters written aboard this ship to argue that—with its predominantly first-class, well-educated passengers—the Torrens provided a uniquely privileged moving environment for private and shared reading, for writing, and for musical performances . Chambers is especially concerned to demonstrate how such activities shaped and sometimes complicated shipboard dynamics, providing opportunities for establishing and expanding onboard communities. The role of literary culture in creating and maintaining communal identities and cohesion is also a concern of Susann Liebich’s essay. In Chap. 9, Liebich analyses troopship magazines produced and circulated on New Zealand soldier transports during World War I, demonstrating how such publications mediated and reflected the process of spatial and biographical transit. The practices of writing, editing, and reading troopship magazines, as well the ways in which such publications constructed sea travel as a shared experience, she argues, forged a sense of community both on board the ship and into an uncertain future. The space of the ocean and of the troopship are acutely present in these magazines, as is the wider context of war. The role of reading materials produced and circulated on board is also examined in Chap. 10, in which Tamson Pietsch follows the progress of the ‘Floating University’: a pedagogical experiment led by New York University’s Professor of Psychology, James Edwin Lough, which involved taking 500 American university students on an eight-month voyage around the world in 1926–27. These students produced a shipboard newspaper, The Binnacle , which—as its title would suggest—offered a kind of navigational aid for the ship’s passengers. Pietsch examines this and other surviving documents to consider how the geography of the ship and the sites through which it passed shaped the education those voyagers received.

Taking us into the present but drawing on the many pasts outlined across these essays, David Punter’s Afterword (Chap. 11) reflects on how the sediments of prior encounters with the oceans, stirred by fresh readings of older texts, form part of our present engagement with the oceans and with those that cross them. He centres his wide-ranging discussions on Horatio Clare’s 2014 book Down to the Sea in Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men, a travelogue recounting Clare’s experiences on container ships. In this introduction, we have tended to contrast the socially constructed environment of the ship with the material fact of the sea, but Punter’s essay works towards complicating this distinction, indicating how far notions and experiences of the oceans are themselves constructed through reading and writing. In addition, while the essays in this collection examine actual literary practices within specific historical contexts, Punter takes this task one step further, or rather sideways, by offering a broader consideration of how earlier sea narratives—some read by Clare prior to his journey, others existing as part of the canon of sea literature—also shape this contemporary journey on a container ship, inflecting a narrative that is itself produced at sea. Punter’s essay, then, invites us to consider the ways in which the seas of the past seep into the present, staining, in their peculiar ways, the relations between humans and oceans.