Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Sea! The Sea!

Those of you who have made it past the title (I can usually only sucker people into reading naval posts by a silly title) may well be expecting something classical, as ‘The Sea! The Sea!’ is, of course, the cry raised by the Ten Thousand once they got to be able to see the coast of the southern shore of the Black Sea.

But this is not about the classical era, but the early modern one, and the subject is a book I picked up expecting it to be a hard read, as a dry, academic tome, with little or no wargaming application. Which just goes to show that my expectations need some more calibration.

The work in question is:

Mancall, P. C., Shammas, C., eds. Governing the Sea in the Early Modern Era: Essays in Honour of Robert C. Ritchie (San Marono: Huntington Library, 2015).

As the title implies, this is a festschrift for an eminent academic on his retirement (I think). You might not have heard of him (I had not) but some of the essays celebrating his work are of interest, even to the most unhistorical of historical wargamer.

The book is divided into four parts: fisheries, piracy, interpolators and smugglers, and slaves. Each contains something of interest to the wargamer, although there is something of an inevitable North American bias to some of the work.

The section on Fisheries contains two essays. The first is a more historical account of medieval fishing, exhaustion of fish stocks in local waters, particularly as improving storage techniques and roads opened up markets further from the coast thus increasing demand. There were inevitable clashes between fishing fleets in increasing tension between nations over the resources of the sea. As stocks depleted, fishermen ranged further looking for catches, and eventually pitched up off Newfoundland catching from an apparently inexhaustible supply of cod, having already destroyed the apparently inexhaustible supply of herring in the North Sea. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is. The author Richard Hoffman notes that the current crisis in the seas has medieval roots and that so long as the sea is regarded as infinite and of open access, no restraint is going to be used by fishing nations as it is on inland waters.

The second essay chronicles the oddities of Newfoundland, particularly after the 1713 treaty of Utrecht, whereby the French were permitted to fish and land temporarily on Newfoundland, but not to settle, while the British were allowed to do all of the above. Inevitably conflict arose, and the situation was not regularised until surprisingly recently, I think into the Twentieth Century.

Section two, about Pirates, is an interesting set of three essays. The first discusses the problems of pirates in Ireland in the early Seventeenth Century, focussing on the port of Baltimore in Munster which was destroyed by a pirate attack in 1631. The links of this small port across the Atlantic World are explored. It is noted that the captives were largely sold in Algiers, for example, and that the pirates were a motley crew lead by a Dutch renegade and a mixed European and North African crew. The argument is that smuggling and piracy drove colonial expansion in the English maritime world, supplying goods which could otherwise not be obtained through legal channels, either through cost (customs and excise duties) or through scarcity. The administration was unable to police all the ports, and quite a few of the officials were involved in the smuggling anyway. When examined, the black and white of the smuggling turns grey.

The more widely known sorts of piracy that in the Caribbean is considered in the next two essays. The first treats Woods Rogers, governor of the Bahamas and his efforts in the ‘war against the pirates’. The second considers what made a pirate a pirate, as opposed to a buccaneer or a privateer. The answer is, of course, that a lot of it is in the eye of the beholder, and that piracy became piracy when the nations needed to improve trade and impose peace on colonial accessions. Another argument deployed here is that pirates needed safe places for ports and to retire to, and that the articles of piracy which crews signed up to were often forced upon them (sign or swim) and were, in fact, directed at the legal land authorities so the captains could claim their crews were not coerced (and therefore could not desert without facing due penalty). The land and sea worlds here go in tandem; you cannot separate them. It is also noted that our view of pirates is not historical reality, but is more mediated by Treasure Island, particularly the film versions.

The third section deals with interloping and smuggling. The first essay is a clear exposition of the Ambon massacre in 1623, while the English and Dutch were clashing over the spice trade in the Far East. From the English point of view, this poisoned Anglo-Dutch relations for a generation or so, although the Dutch were not particularly bothered by it. It was, of course, a clash (humiliating for the English) between the English East India Company and Dutch equivalent. This was, of course, complicated by European politics. The fact that the English lost meant that the EIC turned west and invested in India, with the consequences of the next few centuries that we are still living with.

The next essay discusses the difficulties of British traders in South America in the Eighteenth Century, when they were allowed to trade there but under suspicion, and the next with the enforcement (or not) of the 1696 Navigation Act in the North American colonies. Essentially, no one was prepared to stop smuggling and the crown did not give the resources to make people do so.

The final part discusses the slave trade. The first essay observes the links between the Portuguese and Spanish maritime empires during the union of the crowns (1580 – 1640). While the empires were supposed to be kept separately, they clearly were not and Portuguese landed up in the Caribbean, with slaves that had obtained in India or Mozambique. As ever, the world turns out to be more complicated than our simple categories allow. Finally, the art of the abolitionists (and pro-slavery campaigners) is discussed, outlining how the cartoons and paintings captured the violence of slavery and the savage life from which the new slaves had been ‘rescued’.

While there is not a great deal of directly relevant wargaming information here, there is a lot for someone who might be interested in an En Garde! or Flashing Blades roleplaying campaign, and there is a fair bit for consideration for a thoughtful wargamer with an eye to what might have been. As I said, the essays are a delight to read and there is little repetition between them, which is often a curse of such festschrifts.


  1. It is surprising, I suppose how few naval war gamers there are compared to land war gamers in these islands given our history. I never got into it despite having generation upon generation of maritime forebears.

    New word for me that by the way. ‘Festschrift’. Ausgezeichnet!

    1. The odd thing is that naval wargaming is easy. You only need a relatively small number of units, and painted ships is a lot easier than, say, Napoleonic hussars.

      Ah. The festschrift. Nice way to payback all those academic debts and renew the fights...

  2. Looks like an interesting read covering a plethora of areas. The piracy around Ireland was news to me.

    My mother is a Newfoundlander so there I have some prior knowledge of the local history, especially the fisheries. Oh, there is a lot of literature about the fisheries. Unlike wargaming topics specifically tied to the area. The Vinlandsaga, some small actions from the French and Indian War and the Atlantic battles of the World Wars are all that spring to mind. Newfoundlanders served the Empire of course. In World War 1, the scale of the conflict really decimated the dominion's economy when a large fraction of the young male population was killed in the opening actions of the battle of the Sommes. I wrote a small post about the Royal Newfoundland Regiment on my blog after attending a display last summer:

    Looks like I've meandered a bit off topic. In my defence it's hard to help oneself when, for reasons mentioned, Newfoundland isn't a common topic of discussion in our hobby.

    1. Funnily enough I was perusing a book recently about the Treaties of Utrecht, at which the ambiguous status of the Newfoundland fisheries was created.

      I confess, I'm struggling to think of anything more about warfare around Newfoundland. You might have thought that something might have occurred during the period before Utrecht, but I'm not aware of anything. The fishery was really valuable, though.

  3. From what I gather the French weren't interested in permanent settlement despite some current day places having names such as Port aux Basques. French fishermen used the shores during summers primarily for preserving the catch, but one would imagine access to wood for ship repair and shelter from bad weather also played a part. However, by winter they always went home. Understandable for anyone who has experienced a Newfie winter (cannot imagine it was better during a small ice age).

    I imagine the French were quite happy to get that right enshrined in a treaty if the British were going to start claiming land in the area. (I believe Newfoundland was Britain's first colony in North America?) Meanwhile, neither party probably had the resources available to back a full claim militarily at the time. I'll take a look in the library at home though. There is something at the back of my head about reading somewhere about what lead up to Utrecht, for Newfoundland I mean.

    1. So it was only the British who stayed there...
      But I doubt there were too many options for oceanic naval power projection before 1714. But it might be a nice 'what-if' scenario...

    2. Indeed. As many players of the Europa Universalis PC games will likely attest.

      I managed to remember the name of the book I read but unfortunately I couldn't find it in my library anymore. Must have given it away some time ago. As Near To Heaven By Sea by Kevin Major. The goodreads entry somewhat amusingly states that the book covers "centuries of military and religious strife", an exaggeration if ever there was one. Sure, there's been tension between protestants and catholics on the island historically, but it never turned into anything like e.g. Northern Ireland. Maybe another what-if.